In her analysis of the role of Ireland and Irishness in the construction of contemporary American identity, Diane Negra suggests that Irishness has become so loaded and so commodified a term as to have almost lost its ability to denote identity: “A large and growing body of work has come into existence analysing the rapid transnationalization of Irishness spurred by Celtic Tigerism. At one extreme in the spectrum of this scholarship we find the suggestion that Irishness is now essentially an impossible category” (354). Although focused on the multiple uses and representations of images of Irishness to market and express ethnic identity in an increasingly multicultural America, Negra’s comments suggest that defining Irishness is also an increasingly complex issue in contemporary Ireland, poised as it is between tradition and global modernity. Richard Kearney suggests that the central problem facing contemporary Irish culture is learning how to define itself as it struggles against both the repressive weight of history and the alienation of modernity. Given that modernity is often seen as synonymous with Americanization, it is not surprising that debates about contemporary Irish identity are often dominated by the suggestion that Irish society is becoming increasingly Americanized and that narratives of Irish identity and history are being rewritten to accommodate the growing voices of the Irish diaspora in America. This essay proposes to engage with debates about the interrelationship between Irish and American uses of the Irishness trope through an examination of the works of contemporary Irish writer Joseph O’Connor. Focusing on O’Connor’s mobilization of the narratives and values of popular American culture in his conception of Irish identity, the essay will touch on debates about the commodification of Irish culture, the accommodation of the diaspora within Irish historical narratives and the role of performance in contemporary identity formation.
In his “General Introduction” to The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Seamus Deane suggests that the disparate selection of texts included in that anthology are linked by their illustration of and engagement with dominant narratives of Irish history: “There is a story here, a meta-narrative, which is, we believe, hospitable to all the micro-narratives that, from time to time, have achieved prominence as the official version of the true history, political and literary, of the island’s past and present” (xiv). Deane thus posits the existence of a continuum of competing narratives of Irish history and identity within which he suggests all Irish literary texts and traditions can be comfortably accommodated. Irish literature, he continues, is conceived out of an ongoing “interchange” between the narratives of identity proposed by competing colonial and nationalist paradigms. This interchange and the tensions it engenders is most apparent in Irish autobiographical writing, which Deane describes in explicitly postcolonialist terms: “Autobiography is not just concerned with the self; it is also concerned with the “other”, the person or persons, events or places, that have helped to give the self definition” (380).
Deane’s insistence on the binary oppositions at the heart of Irish conceptions of history and identity, and his foregrounding of the experience of colonialism as the dominant, formative historical experience, have come under attack in recent years from critics anxious to herald the flexibility and hybridity of the contemporary postcolonial subject. Focusing on the diaspora as the contemporary embodiment of the postcolonial, such critics cite the ability to inhabit liminal spaces and enjoy multiple identities as evidence of the diasporic subject’s transcendence of traditional and limiting narratives of identity:
The ‘in-between’ position of the migrant, and his or her errant, impartial perceptions of the world, have been used as the starting point for creating new, dynamic ways of thinking about identity which go beyond older static models, such as national identity and the notion of ‘rootedness’ (McLeod 216).
Other critics argue that the saturation of the contemporary world by the signs and commodities of the media have rendered the concept of a coherent identity impossible and that identity today is fashioned from a range of texts and representations, drawn from both local and global culture:
As individuals in late modernity increasingly shape their own identities through reflexively appropriating images and objects from the cultural and media industries, the notion of culture as an homogenous entity….becomes harder to sustain. On the contrary, culture becomes a highly pluralistic and fragmented term embracing an increasingly differentiated range of identity projects (Bennett 3-4).
