Irish America: Coming into Clover

Irish America: Coming into Clover

by Maureen Dezell

For many people in this country, Irish-American culture conjures up thoughts of caucous pubs, Saint Patrick's Day parades, memoirs poeopled with an array of saints and sinners, and such quasi-Celtic extravaganzes as Riverdance. Maureen Dezell provides a welcome corrective to these stereotypes of Irish-American identity.

Deftly interweaving history and


For many people in this country, Irish-American culture conjures up thoughts of caucous pubs, Saint Patrick's Day parades, memoirs poeopled with an array of saints and sinners, and such quasi-Celtic extravaganzes as Riverdance. Maureen Dezell provides a welcome corrective to these stereotypes of Irish-American identity.

Deftly interweaving history and reporting, observation and opinion—including voices from cities across America and from Ireland itself—Dezell traces the changing makeup of the Irish population in this country, from the early immigrants to today's affluent, educated Irish Americans. With sensitivity and humor, she pinpoints what unites them: the traditions (if not the practice) of Cahtolicism; a sense of social duty; humor, often self-directed; and the deep-seated, apparently unshakable belief that any achievement is accidental and could easily disappear tomorrow.

In an incisive exploration of the role of the Catholic Church in Irish-American life, Dezell disucsses the opposition to the hierarchy that has eroded church attendance and the rise of a "cultural Catholicism" based more on ethics than on religious identity. She probes into family and community life, including a refreshing look at the influence of resourceful, resilient women on immigrant neighborhoods, the labor movement, education, and the economic success of generations of Irish-American entrepreneurs. Her analysis of the complex psychology of the Irish sheds light on Freud's remark that they are the only ethnic group that doesn't benefit from psychoanalysis; her investigation into alcohol abuse, endemic in Irish America, reveals the historical, sociocultural, and genetic reasons behind it.

From insights into the sometimes contentious relationship between the Irish in Ireland and in America to the impact of the "new Irish" immigrants on American culture, Irish America is an enlightening tribute to a group of Americans long masked in myths and misconceptions.

