The best and the bright­est in Ir­ish and Ir­ish-Amer­i­can life

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS REVIEWS - CHRISTO­PHER CUSACK


Cul­tural iden­tity has al­ways been as a ma­jor po­lit­i­cal ral­ly­ing point. In re­cent years iden­tity, gen­er­ally cast in na­tion­al­ist terms, has again be­come the lo­cus of ac­ri­mo­nious so­cial ten­sions.

Last Oc­to­ber, the case of a Bray school­boy, who had been born and had spent his en­tire life in Ire­land but was due to be de­ported, fu­elled a deeply di­vi­sive de­bate about what it means to be Ir­ish, both cul­tur­ally and le­gally. That same month, US pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump mooted an ex­ec­u­tive or­der to abol­ish birthright cit­i­zen­ship, in di­rect con­tra­ven­tion of the US con­sti­tu­tion. Po­lit­i­cal es­sen­tial­ism not­with­stand­ing, though, cul­tural iden­tity is never a sim­ple, in­con­testable given.

Be­ing New York, Be­ing Ir­ish, edited by Terry Golway, is a cel­e­bra­tion of the highly influential Glucks­man Ire­land House, the Ir­ish Stud­ies cen­tre at New York Univer­sity es­tab­lished 25 years ago. The ta­ble of con­tents is a roll call of some of the best and bright­est in Ir­ish and Ir­ish-Amer­i­can pub­lic life, in­clud­ing aca­demics, writ­ers, po­ets and po­lit­i­cal fig­ures, who all re­flect on var­i­ous as­pects of Ir­ish and Ir­ish di­as­poric iden­tity.

In ad­di­tion to two chap­ters by the ed­i­tor which nar­rate the history of Glucks­man House, the book fea­tures con­tri­bu­tions – some new, some writ­ten for ear­lier oc­ca­sions – by Pres­i­dent Michael D Hig­gins, nov­el­ists Alice McDer­mott and Colm Tóibín, po­ets Paul Mul­doon and Sea­mus Heaney, and aca­demics Ha­sia R Diner and Mau­reen Mur­phy, as well as sundry oth­ers.

While some of the pieces are more sub­stan­tial than oth­ers, as is to be ex­pected, the book clearly demon­strates the high es­teem in which Glucks­man House and its founders, Lew Glucks­man and Loretta Bren­nan Glucks­man, are held. Given the in­sti­tute’s in­stru­men­tal role in show­cas­ing Ir­ish cul­ture and pop­u­lar­is­ing Ir­ish Stud­ies as an aca­demic dis­ci­pline in the US, as well as pro­mot­ing the study of Ir­ish-Amer­i­can history, this homage is ab­so­lutely de­served.

How­ever, on a deeper level it is in­struc­tive to con­sider the book as a thought-pro­vok­ing med­i­ta­tion on the na­ture of Ir­ish­ness and the con­struc­tion of iden­tity. Lew Glucks­man was him­self a good demon­stra­tion of the mu­ta­bil­ity of iden­tity. He was a Jewish-Amer­i­can with Hun­gar­ian roots, and as such had no hered­i­tary claim to Ir­ish­ness. Hav­ing fallen in love with the coun­try in his teens, he later ex­pressed his af­fec­tion through or­gan­is­ing and fund­ing, to­gether with his Ir­ish-Amer­i­can wife Loretta, a wide range of projects, in­clud­ing the Glucks­man Ire­land House. And in­deed, as for­mer Glucks­man di­rec­tor JJ Lee states in an en­comium, Glucks­man even­tu­ally be­came “an hon­orary Cork­man”.

Alice McDer­mott’s de­light­ful con­tri­bu­tion about her son’s dis­cov­ery of Ir­ish trad, is an­other good case in point. It uses his de­vel­op­ment as a flutist and em­brace of “a mu­si­cal tra­di­tion that had hardly seemed our own” to ex­plore the ques­tion of what it means to be eth­ni­cally Ir­ish. While the es­say is not en­tirely devoid of some cod-Celtic mys­ti­cism, in all of her work McDer­mott has been uniquely at­tuned to the va­garies of Ir­ish-Amer­i­can iden­tity, and this piece too care­fully ex­am­ines some of the ways Ir­ish­ness evolves in di­as­pora.

There’s an al­most off-hand re­mark in em­i­nent migration scholar Ha­sia Diner’s re­flec­tion on Ir­ish-Amer­i­can history that high­lights why it is so im­por­tant to think crit­i­cally about iden­tity. Diner sug­gests that the “legacy” of 19th-cen­tury Ir­ish im­mi­grants “should be seen as a bul­wark against Is­lam­o­pho­bia”. Given the fierce racism that of­ten char­ac­terised Ir­ish ef­forts to gain a foothold in US so­ci­ety, Diner’s dis­cus­sion of the Ir­ish-Amer­i­can im­pact on Amer­i­can so­ci­ety here is some­what rose-tinted. All the same, Diner’s call to use her­itage to pro­mote open­ness rather than trib­al­ism is highly timely.

In a re­cent col­umn, Fin­tan O’Toole showed how in the age of Trump many high-pro­file Ir­ish Amer­i­cans use their eth­nic history to le­git­imise a “re­ac­tionary mind­set” that re­duces cul­tural iden­tity to an ex­clu­sion­ary po­lit­i­cal and so­cial mech­a­nism. Their va­ri­ety of what Liam Kennedy once called the Ir­ish MOPE syn­drome – Most Op­pressed Peo­ple Ever – in­forms many of the more bil­ious poli­cies pro­moted by Trump’s gov­ern­ment. It’s def­i­nitely true that Ir­ish im­mi­grants had to over­come decades of na­tivism to flour­ish as Amer­i­can cit­i­zens. Yet rather than us­ing this past as an ar­gu­ment for a pol­icy of in­clu­sive­ness, many pow­er­ful right-wing Ir­ish-Amer­i­cans have co-opted the na­tivist rhetoric that once marginalised their an­ces­tors.

Be­ing New York, Be­ing Ir­ish shows that it is much more fer­tile and in­deed hu­mane to re­sist eth­nic es­sen­tial­ism and in­stead cel­e­brate the dy­namism of iden­tity. Its re­port on the many ad­mirable ini­tia­tives at Glucks­man Ire­land House un­der­scores that even if history isn’t al­ways pretty, cul­tural iden­tity doesn’t have to be rooted in an­tag­o­nism, but con­tains the po­ten­tial to be in­clu­sive and af­fir­ma­tive.

Christo­pher Cusack holds a PhD in Ir­ish stud­ies. Heis­re­search­ingIr­ish-Amer­i­canandGer­manAmer­i­can iden­ti­ties dur­ing the first World War

Bono, Liam Nee­son, Loretta Bren­nan Glucks­man, Spirit of Ire­land Award and Gabriel Byrne at New York Ath­letic Club in New York City.

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