In its most extreme form, contemporary identity thus consists of a series of what Jean Baudrillard has called “free-floating signifiers”, a media-generated array of random and unstable representations from which individuals can choose and enjoy their multiple identities.  Rather than attempting to define oneself within the framework offered by a narrow set of prescribed and competing ideologies, as suggested by Deane, therefore, contemporary identity is selected, celebrated and essentially performed into being. Bell goes so far as to suggest that it is this performance that creates one’s identity: “[O]ne does not simply or ontologically ‘belong’ to the world or any group within it. Belonging is an achievement at several levels of abstraction…. Identity is the effect of performance, not vice versa” (3). However, if one interrogates the signifiers used to effect this performed identity, it becomes apparent that it is no less constrained by dominant narratives of power than the narrow, postcolonial metanarrative imposed on Irish literature by Deane. In fact, the postmodern celebration of performance is often what hides the extent to which the available signifiers of identity are constructed by the dominant ideology. In spite of the potential for the diaspora to use their marginalized position in the void between two cultures to “disrupt the binary of local and global and problematize national, racial and ethnic formulations of identity” (Ashcroft 218), therefore, the narratives of identity on offer to them in their new homeland are often as static and structured as those they left behind:
It is important to understand that this space is not some kind of postmodern playground of ‘anything goes’, where all kinds of identities are equally valuable and available as if in a ‘multicultural supermarket’. Discourses of power which seek to legitimate certain forms of identity and marginalize others by imposing a logic of binary oppositions remain operable and challenge new forms of identity from emerging (McLeod 225).
Contemporary critical approaches to the construction of identity are thus complex and often contradictory. A postmodern insistence on the rejection of metanarratives and the use of free-floating signifiers to construct and deconstruct a multiplicity of identities sits uneasily alongside the narrativizing impulse of historical formulations of identity. The situation is further complicated when the identity is that of a diasporic subject, torn between a loyalty to the mythical homeland and a desire to embrace the potential on offer in its adopted society. This essay proposes to interrogate further some of these complications and contradictions of narratives of identity as explored in the work of Joseph O’Connor. It will argue that although O’Connor ostensibly displays a postmodern sensibility, moving easily between narrative voices and genres, fact and fiction, past and present, and celebrating his experiences of living in Ireland, England and America, he exhibits nevertheless a fundamentally rigid sense of identity and a notable willingness to allow prevailing media texts and images to construct his own sense of self. I will argue that in his performance of identity through both his autobiographical and fictional texts, O’Connor embodies a rejection of the limiting terms of Irish identity on offer in both colonial and nationalist discourses, while simultaneously embracing and performing an identity constructed primarily from the neocolonial tropes and images of a pervasive American culture.
Joseph O’Connor was born in Dublin in 1963. After completing a BA degree in English and modern American literature in University College Dublin, he spent several years living in Britain, working initially as a journalist before becoming a full-time writer (Middleton). His literary output includes several novels and collections of short stories, plays, screenplays and a number of works of non-fiction. A number of themes recur throughout his books: a dissatisfaction with the depressed Ireland of the 1980s, an anger that emigration remains a central part of the Irish experience, a lingering postcolonial hostility towards the English, and a notable engagement with American culture.
