The Irish in Us: Irishness, Performativity, and Popular Culture

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Over the past decade or so, Irishness has emerged as an idealized ethnicity, one with which large numbers of people around the world, and particularly in the United States, choose to identify. Seeking to explain the widespread appeal of all things Irish, the contributors to this collection show that for Americans, Irishness is rapidly becoming the white ethnicity of choice, a means of claiming an ethnic identity while maintaining the benefits of whiteness. At the same time, the essayists challenge essentialized representations of Irishness, bringing attention to the complexities of Irish history and culture that are glossed over in Irish-themed weddings and shamrock tattoos.

Examining how Irishness is performed and commodified in the contemporary transnational environment, the contributors explore topics including Van Morrison’s music, Frank McCourt’s writing, the explosion of Irish-themed merchandising, the practices of heritage seekers, the movie The Crying Game, and the significance of red hair. Whether considering the implications of Garth Brooks’s claim of Irishness and his enormous popularity in Ireland, representations of Irish masculinity in the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, or Americans’ recourse to a consoling Irishness amid the racial and nationalist tensions triggered by the events of September 11, the contributors delve into complex questions of ethnicity, consumerism, and globalization. Ultimately, they call for an increased awareness of the exclusionary effects of claims of Irishness and for the cultivation of flexible, inclusive ways of affiliating with Ireland and the Irish.

Contributors. Natasha Casey, Maeve Connolly, Catherine M. Eagan, Sean Griffin, Michael Malouf, Mary McGlynn, Gerardine Meaney, Diane Negra, Lauren Onkey, Maria Pramaggiore, Stephanie Rains, Amanda Third

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Diane Negra has built a dynamic cultural studies anthology from the sophisticated research of a new generation of scholars. ‘Irishness,’ still an attractive or scandalous stereotype, is here understood through reflection on nation, ethnicity, class, and gender—reflection that is in turn animated by the obtuseness of ‘Irishness’ in its newly global situation. Expressing a variety of views through vivid examples, this anthology becomes itself exemplary.”—Dudley Andrew, Yale University

“The essays in this collection are to Irish studies what B. B. King and the Chicago Blues are to the Delta Blues: they draw on an existing body of work, virtuosically extend it, and at the same time electrify it, creating new forms in the process. In this respect, this collection is the book that many in Irish studies have been waiting for.”—Margot Backus, author of The Gothic Family Romance: Heterosexuality, Child Sacrifice, and the Anglo-Irish Colonial Order

“This sparkling, sophisticated, and original collection analyzes such diverse topics as the genealogical quest for Irish roots, Celtic white supremacists, and post–September 11 identity politics. Provocatively, Diane Negra suggests that ‘Irishness’ has become a way for Americans to claim a safe and fashionable ethnic identity. Essential reading for Irish and American cultural studies.”—Elizabeth Cullingford, author of Ireland’s Others: Gender and Ethnicity in Irish Literature and Popular Culture

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822337409
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 2/28/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 392
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Diane Negra is Senior Lecturer in the School of Film and Television Studies at the University of East Anglia. She is the author of Off-White Hollywood: American Culture and Ethnic Female Stardom and a coeditor (with Jennifer M. Bean) of A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema, also published by Duke University Press.

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Read an Excerpt

The Irish in US

Irishness, Performativity, and Popular Culture

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3728-7

Chapter One


The Irish in Us: Irishness, Performativity, and Popular Culture

In Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle (2003), the African American comedian Bernie Mac attempts to infiltrate a Dublin-based tanker by presenting a driver's license identifying himself as Paddy O'Malley. When a criminal on the tanker doubts him, Mac launches into a comic tirade of outrage. "You never heard of no black Irish?" he asks. "Who do you think invented the McRib, Lucky Charms, the Shamrock Shake? ... My family suffered for lack of potatoes." This catalogue of associative links to Irishness delivered by a black comedian is but one example of a popular culture increasingly likely to produce comedy tied to the "everything and nothing" status of Irishness. The joke here turns on an assumption the film presumes its audience to share; namely, that whatever else it may be, Irishness is reliably, invariably, a form of whiteness.

