Friday 23 August 2019

Being New York, Being Irish: Celebrating an Irish-American institution


Being New York, Being Irish

Edited by Terry Golway

Irish Academic Press, hardback, 210 pages, €24.95

Legacy: Loretta Glucksman with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at this year’s St Patrick’s Day parade in New York
Legacy: Loretta Glucksman with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at this year’s St Patrick’s Day parade in New York
Being New York, Being Irish

Eamon Delaney

In his fine introduction to this book - Being New York, Being Irish: Reflections on Twenty-Five Years of Irish America and New York University's Glucksman Ireland House - writer Terry Golway describes two memorable events for the Irish community in New York in the early 1990s which had a lasting resonance.

I remember them well, as I was involved in organising them and wrote about them in my book An Accidental Diplomat.

One was the opening of the Glucksman Ireland House on the iconic Washington Square in Greenwich Village by then-taoiseach Albert Reynolds. The other was a night-time speech by then-president Mary Robinson to an Irish community audience gathered on Ellis Island, the once famous immigration point to the US, and now a museum.

Delightfully, the Glucksman Ireland House is still going strong, and has created a wonderful legacy, as is evidenced by this book. And happily, too, Ireland's cultural and historical legacy, and the spirit of the diaspora which President Robinson invoked that balmy night, has been richly reflected. In the 25 years since, it has fostered the study of these elements as the Center for Irish and Irish-American Studies, at the adjoining New York University. It is a great story. There is wide interest in Irish culture in the United States, much deeper than we think here in Ireland, but it is often amateur - if well-meant - and disparate and unfocused. The Glucksmans gave it an academic and prestigious core.

The institution was founded by Loretta and her late husband Lew Glucksman, not just due to Loretta's passionate Irish-American background, but also due to her American-Jewish husband's great affection for Ireland (and his generosity, as funds were required and the Irish State was not so flush in 1993).

This book is a celebration of their legacy and of the hard work put in since by the centre's administrators and supporters. It is an evocative read. Terry Golway, a seasoned observer of Irish-America but also of its often unfair typecasting (come-all-ye music and dodgy Irish nationalism, etc) and sometimes uneasy relationship with the 'home country', describes the background to the House's creation.

However, the same come-all-ye music, or a better understanding of it, is described in a lovely essay by writer Alice McDermott about her son Patrick's discovery of his Irish roots through the uilleann pipes, tin whistle and flute.

Dan Barry reflects on that New York stalwart Frank McCourt and how, late in life, he created Angela's Ashes, while Ray O'Hanlon, who I knew from The Irish Echo, describes the new activism behind the Irish immigration movement, but also gay groups' attempts to join the St Patrick's Day Parade.

Meanwhile, Colm Tóibín writes about being in New York when the first woman was grand marshal of the famous parade. This was also late in life, in both senses. Most of us had been to New York on student visas and holidays and Tóibín wondered why he had left it so late.

The magic of New York is here invoked, but not alas in Colum McCann's rather shrill and tedious 'call to action' for immigrants and 'social justice'. A more nuanced essay on an earlier era in anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic prejudice is explored by novelist Peter Quinn, while Patricia Harty of Irish America magazine describes seeking out the achievers and celebrities in the community.

One of these is, of course, Loretta Brennan Glucksman herself, who this year was honoured as a grand marshal of the St Patrick's Day Parade and met Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, a quarter of a century after his predecessor Albert Reynolds opened Glucksman House. It has more than fulfilled the promise of engagement made by Mary Robinson on Ellis Island. Better still, the book concludes with a new poem, written in honour of Loretta by Seamus Heaney not long before his death.

It is a fitting end-piece to a handsome tribute, filled with evocative photos and images. Through personal reflections, the writers, both Irish and American, explore the achievements and changes in Irish and Irish-American culture, but also the wider developments in our sense of identity and in political life since 1993. Long may it continue.

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