Deane’s assessment of Irish autobiographical writing concludes that the experience of colonialism and subsequent internalisation of feelings of inferiority has made it difficult to define Irishness outside of the limiting framework of the colonial discourse: “Inevitably, in a colonial or neo-colonial country like Ireland, the forms of ‘otherness’ available are multiple and blatant, so much so that they rarely escape stereotyping” (Deane 380). The hero of O’Connor’s first novel, Cowboys and Indians, is Eddie Virago, who certainly displays the confusion noted by Deane as he oscillates between a rejection of the Irish identity offered to him as an Irishman living in England and a willing internalisation of the values and images of American popular culture. He leaves Ireland after his degree to pursue his ambition to be a rock musician in London, but finds himself unable to avoid self-consciously performing his Irishness according to the kinds of stereotypes noted by Deane. As he sails towards Britain, he tries hard to link himself into the national experience of emigration: “Eddie tried to feel the way an emigrant is supposed to feel. Sentimental songs and snatches of poetry drifted like remembered smells into his consciousness and then eluded him” (Cowboys and Indians 6). His choice of reading material for the journey – Lyons’ Ireland Since the Famine – comically underlines his determination to situate his own journey within this national metanarrative. As the novel progresses, however, Eddie becomes increasingly unwilling to subscribe to these well-established indicators of the Irish emigrant. On arrival in England, he quickly recognizes and rejects the constructed nature of the Irishness promoted by the diaspora, with its emphasis on the colonial experience and its sentimental support for “the cause” of Northern Ireland: “[T] he Pride [of Erin] felt more Irish than any pub he’d ever been to in Ireland. It was Irish in the same way that Disneyland is American. Something about it just bugged him” (87). When he returns to Dublin for Christmas, he foregoes sentimentality for anger at the extent to which the relentless stream of emigration is accepted and even celebrated in Ireland. He notes that even the GPO – the nationalist symbol of strength and resistance – appears complicit in this willingness to place emigration at the centre of the Irish experience: “The GPO shimmered with pale yellow light and the windows had all been decorated with green sashes that had ‘Welcome Home for Christmas’ stamped on in gold” (105).
Eddie’s anger with the Irish government for its inability to resolve the problem of emigration resonates throughout the novel as he attempts to build a life for himself in London. His anger also manifests itself in his rejection of Ireland’s literary tradition, which is criticized in the novel for perpetuating the stereotypical narrative of Ireland’s misery: “Oh yeah, the Great Irish Novel, Jesus man, a computer could write that. A bit of mother-love, a touch of suppressed lust, a soupcon of masochistic Catholic guilt, a bit of token Britbashing, whole shitloads of limpid eyes and flared nostrils and sweaty Celtic thighs, all wrapped up in a sauce of snotgreen Joycean wank” (137). However, what becomes very apparent is that Eddie does not have the resources to define himself on his own terms. Although he conceives of himself as a contemporary James Joyce, rejecting the limited identity on offer in the homeland for a more flexible, multinational narrative of self, Eddie can reject one kind of identity only by internalising another. In spite of Eddie’s insight into the clichés used to construct Irish identity both at home and among the diaspora in England, he himself draws widely and self-consciously on a range of American popular cultural signifiers of identity. In effect, his identity becomes a performance of his internalised neocolonial values to the extent that he can engage with the surrounding environment only through the discourse of American culture: “Eddie felt like a stranger in a Wild West town” (166); “The car park looked like a Chicago backstreet during the Depression” (183). The novel ends when Eddie finally tracks down and meets his estranged mother (an ironic nod to the characteristics of the “Great Irish Novel” defined above). The significance of this resolution is fundamentally undermined by Eddie’s inability to engage with her except through the internalised clichés of American culture: “When Eddie’s mother opened the door she didn’t look like his mother. She wore a pair of smart blue Levis and a thick white shirt with a black and white appliqué cowboy design….She looked like some Tennessee country and western singer, not like an assistant deputy bank manager’s wife from Dublin 6” (239). Both mother and son, in their retreat into the signifiers of American culture, thus demonstrate the truth of Deane’s assertion that the colonized subject often succeeds only in replacing one form of colonial identity for another (380).
The Secret World of the Irish Male (1994), a compilation of short autobiographical pieces, offers a helpful commentary on the confusion of themes and identities at the heart of Cowboys and Indians. Focusing primarily on O’Connor’s years in England, the book interrogates the experiences of the Irish diaspora and the racism they encounter on a daily basis. What is most fascinating about The Secret World of the Irish Male is that it demonstrates a contradiction in the attitude of the author to the two forms of colonialism to which Irish society has historically been subjected. O’Connor is uncompromising in his rejection of British racism and the ongoing tension in relations between the two countries. He is equally scathing of the attempts made by Irish society to position itself within modernity by rejecting the complexities of its history and literary traditions. However, he subscribes wholeheartedly to a simplistic and idealized narrative of American culture and the mythology of the American Dream.