Over the last ten years, a particular set of cultural and economic pressures has rapidly transnationalized Irishness. Recruited for global capitalism, Irishness has become a form of discursive currency, motivating and authenticating a variety of heritage narratives and commercial transactions, oftenthrough its status as a form of "enriched whiteness." The scene from Charlie's Angels underscores one of the most central concerns of this book-namely, the status of Irishness as a category of racial fantasy. While Irishness surged into a globally marketed identity under the aegis of the Celtic Tiger, its terms in American culture have been particularly functional in accommodating new diversity imperatives. As Catherine M. Eagan observes in her essay for this volume, "in celebrating their Irishness, Irish Americans are also finding a way to celebrate their whiteness." Or, as Vincent J. Cheng contends, "in the United States today, Irishness may be both popular and comfortable precisely because it remains an identifiable (and presumably authentic) ethnicity that is nonetheless unthreatening and familiar." With a greater level of permission now given to claim heritage amidst the cultural romance of identities, Irishness has emerged as an "a la carte ethnicity," the ideal all-purpose identity credential. In this sense, concepts of Irish whiteness play a particular part in what Ghassan Hage has termed "the psychopathology of white decline," the terror that whiteness in America is losing its social purchase.

The Irish in Us seeks to explore some of the coordinates on the expanding map of Irishness in contemporary popular culture, and to investigate the ideological implications of the ways that Irishness has become particularly performative and mobile at the millennium. This book originates in concerns about the imbrication of Irishness with a number of ideological agendas, including the depoliticization of difference, the reclassification of forms of whiteness as "ethnicity," and niche-market saturation leading to a process in which commodities that have lost their luster are reendowed with (ethnic) meaning. Drawing from the tenets of Cultural Studies, the book dispenses with an absolute "truthful" version of Irishness, looking instead to the many fictions that proliferate around Irish identity in our current environment. In this vein, essays on such topics as the explosion of Irish-themed merchandising over the last ten years, themes of Irishness on series television, the genealogical practices of heritage seekers, and performances of Irishness in celebrity culture are brought together in this collection to examine how Irishness is claimed, enacted, and performed in the current transnational environment. Richard Dyer has noted that "whiteness can determine who is to be included and excluded from the category and also determine among those deemed to be within it. Some people-the Irish, Latins, Jews-are white sometimes, and some white people are whiter than others." A strong connecting thread among the essays is their shared concern with the flexible racial status of Irishness (its "complex oscillation between otherness and whiteness," in the words of one contributor) in an era of highly charged racial-identity politics.

Catherine M. Eagan's essay poses questions about the romance of the Irish-black connection that will be addressed by the majority of essays here. These analyses are carried out in line with Hazel Carby's observation that "the last decade of the 20th century was a particularly interesting conjunctual moment between the global production of blackness and Irishness." One of the key phenomena with which this book is concerned is the way that Irishness seems to move between a quasi blackness and a politically insulated ethnic whiteness. It is crucial to candidly assess the implications of the ways that Irishness now functions as a form of identity currency and the way that it stands at the heart of so many mass-marketed white homeland fantasies. In examining the role of Irishness among American fictions and fantasies of race and ethnicity at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, we must acknowledge that assertions of Irish whiteness may well act to displace and/or neutralize the identity claims of blacks and Latinos. Conjunctions of Irishness and blackness are not inevitably conservative formulations, as Lauren Onkey's essay-a nuanced reading of the racialized persona of Van Morrison-demonstrates. Similarly, as Michael Malouf shows, in the Irish context, performances of cross-racial and cross-cultural solidarity may be far more complex and multifaceted than they first appear. Nevertheless, we must also take note of Natasha Casey's account, which documents the increased commingling of the rhetoric of supremacist hyper-whiteness with "suburban whiteness" at Irish-themed culture and music festivals. In the United States in particular, new processes of transcultural mixing and matching seem to be catalyzing desire for monoethnic stability.

