Review of Books
By Tom Deignan, Contributor
April / May 2006
From the double meaning of its title to its roster of impressive contributors, Making the Irish American: History & Heritage of the Irish in the United States is destined for the bookshelves of all readers who aim to keep up on Irish-American history.
Edited by JJ. Lee and Marion casey, the book compiles original research and excerpts from famous and important Irish books and journals and explores topics ranging from politics and religion to music and firefighting. The contributors list is a virtual Who’s Who of IrishAmerican writers (Pete Hamill, Peter Quinn) and scholars (Kerby Miller, Marion casey, Timothy J. Meagher, Thomas J. Shelley), as well as those who don’t quite fit either category (Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Mick Moloney, Calvin Trillin) but make fine contributions nonetheless.
The editors could not have been better chosen. JJ. Lee is Director of Glucksman Ireland House and Glucksman Professor of Irish Studies as well as a professor of history at New York University. He is also the author of Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society.
Marion casey is assistant professor, Glucksman Ireland House, New York University, and co-editor of The Irish Experience in New York City.
If there is a theme in this hefty tome, it is that the Irish did not dissolve into the melting pot. So much as they took possession of it.
“From Famine to White House was an even more exotic symbol of a country open to talent than was Lincoln’s rise from the log cabin,” Lee writes in the introduction, later adding, “But while genuinely inspiring, this story also has its darker, more somber shades. It is both more complex and more nuanced than the popular version allows.”
Indeed, there is no shortage of nuance in this book. If anything, it may seem a bit too academic for some readers. But the editors have carefully balanced material of academic and historic interest with top-notch journalism, from Hamill’s personal recollection of JFK and the atmosphere in Belfast at the time of his assassination (previously published in Irish America) to Calvin Trillin’s New Yorker profile of Judge James J. Comerford, the longtime boss of New York’s St. Patrick’s Day parade.
In between there are insightful articles on music, sports, relations between Catholic and Protestant Irish and ScotchIrish, and even a lengthy, insightful survey of modern Ireland itself.
While the majority of historical material explores the 19th century, Linda Dowling Almeida’s look at Irish America from 1940 to 2000 and Thomas J. Shelley’s exploration of “Twentieth Century American Catholicism and Irish Americans” are standouts on contemporary Irish America. Peter Quinn’s essay on the future of Irish America (previously published in Irish America) is also a perfect way to draw this volume to a close.
Co-published with the Glucksman Ireland House of New York University, Making the Irish American is a first rate compilation of new and classic writing on Irish America.
(NYU Press / $50 / 736 pages)
Karenna Gore Schiff (Al Gore’s daugher) has just written a book called Lighting the Way: Nine Women Who Changed Modern America. One of the women profiled is Irish immigrant labor advocate Mother Jones, who for decades fought for children, miners and others.
“At the turn of the last century, for both unionists and industrialists, coal mining was a central battleground,” writes Gore Schiff. “As the fuel that drove so many new industries, coal was an immensely profitable business. It was controlled by a small group of powerful men, none more powerful than John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard oil.” This, of course, made Rockefeller and his fellow titans of the Gilded Age, enemies in the eyes of Mother Jones.
In Lighting the Way, Gore Schiff does an admirable job of outlining Jones’ fierce personality, as well as her accomplishments on behalf of miners and child laborers, “Mother Jones’ march of the mill children put the issue of child labor on the public’s radar screen and forced consumers to confront the suffering of the children who produced the goods they bought,” Gore Schiff writes in her Introduction.
Indeed, Jones’ well-publicized 1903 march of underage mill workers from Philadelphia to New York certainly seemed to achieve her aim. “I am going to show Wall Street the flesh and blood from which it squeezes its wealth,” Jones said.
It was a series of personal tragedies that drew Jones into the labor battles of the 19th and 20th centuries, during which she often declared, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” Jones’ grandfather was hanged by the British as a traitor, and her father was forced to flee Ireland for defying British rule.
Later, after she became a Memphis schoolteacher, she lost her husband and four children to a yellow fever epidemic.
She also lost her Chicago dressmaking business in the great fire of 1871. after which she became enraged at the gap between rich and poor.
Jones died in 1930. but Gore Schiff does a fine of explaining why she remains relevant today.
($25.95 / 528 pages /Miramax Books)
The Civil War Draft Riots have gone from one of the most under-studied events to a potentially over-studied one.
A new book by Barnet Schecter. The Ciril War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America, doesn’t exactly shed new light on the riots, at least for those who know the key events already: In July of 1863. Irish and other laborers angry at the prospect of being drafted to fight in the U.S. Civil War took out their rage on New York’s African Americans as well as the city’s elite.
In recent years, Peter Quinn and Kevin Baker have written brilliant historical novels about the riots, while historians have pored over the events as well, culminating in the full-blown Hollvwood treatment Martin Scorsese gave the riots in Gangs of New York. Schecter. author of The Battle for New York: The City at the Heart of the American Revolution, is at his best when he uses the riots as a way to explore broader national events of the Civil War era.
Nick Laird makes up one halt of the hippest. best-looking literary duo on either side of the Atlantic. The Northern Ireland author is married to Zadie Smith, the twenty-something wunderkind whose smash debut White Teeth a few years back made her a star,
Now, Laird’s latest novel Utterly Monkey is available in the U.S. The book revolves around Danny Williams, a lawyer who is successful but also monumentally busy and ultimately unhappy. He left the various troubles of his native town in Northern Ireland for England, but these days only substance abuse in several forms seems to make him happy.
Then. Geordie – on the run from a Loyalist militia – arrives in Danny’s life, and for all the problems that ensue. Danny is at last forced to reconcile his past and his present.
Funnier than it should be. Utterly Monkey is occasionally annoying – really, why is Danny so unhappy, what with all his money and status? – but Laird writes with undeniable energy.
($13.95/344 pages / Harper Perennial)
Andrew Greeley – Catholic priest, sociologist. prodigious writer on many things Irish – is back with another Nuala Anne McGrail mystery, Irish Crystal.
This time around. Nuala’s husband Dermot has a dream of impending doom, and Greeley sets about throwing something into the mix for every reader. Homeland security agents may want to deport Nuala. There’s also a prosperous, yet perhaps devious clan of Irish-American aristocrats, car-bombings on the Chicago riverfront, and even a detour into Irish history and the era of Robert Emmet and the uprisings of the 179Os and 180Os.
Greeley is not exactly a subtle writer, but devoted fans will not be disappointed by Irish Crystal.
($24.95/ 301 pages / Forge)