The book begins with a tale from O’Connor’s student days, which summarizes the role of America in the imaginations of his generation. Staging a political protest in the office of a Dublin politician, O’Connor and his fellow students are forced by an astute Gárda sergeant to think about the consequences of their actions:
He pointed a finger. ‘If any of you are arrested today,’ he breathed, ‘you’ll get a criminal record.’ We greeted this threat with jeers and coarse whistles. ‘And if you get a criminal record,’ he continued, ‘you’ll never get into America.’ There followed a silence which can only be adequately described as stunned….Reader, no water cannon was ever so effective. There was a stampede out of the office (The Secret World of the Irish Male, 17).
This scene suggests both the inevitability of emigration for young Irish graduates in the 1980s and the extent to which America functions as an idealized space in O’Connor’s imagination. In many ways, The Secret World of the Irish Male marks a turning point in O’Connor’s work. Having grappled with the complexities of Irish identity and criticized the constructed nature of many of the accepted signifiers of Irishness in contemporary society, O’Connor’s later works exhibit a far less critical engagement with such issues, instead aligning themselves with the prevailing American idealization of Irish identity as a signifier of a simpler, more authentic society. Disappointingly, O’Connor undermines many of his earlier observations on the contradictions inherent in Irish historical and literary traditions through his recourse to an increasingly facile and formulaic engagement with issues of cultural hegemony.
In Sweet Liberty: Travels in Irish America (1996), O’Connor reminisces about his early engagement with American culture and the extent to which it shaped his identity. He introduces the text by detailing his first encounters with Americans, which took place when he holidayed as a child with his family in the West of Ireland. Initially, O’Connor is drawn to Americans because they are so different to the Irish: “They were exotic creatures, these Americans. We regarded them as the rarest of hothouse flowers” (Sweet Liberty 2-3). He also responds to their self-confidence and to the air of success that surrounds them: “I must confess that I loved the way the Americans went on. I loved their bravado, their shamelessness, the heady ease of their unthinking extremism” (4). His admiration remains even as he acknowledges that the simple, unquestioning celebration of all things Irish practised by Irish-American visitors is naïve and even a little dangerous in an Ireland struggling to contain the violent legacy of colonialism in Northern Ireland: “As the night wore on, the songs the Americans sang would become more pugnacious….The Americans would sing these songs in the bar of the Bridge House Hotel late at night, and quite often, as they did so, there would be tears in their eyes. Some of the Irish grown-ups present seemed to find all this faintly embarrassing….This was Ireland in the late sixties and early seventies, when once again there was bloodshed and slaughter on the streets of our cities, and it was becoming clear that the simple solutions which the old songs proposed were not viable any more” (4).
Before too long, O’Connor’s engagement with the America represented by the tourists begins to infiltrate and influence his own sense of identity. He begins to see his own heritage through the filter of Irish-American culture: “In some odd way, I think I was actually introduced to the magic of rural Ireland by these American tourists and their sentimental songs” (4), and starts engaging with the Irish landscape through American eyes, describing his family’s holiday cottage in the commodified terms of the tourist industry: “It was so pretty that it looked almost unreal; it looked like the kind of house you would see in a dream, or on a postcard, or in the John Ford film The Quiet Man” (5). Eventually, O’Connor’s perception of Ireland shifts to the extent that he can no longer conceive of it except as an American construct: “In those few moments, the balance of Ireland tilted in my mind. I stopped seeing Ireland as a place which revolved around Dublin, and I began to see it as a place which revolved around America” (9). Whether consciously or not, O’Connor has accepted the position of the othered colonized figure, ceding narratorial control to the logocentric authority of the colonizer. His acceptance of this subject position is further demonstrated by his performance of his new “American” persona: “In school, I affected American speech patterns when we played in the yard, or on the bus home. I was always the drawling cowboy, the wisecracking Chicago gumshoe, the all-conquering spaceman who had planted the stars and stripes on the moon. I must have driven the poor bus conductor crazy, blithely addressing him every morning as ‘pardner’, ‘Hoss’ or ‘Mac’ or ‘Mission Control’” (10). Although such behaviour could be dismissed as the posturing of a child, it is clear that for the young O’Connor, America and American culture represented something to which he aspired, something which epitomized the success, confidence and well-being not available to him in Irish narratives of self. McWilliams in his study of contemporary Irish society, makes a similar observation when he notes the prevalence of Americanized speech patterns among Irish teenagers. Although partly attributable to the widespread consumption of American television shows and movies and their attendant homogenisation of cultural differences, he emphasizes that one’s accent is a central element in one’s performance of self: “The Irish accent is changing rapidly and young Irish teenagers are now speaking a strangled mid-Atlantic dialect, conforming to the age-old rule that the way you speak says more about you than anything else….The blurring and the accent change are complementary developments and the accent change is as old as history itself. People change accents in the same way as animals change colours; it is social camouflage” (McWilliams 26-7). 
