Monday 16 July 2018

A very different american dream

I used to be Irish By Angeline Kearns Blain (A&A Farmar, €14.99)


Growing up in the flats in 1950s Ringsend, there weren't many oppo- rtunities for working class people, especially young women. At 18, Angeline Kearns Blain had her own game plan. Having come to the bitter realisation that "de Valera's Ireland" had nothing to offer, she resolved to make the most of her best asset, her stunning good looks. She was going to bag herself an American GI and go to the US in the hope of a better life.

I used to be Irish is a memoir of one of the thousands of Irish women who emigrated to the US in the 20th century.

Angeline Kearns left school at the age of 13 and worked on the Irishtown dump collecting slivers of coke to sell for a shilling a gunnysack.

This was followed by jobs in various Dublin factories before she landed a job as an ice-cream seller at the Regent Cinema in Blackrock. It was here that she and fellow ice-cream girl Eileen came up with the plan to become 'Yank chasers'. Their plan worked to great effect, or at least it did for Angeline. She met her American GI at a bus stop on D'Olier Street when she was 18 and decided to marry him.

She saw her handsome GI as an escape route that would rescue her from the grey skies of Dublin, taking her to the Hollywood-tinted USA.

In 1957 she happily flew to New York, a bit scared but blessing her good luck. Quickly Angeline discovers that America is not Ireland. Although she makes a good life for herself with her Maine Protestant husband, she misses the familiarity of her upbringing, her family and her community.

She details her "immigrant's journey" from a naive girl, to wife, to mother, adapting to Cold War America and trying to fit in to her role as perfect, corporate wife and all-giving Mom.

Her journey takes her from Connecticut to sun-drenched Los Angeles, eventually settling in bleak Idaho Falls where her husband gets a job at a government nuclear research facility. Eventually depression sets in and she has a nervous breakdown.

I used to be Irish is a description of Angeline's life journey in America and how she reinvents herself from a rhythm-method Catholic wife to "adulteress" to adjunct professor of Sociology at Boise State University, Idaho.

Even her marriage break-up, she implies, was part of this journey. But how many of her choices can be explained away so simply? Perhaps some are just born out of being another bored housewife and to call it anything else is to glamorise something that's not extraordinary.

Nevertheless, her memoir is extraordinary, told with blunt honesty and scathing wit. It's a long way from the flats in Ringsend to being a professor at an American university.

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