Stephanie Rains, The Irish-American in Popular Culture, 1945-2000
(Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2007)
ISBN 9780716528302. £50. 252 pp
Aoileann Ní Éigeartaigh (Dundalk Institute of Technology)
The focus of this book is on the ways in which the Irish-American diaspora uses Ireland and Irish culture to help form its own cultural identity. It is a well-researched and lively engagement with a wide number of diasporic cultural texts and practices, ranging from film and television, to genealogy research, to cultural tourism and material culture, to political and charitable movements. The author suggests that although the most common approach is to see Irish-American identity as a function of a wider (“hyphenated”) American identity, there is much to be gained from an examination of the ways in which this identity is structured by ongoing Irish-American encounters with Ireland itself. These encounters most frequently lead to a tension about questions of the “ownership” of Irishness and the “authenticity” of one’s Irishness. The author argues that a full examination of Irish-American identity within the United States needs to take into account the ways in which it is structured by ongoing Irish-American encounters with Ireland itself.
The author notes that a new kind of Irish-American emerged in the aftermath of World War II. What makes this generation of Irish-Americans different from the earlier diaspora is that they were by and large born in the United States. Their relationship with the “homeland” is thus mediated through a variety of cultural texts and practices, demanding of the diaspora a willingness to “perform” their Irishness into being. The figure of the Irish-American returning to the ethnic homeland to embrace his roots, which is a common trope in post-World War II Irish-American cultural texts, thus relies on a range of cultural texts and practices to prepare him for and guide him through the encounter with Ireland. The author makes an interesting distinction between these texts that engage directly with Ireland and other Irish-American texts which have developed in the United States with no relation to Ireland (she differentiates, for example, between Irish-American pubs, owned and for the large part frequented by Irish-Americans but otherwise fundamentally American in their design and atmosphere, and Irish-themed pubs, which rely on a variety of material objects and artefacts to present a simulation of an Irish pub and allow their customers to imagine that they are indeed in Ireland).
The first chapter examines the political economy of Irish America’s relationship to Ireland, focusing on the financial and political links between the two countries from the end of World War II, through the period of the Troubles, up to the Peace Process of the 1990s. The author notes that Irish-American support for the Irish nation became very complicated in the latter half of the twentieth-century due to the exceptionally complex nature of global politics during that period. In particular the close political relationship forged between the United States and Britain, and the sense that support for the Irish cause was often in contradiction to American foreign policy, meant that the Irish diaspora in the United States were often apathetic in their support for the Irish cause (this is in contrast to the vocal and highly influential Jewish diaspora).
The second chapter examines the ways in which Irish-Americans set out to search for their Irish roots in order to construct their diasporic memory and identity. This interest in origins and ancestry is shaped by a number of contemporary changes in the concepts of history and memory, which can be attributed to the relative distance (both geographically and temporally) between the diaspora and the identity they are trying to construct. The lack of first-person contact with or memory of the homeland has led to the establishment of a “genealogy industry” designed to facilitate the (re)connection with the ethnic homeland through the circulation of a range of narrativized images of the homeland. The image of the Irish-American “returning” to Ireland is a recurring and central feature of both popular films and tourist texts of the 1950s and 1960s. Many of these borrow heavily from Hollywood in their employment of clichéd settings, stereotypical characters, and their subsumation of an individual quest to discover one’s identity into a family-based narrative.
Chapter three focuses on Irish-American cultural consumption, with an emphasis on material culture, and discusses the ways in which these cultural objects transmit and influence concepts of diasporic identity. The author notes that post-World War II movies increasingly function as a source of identification for new generations of Irish-Americans with the “home” they have never known but, crucially, are increasingly likely to visit as tourists. This is an interesting chapter in which the author notes Ireland’s complicity in the image of Irishness being offered to Irish-Americans through the images and representations of Ireland being packaged and offered to them in promotional tourist texts. This focus on fulfilling the expectations of the Irish-American tourist market has a number of interesting consequences for the packaging of the “Ireland experience”. Because the heritage of Ireland promoted in these tourist films is predominantly Gaelic and Catholic, the representation of Dublin and other legacies of colonialism are problematic and often omitted. As well as the experience of visiting the heritage sites, another crucial element in the tourist experience is the purchasing of souvenirs and other Irish goods. This has led to the increasing consumption and commodification of the Irish experience through a range of fetishized objects (such as Connemara marble crosses), but also through a range of iconic food and drink products (Irish smoked salmon, Guinness) and luxury, high status goods (Irish linen, Waterford crystal). The ownership and display of such objects enables the Irish-American to signify or “perform” their ethnic identity on their return to the United States. This branding and marketing of Irishness as performance reaches its apotheosis with the globalization of Irish culture through the media of spectaculars such as Riverdance and the spread of Irish-themed pubs.
Chapter four examines the ways in which popular representations of the relationship between Irish-America and Ireland have often taken the form of gendered texts. The author examines the centrality of gendering to the construction of national and ethnic identity, and discusses a number of specific representations of gender circulated within diasporic popular cultural texts. A common theme in movies of the returning Irish-American involves him falling in love with and marrying an Irish girl he meets during his travels to the homeland, an act that facilitates his reclamation of his Irish roots and immersion into Irish culture. The author also interrogates the role played by the Rose of Tralee festival in both foregrounding an idealized version of Irish femininity and in validating the links between the daughters of the Irish diaspora and the values of the homeland. Interestingly, the author notes that Irish masculinity tends to be depicted in Irish-American popular texts in much less idealized terms than Irish femininity, often acting as a foil to Irish-American masculinity. A recurring theme in Troubles-era Irish-American films, for example, is that of the cosy, domestic world of the Irish-American family disrupted by the raw, violence of the Irish male. The author suggests that such texts illustrate the degree to which Irish-Americans have assimilated into American culture and are anxious to erase any links to the stereotype of the “fighting Irish” that may have lingered in American society. This is an interesting observation, although it serves perhaps to undermine slightly the author’s contention that Irish-American identity looks towards Ireland rather than towards America for its signifiers.
Chapter five contextualizes the formation and experiences of the Irish diaspora in America within the framework of diaspora studies and concludes that there are significant advantages to examining Irish-America through the critical lens of diaspora theory. The author notes the increasing tendency among a number of Irish critics to employ a “postmodern turn” in Irish studies by situating Irish culture and history within a comparative framework offered by other ethnic and national groups who also experienced colonialism. This not only offers new insights into Irish culture and history, but also enables a new and valuable approach to Ireland’s experience of globalization. The author concludes with a brief reflection on Irish Studies at the start of the twenty-first century, suggesting that the structure and nature of the Irish studies academy are at least partly responsible for many of the tensions that continue to simmer between Irish and Irish-American cultural identities. She suggests that more attention should be paid to non-canonical representations of Irish-American culture in a bid to deconstruct this binary and allow more interdisciplinarity to permeate the field.
Overall, this book is an interesting and well-researched engagement with Irish-American popular cultural texts and practices, and offers a comprehensive introduction to the main themes and anxieties embodied in such texts. The author argues successfully that the Irish-American community which emerges in the aftermath of World War II uses its encounters with Ireland, both as visitors and through the mediated encounters offered by cultural texts and practices, to structure its own identity. What is less convincing is the author’s contention that Irish identity and culture within Ireland “cannot be fully understood” without reference to Irish-American identity and culture.
Review: Stephanie Rains, The Irish-American in Popular Culture