As well as adopting an American accent to signify his willingness to embrace American values, O’Connor begins to look for a way to write himself into the experience of the Irish-American emigrant. He notes that for many of the Irish-American visitors to Ireland, the mythical resonances of Irish placenames offer an emotional connection with the Irish past: “Dinnseanchas songs are songs about places; similar songs appear in the oral traditions of most displaced peoples. This profound yearning for a meaningful sense of place is so strong in the Irish psyche that it has survived centuries of exile; what I was hearing in the late 1960s in the bar of the Bridge House Hotel were Americanized versions of dinnseanchas songs brought the long way home” (Sweet Liberty 3). O’Connor’s journey through the United States adopts a similar approach when he decides to structure it around visiting as many of the American cities of “Dublin” as he can. O’Connor’s journey around the United States thus merges the desire of the tourist to visit new places with the underlying desire to interrogate and explore one’s conception of “home”.
O’Connor’s bid to insert his journey as a Dubliner into the metanarrative of emigration is expressed through the dedication of the book to his grandparents, who not only emigrated to America but crucially returned home to settle in Dublin: “In memory of Thomas O’Connor and Ellen O’Neill of Francis Street, Dublin, who made the hopeful journey from Ireland across the Atlantic in the 1930s, survived the years of the Great Depression and later returned to their home city, this allowing their grandson to be born, like each of them, a Dubliner” (Sweet Liberty, dedication). He reinforces this connection by prefacing each chapter of the book with excerpts from the letters and diaries of 19th century Irish emigrants to America. He has mixed success with this merger of past and present. He is disappointed at the extent to which American signifiers of Irishness are constructed and commodified. Irish-American names, for example, owe more to American than to Irish culture: “ ‘Mahoney’s the name.’ He pronounced it Ma-hoe-nee, the way nobody in Ireland has ever pronounced it” (31). Irish values and traditions live on primarily as consumer goods: “A large poster for an anti-perspirant product called ‘Irish Spring’….It seemed ironic, finding two hundred years of the Irish-American immigrant experience distilled into an anti-perspirant” (89). Finally, and to his disgust, Irish patriotism is expressed most commonly in a misguided devotion to the cause of Irish Republican terrorism: “He said he hoped and prayed that ‘the Irish people, like Christ, will rise up from their persecution, the persecution of British imperialism, and live again in glory’” (143). Strangely, O’Connor’s rejection of this attempt to reinscribe contemporary Ireland within the narrow terms of anti-colonial nationalism is undermined by his willingness to allow himself to be drawn into narratives of the emigrant experience. In spite of all his cynicism about the kind of Irish identity promoted in the songs of the diaspora, he finds himself unable – or perhaps merely unwilling – to reject their message: “I recognized the tune: ‘Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore’. This is the kind of tune at which many Irish people would cringe if they heard it in a pub in Dublin. I certainly would myself. But hearing the song in New York is different. Hearing it in New York, thousands of miles away from home, made it inestimably more poignant. The familiar words suddenly seemed so full of fear and loneliness” (119-20). His emotional response to the song seems somewhat exaggerated given that O’Connor’s trip to the United States is only a short one.
