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The New Republic Online
Thursday, December 5th, 2002


 

Irish on the Inside: In Search of the Soul of Irish-America

by Tom Hayden

Hayden Go Bragh

A review by R,.F. Foster

Who would have thought that Tom Hayden — old 1960s lag, anti-war campaigner, environmentalist, ex-legislator, and long-faced relic of Jane Fonda — had it in him to write a work of comic genius? Yet it is impossible to read Irish on the Inside without laughing aloud. As an exercise in unwitting self-parody, it takes its place with those other Irish masterpieces of oblique humor, Flann O'Brien's The Poor Mouth and Denis Donoghue's Warrenpoint.

Hayden invents a story that brilliantly satirizes the hilarious excesses of identity politics, presenting himself as someone who discovers, late in life, that he is Irish. The transformation is all for the good, even miraculous. He is a Detroit boy, the son of a career accountant with Chrysler, and one set of his great-grandparents had emigrated from Ireland, but for the purpose of Hayden's epiphany this is enough. He traces his Irish descent on a strict basis of ethnic exclusivity (no intermarriage with other immigrant stocks can be mentioned), and he analyzes the shortcomings in his life history and his psyche. There is a bravura section on "Drinking, Sexuality and Assimilation": "I internalized WASP standards of sexual attraction, and was controlled by them. I was sexually colonized. The rejection of Irish Catholics was an indicator of unconscious self-hate."

Hayden conveys a querulous resentment toward his parents for not passing on the tales of oppression that characterized the Irish side of their ancestral experience. Instead they unfeelingly buy him a station wagon for his college graduation. But then everything changed, as "The Sixties Made Me Irish." Inspired by the Kennedy brothers, shocked by John F. Kennedy's "Irish fate" (a concept that is left intriguingly unexplained), the apprentice Irishman is understandably confused by the other kinds of political Irishness explored by Joe McCarthy, Father Coughlin, Cardinal Spellman, and Richard Daley, but he is sharp enough to query the opportunism of politicos from other ethnic groups who jump on the Irish-issues bandwagon, such as that unlikely mick Mario Biaggi.

In 1968, the television image of civil rights marchers in Belfast singing "We Shall Overcome" provides the moment of illumination. So there is an easier way of being Irish! Patrick Pearse's proclamation of the Irish Republic in 1916 suddenly "heats my blood involuntarily" in the same way as Smokey Robinson's version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" (a collector's item if ever there was one, and a superb '60s name-drop). The complexities of being an American can promptly be written off, and the Promised Land can be regained, and the ancient enemy can be identified. Having found the key, Hayden sets off, like Candide, to discover the world, which is to say, Northern Ireland.

This provides some fine moments of comedy. Hayden arrives in Ireland in 1976 with his and Fonda's three-year-old son, who is oddly named Troy O'Donovan Garity. Garity, he ingenuously explains, because they did not want to choose "between our public last names," while Garity was "plainly Irish," as well as being an ancestral name. (Hayden himself for a brief period decides to be known as Emmet Garity but then gives it up.) Troy was an Americanization of the name of a young Vietnamese man accused of conspiring to kill certain American officials and executed. O'Donovan was for O'Donovan Rossa, a nineteenth-century Irish Fenian dynamitard — or, in Haydenese, someone "who directed a military campaign against England."

Thus saddled, the infant Troy and his father land in Ireland "in a quest to reverse my assimilation." Troy is briefly shown the General Post Office in Dublin, where the Rising of 1916 was inaugurated, and told about his "ancestors," and driven north. 1976 is a tense time in Ireland, of course, and the identity-seekers are quizzed at a checkpoint as they cross the border into Northern Ireland. When they are waved through by the "lethal-looking" British soldiers, young Troy, the scion of Hollywood royalty and the Midwestern middle class, "burst out, `Dad, don't call me Irish because the soldiers will shoot me.' He was learning that his roots could get him killed."

On this first visit to Northern Ireland, Hayden meets and talks to an impressive number of people who all subscribe to the Republican analysis of the situation: the British are the colonial oppressors whose removal would solve all problems, the Protestants/Unionists are deluded brethren whose true interests have been somehow hidden from them. Some droll tongue-in-cheek language is employed. Republicans, Hayden is told by Martin McGuinness, "accept that the IRA has a role to play." They certainly do, but as the years pass the way they play it seems unaccountably to distance the island of Ireland from the desired thirty-two-county republic rather than to usher it in.

Marooned in the Babylonish captivity of California, Hayden becomes a state senator and takes up Northern Irish issues such as the "Fair Employment" principles proselytized by Sean MacBride — an imposition of religiously defined quotas for job recruitment by American firms investing in the province. (The MacBride principles also implied a politically useful, but historically untenable, parallel with conditions for blacks in South Africa, which was manna from heaven for IRA publicists.) This policy, however well-meaning, put clearly counterproductive restraints on those actually doing something to make the Northern Irish economy lurch into take-off; but Hayden finds it incomprehensible that constitutional Northern nationalists such as John Hume opposed it. "I felt stranded again," he miserably records. In the 1990s he revisits Northern Ireland, still believing in the gospel according to Patrick Pearse and proclaiming that the solution for "colonialism" is immediate British withdrawal of all military and police presence, though the IRA should retain arms to defend their communities. At last things are changing: Sinn Fein is entering politics, and Hayden meets the group's "outgoing, energized local elected official" in Monaghan.

"Welcome home!" he proclaimed with a smile and a backslap. He gave a quick history of Monaghan's rural economy, showed us the site where a young man was killed by a British sniper from north of the border, and asked about Clinton's new policies, including the potential for investment and tourism. I was beginning to feel roots here at last.