Editorial Reviews

Sarah Brennan
Fed up with the alcoholic and bafoony image of Irish-Americans being perpetuated by drunken frat-boys swilling green beer and kitsch addicted tourists sporting "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" accoutrements, Dezell made it her personal mission to debunk these stereotypes. A journalist by profession, she incorporates textbook history, personal interviews, and hard-nosed reporting into this entertaining and thoughtful study.
Irish Emigrant
Maureen Dezell has produced a study of Irish America which challenges stereotypes while at the same time explaining how they arose. For those of us on this side of the Atlantic her book goes some way to explaining the Irish American phenomenon, while for Irish Americans themselves this will be a thought-provoking look at their origins. For all readers, however, it will be both entertaining and of immense interest.
Maureen Ellen Daly
Dezell seems to have read just about everything about Irish Americans. Her bibliography is a compendious wonder and each chapter is filled with quotes which are carefully credited in the end notes. At the risk of catching that most dreaded of conditions-a swelled head-the reader of this book may come away a little prouder of the Irish in America.
Catholic News Service
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Those who harbor the desire to burn their auntie's lace curtains, secretly loathe Riverdance or relish the newfound clout of all things Irish will appreciate this unflinching look at the 20 million or so Irish Catholics in the U.S. Beginning with the potato famine of the 1840s and exploring the repercussions of the Irish Catholic diaspora in America, Boston Globe staff writer Dezell concludes that Irish Americans flourish on contradictions. She first examines the phenomenon of "Eiresatz: a sentimental slur of imagined memories, fine feeling, and faux Irish talismans and traditions" that includes everything from the stock Irishman of the stage ("Sambo with a shillelagh") and the beer companies' preoccupation with drunken Irishmen to the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an all-male society that bans gays and lesbians from the St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York City. Dezell voices contempt for the Father O'Malleys and Flanagans of Hollywood, admiringly recounts the adventures of the San Patricios--the Irish battalion that deserted the American army during the Mexican War to fight on the side of Mexican Catholics--and examines what she casts as the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church. She observes the evolution of the American Irish into "CWASPs"--"Catholic--or Celtic--White Anglo-Saxon Protestants"--and traces Irish feminism from the IRA's women's auxiliary, Cumann na mBam, to Mother Jones, Margaret Sanger and Dorothy Day. Dezell also investigates the prevalence of alcoholism among the Irish, and their often combative relationship with African-Americans. Astutely deconstructing images and experiences of the Irish in this country, Dezell will have readers shaking their heads in dismay one moment and laughing uncontrollably the next. Agent, John Taylor Williams. (Feb.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
While a sharper title for her book might have been "Catholicism in Irish Americans," Dezell (Boston Globe) has interviewed a variety of Irish Americans to document cultural changes. She is reporting, and since Irish American behavior varies, the report wanders. Dezell notes that adherence to Catholicism is waning, but its virtues, notably charity, remain. Irish Americans seek upward mobility while struggling with a streak of modesty that the author sees as uniquely Irish. Finally, those generations most removed from Ireland are now seeking out faux Irish culture, "multiculti fuzziness" like Riverdance and the music of Enya. Thus, behavior is perpetuated even if its origin is forgotten. Reading like a collection of columns, Dezell's narrative employs hooks and melodrama that entertain the reader but undermine her authority. Ultimately, though, the book is entertaining and at times insightful, making it a viable choice for public libraries in Irish American enclaves. Robert Moore, Southboro, MA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Appalled that the Irish-American image has been reduced to the crudest stereotypes, which if visited upon other cultures would be met with cries of insult, Boston Globe journalist Dezell seeks a more meaningful and historically informed understanding of the Irish identity in the US today. The author suspects that there is more to the Irish-American culture than the booze and song claptrap that runs rife through the popular imagery. "The Irish may have assimilated less than some other American ethnics, because it was easier for them to blend in," thus preserving their distinct identity. But what she finds is no particular, defining cultural characteristic; rather, she finds humans, with all their complexities and contradictions. It's no great shakes for Dezell (or anyone for that matter) to debunk the classic stereotypes, those unflattering ethnic images that have been draped across the shoulders of Irish-Americans as weepy sentimentalists and reel-and-roar drunks ("the Wild Irishman, the apelike Irishman, and the stage Irishman are among the colonial legacies the British bestowed upon the world"). From Boston to San Francisco, by way of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Minnesota, and Montana, she finds Irish-Americans to be devout and irreverent, street-smart and mawkish, people of bonhomie and affability and irony. Some characteristics feel apt (humility and self-deprecation to a fault, for example, as well as a streak of fatalism), while others that Dezell suggests (a strain of anti-intellectualism that places more importance on respectability than creativity) seem wide of the mark. What about all those poets, musicians, and performers? Two solid contributions are her chaptersonthe importance of women in the Irish immigration, and those self-limiting peculiarities, typified by the "green ceiling" that frowns upon rising above one's situation. While Dezell's conclusion that Irish-Americans are a "study in contradictions" is hardly momentous, this survey of their cultural expressions is a welcome relief from the green beer and kiss-me-I'm-Irish inanity.

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Doubleday Publishing
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Read an Excerpt

Selling the Songs in Their Hearts

The Irish American Image in Popular Culture

Each year in early March, the mud thaws, the days lengthen, and advertisers roll out images of shamrocks, party-hearty leprechauns, and freckle-faced inebriates. St. Patrick's Day is fast approaching, and competition is keen to sell beer and spirits by suggesting an Irish brand endorsement--a seal of approval of sorts from the ethnic group "known" to overimbibe.