Given the extent to which Irish-American culture is demonstrably constructed through a range of commodities, texts and clichéd songs, it is perhaps unsurprising that O’Connor’s bid to find an authentic connection with the Irish emigrant experience through his visits to America’s Dublins is unsuccessful. He is disappointed to find that none of the visited Dublins bear any trace of his own hometown nor of the aspirations of the Irish emigrants who had named them. In fact, most of the American Dublins he visits are soulless and instantly forgettable. The only Dublin that lives up to his expectations is a reconstructed simulation he finds in the middle of Dublin, Ohio: “And there tucked into a few little side streets just down the road from the mall were the remnants of Old Dublin. It was like walking on to a film set….There was a Shamrock Barber Shop and a County Kerry Tea Rooms. Most of the other shops on the street displayed harps or round towers, Irish tricolours or posters of the Irish soccer team on their walls, laughing leprechauns or lamenting colleens in their windows” (249). When he suggests to a shopkeeper that the kitsch on display bears no resemblance to the “real Ireland”, the shopkeeper’s reply is that Irish tourist shops in Ireland sell exactly the same representation of Ireland to its tourists: “Outside on the street, the shamrock-painted police car swept past once again. ‘This is the real Ireland all right’, he grinned. ‘Maybe you just don’t like what you see’” (250).
O’Connor disappointingly fails to respond to or engage with the suggestion that all cultures are to some extent constructed and expressed through representations, preferring to return to his quest to impose a narrative structure on his meanderings around the United States. In fact, his determination to find some coherent link between his own home town and the disparate Dublins scattered across America, and by extension connect with the historical experience of emigration of his grandparents and the Irish diaspora at large, only highlights the ongoing difficulties O’Connor experiences as he tries to position himself between the competing narratives of history and modernity. In his exploration of tourism in the postmodern world, John Urry suggests that the society encountered by the tourist is always already written and constructed for them by the signs and signifiers of contemporary global culture. Moreover, the function of the tourist visit is never to experience the new, but rather to learn to see one’s own culture in a different way. In terms reminiscent of Deane, Urry argues that: “(T) he gaze in any historical period is constructed in relationship to its opposite, to non-tourist forms of social experience and consciousness” (Urry 2). The gaze, he continues, is “constructed through signs” (3), and places chosen as tourist destinations are pre-narrated for the visitor by the global media: “Places are chosen to be gazed upon because there is anticipation….Such anticipation is constructed and sustained through a variety of non-tourist practices, such as film, TV, literature, magazines, records and videos, which construct and reinforce the gaze” (3). Urry concludes that because all cultures “stage” or perform themselves into being, then all cultures are essentially inauthentic, with the result that: “(I) t is not clear why the apparently inauthentic staging for the tourist is so very different from what happens in all cultures anyway” (9) – a point made very succinctly by the shopkeeper encountered by O’Connor in Dublin, Ohio.
What O’Connor’s journey around America in Sweet Liberty demonstrates is the extent to which Irish identity has become commodified in contemporary global culture. Negra suggests that, in America, Irishness has become synonymous with a pre-modern purity, providing a link to simpler and more authentic values: “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” (3) – an ironic use of the tropes of Irish identity given that engagement with Irish culture is achieved primarily through the consumption of the kitsch commodities encountered by O’Connor in Sweet Liberty.