The commercial scene of Irishness has vastly expanded since Dinitia Smith observed in 1996 that "in almost every realm of culture there is a resurgence of things Irish." In the realm of commodified Irishness there is now a price point for every taste and budget. While associations of Irishness with anti materialism and whimsy have existed at least since the publication of Yeats's The Celtic Twilight: Faerie and Folklore, these associations are now ironically hyper-commercialized. Virtually every form of popular culture has in one way or another, at one time or another, presented Irishness as a moral antidote to contemporary ills ranging from globalization to postmodern alienation, from crises over the meaning and practice of family values to environmental destruction. While fantasies of Ireland posit a culture unsullied by consumerism and modernity, Irishness is nevertheless a buy-in category and it comes in a staggering variety of consumable forms available across a broad spectrum of outlets. From the massive international success of the music/dance revue Riverdance, to the juggernaut of Celtic-themed merchandising, and the spate of Irish-themed material on Broadway, Irishness, it seems, circulates ever more widely in contemporary culture. Natasha Casey's essay in this collection offers one of the first sustained analyses of the myriad ways in which U.S. consumers buy their Irishness across a spectrum of social valuation, ranging from upper-middle-class Irish theme weddings to shamrock tattoos as emblems of whiteness.

In the 1990s, Irish-oriented writing proved a staple category on the best-seller lists, with Frank McCourt's Pulitzer Prize-winning Angela's Ashes (1996) generating a powerful origin myth for corporate Irish America. McCourt's memoir, translated into nineteen languages and selling over four million copies worldwide, spent over ninety weeks at or near the top of the New York Times Book Review best-seller list and was subsequently adapted into a feature film that saw release in late 1999. Irish-interest magazines such as Irish America are now stocked regularly at newsstands and bookstores, while Celticvision is among the offerings for U.S. cable subscribers. The 1998-2001 U.S. network television seasons offered further evidence of the currency of Irishness, ushering in seven new dramas and sitcoms that centralized the Irish-American experience, and increasingly using Irishness as an ethnic code for reinstating social values perceived to be lost in millennial American culture. In these narratives Irishness serves as a point of access into a purified vision of family and community life that specifically compensates for the exigencies of contemporary U.S. culture. Of course, such uses of Irishness are by no means confined to television. Stephanie Rains shows in her essay here how the genealogy industry has worked to define a specific "Irish Americanness" that negotiates social memory to produce a coherent and consoling sense of heritage.

In the 1990s, Irishness emerged as an increasingly valuable ethnic credential for talk-show hosts such as Conan O'Brien and Rosie O'Donnell, while Ballykissangel, a British soap opera set in Ireland, flourished on PBS. The past decade has also seen the emergence of the New Irish Cinema and the success of a growing number of Irish American-themed films. Meanwhile, there is an increasing tendency for print and broadcast advertisements to deploy Irishness, notably in relation to goods and services that have no inherent connection to this ethnic category. Long linked in the American imagination with the experience of poverty and the rigor of sexual repression, Irishness now factors in campaigns for Porsche automobiles and Candies stiletto-heeled shoes as a marker of luxury and eroticism. In television franchises such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel, as Gerardine Meaney shows in her essay for this volume, Irish masculinity can be eroticized and updated while remaining enmeshed in themes of tragic familialism all too familiar from the work of Yeats and Synge. For Meaney, recent representations such as these "veer dramatically between liberal and conservative impulses in their racial thought process."

As American and global audiences became more attuned to the consumption of Irishness in print, film, and television fiction, Irishness was also increasingly amplified or borrowed by a variety of popular cultural performers. The year 1998 saw the emergence of a fascinating case of ethnic impersonation as the (now deceased) novelist Patrick O'Brian was forced to acknowledge that he had invented an Irish name and biography. Then in his eighties, the British author had for decades passed as Irish, frequently referencing his upbringing in the west of Ireland, and his fluency in the Irish language. The O'Brian case underscored the importance of myths of origin in the heritage-publishing climate that has seen the rise to prominence not only of Frank McCourt, but of authors such as Malachy McCourt, Alice McDermott, and Thomas Cahill. O'Brian's fictional Biography established the author as the right kind of narrator for an immensely successful series of novels about seafaring while at a broader level indicating the desirability of Irishness as a platform for discursive legitimacy.