St. Patrick's Day advertising is sui generis in the realm of niche marketing, and a slogan the Leo Burnett Company came up with to sell beer one year--"Irish I had a Schlitz"--explains why. The logo was the exception that proves the rule that unflattering ethnic images are far too offensive to use in the serious American business of selling. No sane advertiser would create a commercial for Florida condominiums suggesting: "Jewish it cost less?" None would put together a promotion for a white-shoe financial services house urging: "Take the sting out of investing. Have WASPs watch your money."

Obnoxious caricatures of the "clever Jew," "penny-pinching Protestant," or "inscrutable Asian" have mercifully disappeared from the American mainstream. The Irish boozer still bobs about in media flotsam, not because some pernicious prejudice keeps the cliche afloat, but because Irish Americans endorse it. Drinking to wretched excess is a time-honored tradition on St. Patrick's Day in the United States, an annual occasion in which a splendid heritage is reduced to Eiresatz: a sentimental slur of imagined memories, finefeeling, and faux Irish talismans and traditions.

On the American day when everyone is Irish, lovely lasses and pugilistic Paddies parade on urban avenues carrying lucky clovers and silent harps; leering leprechauns serve as symbols of Irish wit and cunning; mawkish music and fight songs pay "tribute" to the Irish spirit; public drunkenness passes for Irish pride.

"No other ethnic group demeans itself this way," the Irish-born Los Angeles psychiatrist Garrett O'Connor has noted. "The Irish character becomes caricature" around St. Patrick's Day, "when being drunk is supposed to be the same thing as being Irish."

The New York St. Patrick's Day parade, which has long made a concerted effort to counter cultural clowning, is a caricature in its own right. A solemn, quasimilitaristic display of staunch Roman Catholicism, self-righteousness, and Irish republicanism, the event is recognized around the world as a symbol of Irish culture, when, in fact, it is not. The pageant reflects nothing so much as the membership and mind-set of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the all-male fraternal society who organize the parade, and who once led an unsuccessful campaign to keep America safe from the Abbey Theatre. Today, they bar the equally insidious and threatening Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization from the line of march.

The essence and ethos of the New York parade were vividly expressed on a gusty, sun-warmed March 17 morning of 1999, when the late John Cardinal O'Connor greeted Irish screen actress Maureen O'Hara, grand marshal of the parade, on the steps of St. Patrick's Cathedral: conservative Catholicism meets The Quiet Man.

As the country's oldest, largest ethnic group, the Irish have been secure enough for long enough to shrug off anachronisms and hackneyed stereotypes that might raise hackles among others. Reasonable people of Celtic heritage figure that St. Patrick's Day displays are silly; life is too short to get exercised over a parade or a fifteen-second TV spot of a winking leprechaun swilling a Budweiser. Why get upset?

Why indeed.

Self-lampooning, a St. Patrick's Day staple, dates at least to vaudeville days, when struggling immigrants and their children realized that their comic sense and the songs in their hearts would sell. The stage Irishman's blarney-imbued "Don't mind me, I'm just a funny Irish guy" renditions of shuffle-alongs and happy drunks were officially hooted out of music halls and theaters in the 1900s--in a campaign led by the Ancient Order of Hibernians. But American popular culture by that time had embraced the idea that the Irish were a genial, down-to-earth, self-effacing people with a romantic past and a weakness for drink. For better and for worse, so had the Irish--which is why those notions define Irish America's image and self-image to this day.

A stage Irish story

Descendants of dreamers and tale-tellers in the land of money, myth, and Disney, the American Irish early on developed a capacity for romanticizing their heritage and sentimentalizing themselves.

The throngs who fled Ireland's Great Hunger and their children had little choice but to reinvent who they were. Famine immigrants spilled out of coffin ships into American cities "dressed in rags, weak with hunger, and numb with the fresh memory of corpse-filled workhouses, skeletal children, and tales of cannibalism," in Dennis Clark's words. They were premodern peasants, "homeless, nationless, and all but hopeless after a grim sea passage to an unwelcoming land."