Negra notes that Irishness is also an important ethnic indicator in America, enabling Irish-Americans to celebrate a unity and purity of identity not often available in a society based on the values of multiculturalism (354). Bell explains that contemporary identity can be difficult to define because it is no longer limited by geography: “In the contemporary world, identity is lived and imagined in ways that break down its contiguousness with a geographically bounded locality” (41). Ethnic identity thus depends on the willingness of its constituents to perform it into being: “Performative belonging maintains religious affect and community” (3). The popularity of family-based historical narratives and the ongoing interest Irish-Americans display in tracing their Irish roots indicate the central role played by ethnic identity in the contemporary American conception of self. Kevin Whelan suggests that this focus on family-based historical narratives provides an opportunity both to personalize history and to challenge dominant meta-narratives which often exclude or at the very least marginalize individual experiences: “With its diverse micro-narratives, local history acted as a defence mechanism against both the ruthless totalising claims of historical meta-narratives and against the rootless blandness of mainstream Anglo-American consumer culture” (Whelan 242).
Given the complexities encountered by O’Connor in his explorations of his own identity as a contemporary Irishman, shaped both by his engagement with historical narratives and the contemporary experiences of emigration, tourism and consumerism, and the ongoing struggle over prevailing signifiers and performatives of Irishness demonstrated in the fictional clashes between Irish and American society in his novels, it is surprising – even hugely disappointing – that he chooses to return to a simplified, clichéd depiction of the Irish contribution to the development of American society in his latest set of novels Star of the Sea (2002) and Redemption Falls (2007). Embedded within the family-based tradition of history discussed above, these novels explore the legacy of the famine and the role played by Irish emigrants in the American Civil War. The novels are both written in the style of the 19th century melodrama, and are punctuated with excerpts from a range of letters and other contemporary accounts of both the famine and the subsequent mass emigration to America. The text of Star of the Sea is also interrupted by the observations of G. Grantley Dixon, a writer for The New York Times, who reflects upon the experience of the Irish emigrants and contextualizes it by commenting from his seemingly objective position on the causes of the Irish famine: “Most of the British establishment abjures responsibility, while millions of those they rule in Ireland are left to the cruellest destruction in a long, cruel history” (Star of the Sea 19). O’Connor’s fictional story of Irish emigration is thus securely linked into the ideological metanarrative of diaspora histories of the famine.
As well as repeatedly blaming the British for the famine (an accusation supported by the inclusion of the letters of Irish nationalists such as John Mitchell and James Connolly), O’Connor is generous in his praise of the opportunities afforded to those emigrants who made it to America: “I said America was a grand land, a country of the largest liberty, the only nation of equality and federative self-government on the face of the earth at present. Any young fellow who would be industrious and put away national peculiarities might find happiness there” (84). He also hails the songs of the diaspora as the repository of a national spirit and identity: “If you looked at them collectively they seemed a kind of scripture, a repository for buried truths: the sacred testament of Connemara. What after all was the Bible itself? A clutch of tattered allegories and half-remembered stories peopled by fisherfolk, farmers and taxmen” (94). In the Epilogue, O’Connor (writing in the persona of Dixon) ruminates on the function of history and criticizes its promotion of an authoritative narrative to the exclusion of the personal: “History happens in the first person but it is written in the third. This is what makes history a completely useless art” (386). He offers his telling of the story of Irish emigration after the famine as an example of one of these hidden first-person narratives: “Here was a story of three or four people. The reader will know that there were many other stories. An investigation commissioned by the city fathers calculates that between May and September of that horrifying year, 101,546 wretchedly poor immigrants entered the teeming port of New York” (386).