Irishness has increasingly operated as a soundtrack as well as a narrative prototype. The Riverdance touring show has played to eighteen million people and grossed more than a billion dollars worldwide, and the associated CD long remained the top-selling album on Billboard's world music chart. Irish music has been effectively synthesized with pop in a wide range of popular cultural contexts. Irishness has been deployed as a soundtrack in such films as Titanic (1996), while performers such as Phil Collins, Rod Stewart, and Shania Twain released Celtic-flavored pop songs. National Public Radio features a regular "Thistle and Shamrock" program of Irish music, while strains of "Danny Boy" were mixed into the pop group Chumbawamba's 1998 single "Tubthumping," and Canadian Celtic recording artist Loreena McKennitt's "The Mummers' Dance" was remixed as a highly successful dance track. Indeed a 1998 article referred to "watching Celtic music become the millennium's Muzak." Even when the song structures of Irish traditional music are not overtly used, the instrumentation associated with it has been deployed in aural flourishes to connote moments of authenticity and intimacy in both television and film. Uilleann pipes have been used in ads for General Electric and Mobil, and one of NBC's dramatic hit series, Providence (1999-2003), used similar instrumental cues to signal viewers at key transitional moments in its dramatic narrative of familial reintegration and regional romanticization.

The closing decades of the twentieth century also saw the emergence of a category of globally saleable popular/rock music associated with distinctively Irish performers. Acts such as the Cranberries and the Corrs are not perceived as incidentally Irish; rather their national heritage is positioned as a mark of quality. A 1994 Time article, for instance, praised Sinéad O'Connor and Cranberries lead singer Dolores O'Riordan for an awareness of a particular past that "helps distinguish their songs from the typical rootless algae of pop music." In her revealing case study, Lauren Onkey notes that Northern Irish music star Van Morrison launched his career playing R&B, then increasingly drew on a rhetoric of Irishness to "source" his music. Rejecting overly binaristic explanations which would cast Morrison as a blackface performer, Onkey finds that instead, in a complex balance of "blackness" and Celticism, he creates for himself an Irishness significantly mediated by his affinity for black musical forms. Mary McGlynn's essay, meanwhile, examines and critically questions the phenomenal late-1990s popularity of country star Garth Brooks in Ireland, asking what it was about Brooks's nostalgic vision that resonated with a fast-changing Irish society. Lest we misunderstand this process as simply one-sided, McGlynn goes on to show that Brooks's own affiliations with Irishness broadened and extended the persona of a country music star whose southern white masculinity was in danger of appearing parochial.

In an August 2001 editorial, Thomas L. Friedman noted that "people all over the world are looking to Ireland for its reservoir of spirituality, hoping to siphon off what they can to feed their souls, which have become hungry for something other than consumerism and computers." American recourse to a consoling Irishness was most recently and evidently demonstrated in the aftermath of 9/11, which saw widespread celebration of Irish American heroes. In my essay here, I discuss some of the ways that Irishness factored at a time when Orientalist tropes of those who look Middle Eastern were matched by a set of tropes about what white masculinity looks like and is.


Excerpted from The Irish in US Copyright © 2006 by Duke University Press . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

The Irish in us : Irishness, performativity, and popular culture 1
"Still 'black' and 'proud'" : Irish America and the racial politics of Hibernophilia 20
The wearing of the green : performing Irishness in the fox wartime musical 64
"The best kept secret in retail" : selling Irishness in contemporary America 84
"Papa don't preach" : pregnancy and performance in contemporary Irish cinema 110
Irish roots : genealogy and the performance of Irishness 130
Ray Charles on Hyndford Street : Van Morrison's Caledonian soul 161
Garth Brooks in Ireland, or, play that country music, whiteboys 196
"Does the rug match the carpet?" : race, gender, and the redheaded woman 220
Dead, white, male : Irishness in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel 254
"A bit of a traveller in everybody" : traveller identities in Irish and American culture 282
Feeling Eire(y) : on Irish-Caribbean popular-culture 318
Irishness, innocence, and American identity politics before and after September 11 354
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