Of course, what is really happening is that Sinn Fein has at last realized that the traditional desideratum of a united thirty-two-county socialist republic is a pipe dream, and that moderate Unionists are moving toward an acceptance of power-sharing, and that both London and Dublin desperately want a face-saving modus vivendi established for the troublesome Six Counties that will incidentally split the Republican movement.

The world of Clinton, Major, Reynolds, and Blair is decidedly not the world of Patrick Pearse. But the narrator of this comic tale mischievously never allows his protagonist to recognize this fairly simple fact. Instead, the dispiriting reality-pill is sugared by the consolation of identity politics. He seeks help, and finds it, with a therapist in California who specializes in overcoming the "toxic transmission of shame" associated with being Irish. Hayden neatly evades all the complications of the post-1960s world by opting for ethnic purism. There is also a reassuring demonstration that all radicals are Irish under the skin.

The Celtic tribes that gained ascendancy in Ireland around 350 B.C. were from the Iberian world. In the Irish foundation myth, the sons of Mil came to Ireland from Spain. That would make me, and all the black-haired Irish, distant blood relations of the Spanish and their descendants in Mexico and Latin America. The San Patricios were defending their distant kin when they fought with Mexico against the United States!

The Candide theme continues. Talking to South Armagh republicans ("a captive minority"), Hayden is straightfacedly informed that the locals think of the prehistoric Cuchulain saga as a background to modern local life, "the way you Americans think of the Founding Fathers." (This may be a cunning reference to the tales spun by cynical locals to Victorian travelers such as Thackeray.) Even when his interlocutor adds that "you can get all the Irish sagas on the Internet," the Michigan boy fails to see the joke.

He also realizes an extraordinary truth as he wanders into this new world: everyone is Irish! John Lennon was "an Irish working-class lad from Liverpool"; Che Guevara and C. Wright Mills are important Irish figures who denied or forgot their racial Irishness; George Mitchell and Bill Clinton "discovered their Irishness late in life," but better late than never; Tony Blair is a sort of honorary Irishman because he "married a Catholic professional." This theme dominates the end of the comedy, compensating for the deficiencies of political reality.

The final section of Hayden's book, "Recovering the Irish Soul," is possibly the funniest. It is a sermon to "the Irish" — actually, the American-Irish — to stop denying their true identity and "transcend the superficiality of our skin color to join in solidarity with the majority who are darker than ourselves." The identity-convert exhorts that they must

join the renewal of spirituality, including catholic spirituality, by identifying with the religious dissenters, liberation theologists, goddess and nature traditions, and the deeply creation-centered spirituality of Brigid and Columkille that infuses the original Irish character.

Earlier we are told that the Irish have an ancient purity, "older than the English." The corruption, the frivolity, and the materialism of the actual Irish Republic (the attitude of which toward Northern violence has mortified poor Hayden throughout) must be faced and combated. Modern Irish liberal commentators such as Fintan O'Toole, Padraig O'Malley, and Garret FitzGerald (strange bedfellows) are self-hating Irishmen, much as Tom Foley and Tip O'Neill represent "cases of internalized infatuation with the colonizer."

"We must not seek respectability by rhetorically denouncing the IRA," Hayden preaches. And yet miraculously "the peace process has enabled a revival of the republican spirit across Ireland," making Gerry Adams the most popular politician in the republic! (Or so one poll reported in September 2000.) This bogus analysis conceals a wicked irony: the peace process, of course, is solidly founded on the abandonment of Sinn Fein's traditional conception of "republicanism" by the people of the Irish Republic, who, as soon as they got the chance, near-unanimously voted to drop the constitutional claim to Northern Ireland.

But a New Age Irishness may preserve Candide's innocence.

We can start by reinhabiting our Irish self in simple ways. Read Irish history, novels, and poetry. Listen to traditional Irish music. Learn a few words in the Irish language (just a few will do, to show willing). Observe the old calendar of festivals, based on the seasons of solstice and equinox. Give your child an Irish name. Save St. Patrick's Day from those who think that getting drunk makes you Irish.... If you are religious, ask for the observance of Saint Brigid's feast on February 1.

This passage, which transcends parody, is an almost word-for-word repetition of the kind of manifesto published in the 1920s by the Catholic Bulletin — an almost psychotically reactionary journal devoted to denouncing world conspiracies involving Freemasons, jazz, English newspapers, or all three, and setting the clock of the new Irish state back a couple of millennia. But Hayden's version of this gospel is subtly updated by other injunctions: parents are to "question why the school curriculum sanitizes the Famine experience"; Irish Protestants (those awkward strangers at the feast) are to "identify with rebels like Wolfe Tone, Thomas and Robert Emmet, Henry Joy McCracken and James Connolly [a Catholic convert]." Leftist politics are to be built up not along class lines but along ethnic ones — not a process with very encouraging historical precedents, but clearly another one of Hayden's satiric inflections.

It all ends, appositely, in a dream in which the reborn but completely demented author visualizes himself taking handfuls of grave soil from America back to Ireland. The dead are to be reclaimed, and possibly reawakened. America is to be left behind in the form of a "landscape with plaques of remembrance instead of one prostrated to malls and surveyors' dulling gridlines, a map becoming alive with reclaimed Irish stories." Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, "Irish from all over are migrating home," bearing sods of memory that will create "a place to bury pain and grow our history." Like much great comedy, this surreal and deluded vision is alarming as well as side-splitting. Still, one reservation remains at the end of this extraordinary book. For all its satiric invention, might Hayden not be himself reviving a Mr. Dooleyesque stereotype by creating a hero who so epically mingles myopic self-satisfaction with bone-headed obtuseness?


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