It is not difficult to see that O’Connor is structuring his story of Irish emigration to correspond with the needs of the contemporary diaspora and is exploiting the newfound popularity of micro-histories in order to do so. In this way, O’Connor mirrors the increasing tendency of Ireland’s diaspora to take ownership of narratives of Irish history and identity. Referring to this phenomenon as an “invented Irishness”, Negra comments that: “Some of the most well-recognized figures in the cultural Celtic Tiger (Jim Sheridan, Frank McCourt, Michael Flatley, Martin McDonough) have produced Irish-themed films, books, plays, and dance shows as expatriates. These developments occurred in tandem with what some critics term the “themeparking of Ireland”, as pressures intensified for the nation to remake itself for tourist consumption” (9). Although some critics have responded negatively to this perceived subsumation of Irish culture to the needs of the politically and economically powerful diaspora – criticism which reached its climax in Olivia O’Leary’s description of Ireland as the “51st state” (The Irish Times, 1999) – others suggest that the tendency should be viewed not as an indication of America’s neocolonial influence on Ireland but rather as the ongoing interrelationship between the two cultures. Instead of reading O’Connor’s accommodation of American stereotypes of Irish culture as indicative of what Deane has suggested is the “othering” of the self within a neocolonizing discourse, it is perhaps possible to conceive of Irish identity as something that is both created and sustained by an ongoing dialogue with the diaspora that is empowering rather than repressive. As O’Toole suggests: “America and Ireland represent not opposites, not a dialogue of modernity and tradition, but a continual intertwining in which far from Ireland being the past and America being the future, America can constitute Ireland’s past and Ireland can invent America’s future. When we deal with this relationship, we are dealing not with something final and closed, but with something obsessive, repetitive, continually unfinished, all the time renewing itself in old ways” (O’Toole 197).
It is possible that O’Toole is correct and that in negotiating with the narratives of the Irish diaspora, O’Connor is engaged in an act of empowerment that will enable him to transcend the narrow dialectic of Irish history proposed by postcolonial theorists like Seamus Deane. The only problem is that O’Connor is not himself a member of the Irish diaspora, but rather an Irishman with some personal experience of emigration (although to Britain rather than to America) and an astonishing willingness to cede his personal signifiers of identity to prevailing diasporic narrative patterns. In his survey of representations of Irish identity in American movies, McLoone suggests that such texts function to negotiate a hegemonic acceptance of the signifiers of identity that Irish culture is neither financially nor politically in a position to resist:
The influence of popular culture in Ireland over the years has been so profound that it has penetrated deep into the Irish consciousness. The Irish, perhaps more so than any other European people, have inhabited the imaginative spaces of the US for so long, and been involved so deeply in the myth of the promised land or the land of opportunity that the American dream is deeply embedded in Irish cultural identity (McLoone 33).
Joseph O’Connor provides a fascinating example of the extent to which American culture has influenced the Irish imagination. His ability to critique Irish culture for its dependence on its historical narratives and traditions, while simultaneously failing to transcend these limitations in his own negotiations with Irish history, offer an intriguing insight into the complexities of an Irish culture trying to achieve self-definition within a network of competing colonial, postcolonial and neocolonial discourses. When his attempt to engage with the complexities of the relationship between Irish and American cultures fails due to the uncontrolled proliferation of commodified signifiers and performatives of Irishness, he retreats to the well-trodden and formulaic story of the role of the Irish diaspora in the formation of the American nation. As Binkley notes, these formulaic narratives and the kitsch employed to construct them serve to flatten and simplify the complexities of contemporary life: “[K]itsch reduces all the complexity, desperation and paradox of human experience to simple sentiment, replacing the novelty of a revealed deeper meaning with a teary eye and a lump in the throat” (Binkley 42). O’Connor’s replacement of historical complexity with the banality of postmodern pastiche is perhaps inevitable in a contemporary Ireland in which identity has become a commodity to be marketed to its diaspora.
1.Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1981.
2.It is interesting to note that the accent of choice when O’Connor’s parents first moved from inner-city Dublin to the up-and-coming suburbs was what he describes as “pseudo-English” (The Secret World of the Irish Male, 153). Perhaps this generational change could be attributed to the replacement of England the traditional colonial enemy with the more benign, though no less invasive, neo-colonizing impact of American popular culture.
Ashcroft, Bill et al. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Postcolonial Literatures. London: Routledge, 2002.
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1981.
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