News Analysis

Thursday 18 September 2014

Myopic vision of 'the aul sod' has yet to be uprooted on American soil

Published 11/11/2012 | 05:00

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US contributions to Irish studies often seem as if they came from outer space, writes John-Paul McCarthy

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Gabriel Byrne's bracing criticism of The Gathering "shakedown" reminded me of a stunning scene in HBO's Boardwalk Empire.

The crooked boss of Prohibition-era Atlantic City, Enoch 'Nucky' Thompson, has organised a St Patrick's Day dinner for his Irish comrades. As the porter begins to take hold, the dinner fragments into two seething factions. The Irish-American hosts don't like the self-pitying tone of their Irish-born visitors. They feel that their gun-running work isn't sufficiently appreciated.

Their visitors are all veterans of the 1916 Rising and don't care to be patronised.

A conciliatory voice shouts "Up the Irish!", assuming they can all agree on that at least.

But the hardened Irish-American faction retorts derisively, "Up your ass!"

Fearing catastrophe, Nucky summons a dancing troupe of midgets, "The Little People", and civil war is averted.

Now, this jaw-dropping scene neatly captures the tensions on display last week, tensions that have assumed various forms over the years. Think of Jack Lynch's battles with Noraid in the Seventies, for example.

The best way to frame Byrne's bracing critique, though, is to link it with the broader historical traffic between Ireland and the US.

Here we see Nucky's disastrous dinner time and again.

A goodly chunk of what we might call Irish-American historical writing over the last 30 years has gone down badly at home for various reasons.

This is probably because some of the stuff coming out of the Irish studies industry in America reads at times like it was written from outer space.

I'm thinking here of Seamus Deane's thoughts about John Mitchel's so-called slave-based hysteria in his book, Strange Country (1997).

I'm also thinking of the influential TS Eliot scholar Denis Donoghue's childhood memoir, Warrenpoint (1990), written from various first-rate American universities. He wrote bleakly here about being able to spot an Ulster Protestant at a "hundred yards" and about how as a child he felt "a Protestant was as alien to me as a Muslim, and Muslims had the merit that I didn't know any of them".

He also wrote about his withdrawal from a proposed scheme to write a textbook on Irish history in the Eighties alongside Leland Lyons, Louis Cullen and Maurice Craig because "its revisionist impulse [was] too clear".

This offers a fairly melancholy illustration of the yawning chasm that opened up between the priorities of the Irish in America and those mired in the homeland.

The bicentenary of 1798 also exposed these fault lines.

Tom Dunne's classic book, Rebellions, mounted a devastating critique of the Irish Government's surrender to euphemism. Dunne used Irish-language sources and much else besides to restore the catastrophic sectarian element in the violence in Wexford in 1798, an element the Irish Government tried to dilute and hide.

Important parts of his book are given over to criticising the work of his fellow Wexford-man Kevin Whelan, who went on to become the Michael Smurfit director of the Keough Notre Dame Centre in 1998.

Whelan told The Irish Times that year that "the United Irishmen were trying to negotiate a political structure here and with Britain, capable of representing Irish people in all their inherited complexities and allegiances. The peace process today is trying to do the same thing".

Dunne wheeled out the big guns against this basically American emphasis on history-qua-therapy.

His close reading of Irish language sources showed the animating force of sectarian animosity and old agrarian grievances against the Palatines and other Protestant settlers in Wexford.

Dunne concluded his frankly terrifying reconstruction of the massacre of 126 people in the Scullabogue barn -- 115 of which were local Protestants -- with the observation that many of those murdered were probably known to their killers.

Somehow, though, this kind of complex, demanding

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analysis cannot take root in the Irish-American soil, even though modern American historical writing has little patience with the Dr Phil stuff in some parts of the Irish Studies canon.

America, after all, gave us Charles Beard's scorching attack on the Founding Fathers, and Henry Adams's sundry gorgeous polemics.

Now, the calculus changes though when we talk about the work of North American scholars who come to study in Ireland. This faction has produced work that is as bracing as a New York minute.

Anyone who thinks all this sectarianism stuff is a domestic neurosis should have a look at John Wilson Foster's absorbing book, Irish Novels 1890-1940: New Bearings in Culture and Fiction.

Wilson is a native of Belfast, but he taught in Canada for many years before settling at Queen's. His close reading of a whole raft of less well-known Irish novels was based on the idea that "where there is religion, there is sectarianism; between the sects, there is a grim history of bad blood".

You also see something of this no-nonsense approach to our past in the work of Donald Akenson, still the sanest (Canadian) man ever to write about Conor Cruise O'Brien.

These outsiders help us insiders to make sense of our world in ways that have largely eluded many of our sundered brethren who went west on the wave of the peace process.

Philadelphia, here I come?

Not bloody likely.

Sunday Independent

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