Like immigrants who would later take their place on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder, they represented much of what upstanding American society abhorred. The Irish were Celts, not Anglo-Saxons; Papists, not Protestants; rebels fighting to expel America's Motherland from their homeland. They were communal in a land of vaunted individualist achievers; drinkers at the dawn of the American temperance movement; a gregarious and boisterous people who showed little interest in serious American enterprise but loved politics.

Newspaper and magazine illustrators who provided visual definition for the pre-tabloid, pre-television age borrowed from British newspaper pages and vaudeville stages to reflect prevailing opinion with drawings of apelike Irish, drunken Paddys, menacing Micks, and surly Biddies. The influential cartoonist Thomas Nast "regarded the politicized Irish Celt as a menace to a good society," L. Perry Curtis Jr. writes in Apes and Angels: The Irishman in Victorian Caricature. Anytime he "drew an Irish-American, he invariably produced a . . . cross between a professional boxer and an orangutan" (see illustration, page 142).

The Irishman onstage was Sambo with a shillelagh. Actor, producer, and writer Tyrone Power (forebear of a theatrical family that would include his namesake, the movie actor, and the director Tyrone Guthrie) made himself a star in the role of "Paddy Power," a re-creation of a blabbing, blundering Irish peasant who was such a hit in London. The Paddy stage schtick called for Irish props--pigs in the parlor, whiskey--and almost always featured a fight that turned into a melee. Brawls were a trademark of Irish immigrants, who gave name to the police vehicle, the paddy wagon.

Copyright 2001 by Maureen Dezell

What People are saying about this

John F. Timoney
John F. Timoney, Philadelphia Commissioner of Police, The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine
. . . a very good, sometimes witty, sometimes sad book about Irish Americans, who they are and how they came to be. . . .Dezell's examination of the 'changing church' and its influence on Irish immigrants . . . is fascinating. . . . But it's the chapter on women, 'Bridget, Open the Door,' that is my favorite. . .

"If you're Irish and you're wondering why you think and say certain things, or why most of your Irish friends have this self-deprecating sense of humor, or better still, why some of your very successful Irish friends seem embarrassed by their success, or act as if it will all end tomorrow, then this book is a great place to start.

Nuala O'Faolain
With this sparkling and shrewd portrait of a culture in transition, Maureen Dezell joins the ranks of the Irish American woman journalists who are as smart as they are charming.
Sarah Brennan,
"Fed up with the alcoholic and bafoony image of Irish-Americans being perpetuated by drunken frat-boys swilling green beer and kitsch addicted tourists sporting "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" accoutrements, Dezell made it her personal mission to debunk these stereotypes. A journalist by profession, she incorporates textbook history, personal interviews, and hard-nosed reporting into this entertaining and thoughtful study."
Peter Quinn
Maureen Dezell is an unrepentant truth teller. With wit, insight and unsparing intelligence she succeeds in demolishing the convenient time-worn stereotypes-comforting as well as insulting-that surround Irish America. In their place, she gives us a portrait of a people as they really are, with all their strengths, and contradictions, and enduring sense of self. Irish America: Coming Into Clover is a wonderful achievement.
—(Peter Quinn, author of Banished Children of Eve)
Doris Kearns Goodwin
With a fabulous blend of eloquence and anecdote, insight and compassion, candor and wit, Maureen Dezell has brilliantly captured the Irish experience in America. This is truly a remarkable book.
—(Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys and No Ordinary Time)
Dennis Lehane
At last a book that dispels so much of the myth, the fairy tale, the rose-tinted, shamrock-gilded blarney that has come to represent the way Irish-American culture is often seen. Maureen Dezell gives us a vibrant, cogent social history of the Irish in this country, rooting out the cliches and stereotyping that have come to define a people. For that alone, I feel indebted to this marvelous book.
—(Dennis Lehane, bestselling author of A Drink Before the War and Prayers for Rain)

Meet the Author

Maureen Dezell is a staff writer for the Boston Globe. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.

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