In its early iterations, Irish American Studies focused almost exclusively on Irish American writing, on literature produced by Americans of Irish descent (for example, James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy of the 1930s) and on the history and experience of the Irish in the US and the Americas (for instance, Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White ). Irish American literature and history are established subsets of both American and of Irish Studies. However, since the late 1990s, following the transnational turn taken by American Studies, Irish American Studies has undergone a sea change, with scholars mapping more complex transatlantic circuits than the one-way traffic or passage of Irish people and Irish culture to the New World.
In the context of Irish and African American/Caribbean connections, that paradigm shift has been effected by contributions including Nini Rodgers’ Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery, 1612-1865 (2007); Fionnghuala Sweeney’s Frederick Douglass and the Atlantic World (2007); David Lloyd and Peter D. O’Neill’s The Black and Green Atlantic: Cross-Currents of the African and Irish Diasporas (2009); Michael Malouf’s Transatlantic Solidarities: Irish Nationalism and Caribbean Poetics (2009); Alison Donnell, Maria McGarrity, and Evelyn O’Callaghan’s Caribbean Irish Connections: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (2015), which is complemented by a double special issue of Caribbean Quarterly, Irish Caribbean Connections (2019), edited by Melanie Otto and Lee M. Jenkins; Peter D. O’Neill’s Famine Irish and the American Racial State (2017); and Fionnghuala Sweeney, Fionnuala Dillane, and Maria Stuart’s collection, Ireland, Slavery, Anti-Slavery and Empire (2019).
In the field of literary criticism and cultural theory, examples of what might be deemed the ‘new’ Irish American Studies include George Bornstein’s The Colors of Zion: Blacks, Jews, and Irish from 1845 to 1945; Tara Stubbs’ American Literature and Irish Culture, 1910-55: The Politics of Enchantment (2013); Eve Cobain and Philip Coleman’s collection, Robert Lowell and Irish Poetry (2020); and Dan O’Brien’s Fine Meshwork: Philip Roth, Edna O’Brien and Jewish-Irish Literature (2020). Forthcoming studies by Eve Patten, and by Luke Gibbons, building on his earlier interventions in transatlantic cultural studies, promise to extend and expand Stubbs’ exploration of the cultural politics and poetics of transatlantic, Irish American, modernisms. My own work on American poet Wallace Stevens and Irish poet Thomas MacGreevy will be updated later this year in a special issue of The Wallace Stevens Journal, in which I revisit the “Irish Connection” between Stevens and MacGreevy through the creative channelling of both poets in the contemporary Irish-American poet Susan Howe’s collection of essays, The Quarry (2015) (see Brazeau).
American Studies, as it is practiced in Ireland, is by definition a species of “Irish American” Studies. Whether or not Americanists here work in a comparative, Irish American, context, what Paul Jay would call our own “politics of location” or positionality inflects and informs our scholarship. Many of the scholars referenced above have studied or work in Irish universities, and/or have presented at Irish Association for American Studies conferences and symposiums. This is significant, insofar as American Studies, despite its expansion beyond national borders, retains its domestic critical and theoretical hegemony. American Americanists may have extended their remit to literature produced outside national borders or in border zones, but literary criticism has proved a different matter: too often, American Americanists name check one another, with Paul Gilroy and Paul Giles among the non-American exceptions that prove the critical rule, and with Jahan Ramazani as one notable American exception to that rule (see Fishkin, Ramazani).
In equal measure, Irish Studies needs to do more to pluralise the national mononarrative, while avoiding specious comparisons and competition between historical grievances. On his 1845 visit to Ireland, Frederick Douglass made common cause with the Irish, and Daniel O’Connell made common cause with the American slave in hailing Douglass, in Dublin, as the Black O’Connell of the United States. But Douglass also pushed back against attempts to equate and conflate the oppression of the colonised and transported Irish with that endured by the American or West Indian slave—an equation that has recently been reiterated by Sean O’Callaghan in his contested account in To Hell or Barbados (2000) of the Irish transported to Barbados by Cromwell.
If Douglass was dubbed a Black O’Connell, Jamaican-born Harlem Renaissance poet and novelist Claude McKay was greeted as “Black Murphy” when he attended a Sinn Féin rally in London’s Trafalgar Square in 1920 in support of the hunger-striking Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney (McKay 57). McKay was working that year as a staff reporter for the Workers’ Dreadnought, a radical newspaper edited by Sylvia Pankhurst, who was, of course, a veteran of the suffragist movement, tactics of which, such as the refusal of food, would be adopted by Irish nationalist prisoners from MacSwiney to the H-Block hunger strikers of the early 1980s. McKay describes the occasion:
I was there [in Trafalgar Square] selling the Workers’ Dreadnought, Sylvia Pankhurst’s pamphlet Rebel Ireland, and Herman Gorter’s Ireland: The Achilles Heel of England. I sold out completely. All […] were wearing the shamrock or some green symbol. I also wore a green necktie and was greeted from different quarters as “Black Murphy” or “Black Irish.” (57)
“For that day at least,” McKay adds, “I was filled with the spirit of Irish nationalism—although I am black!” In fact, McKay’s identification with the Irish cause was more profound than his sometime wearing of the green. The demonstration on behalf of MacSwiney prompted him to write an article titled “How Black Sees Green and Red,” published in 1921 in Max Eastman’s leftist New York journal, The Liberator.
In this, the centenary year of MacSwiney’s death, it is appropriate to conclude these comments by revisiting the tribute paid to MacSwiney by another writer associated with the Harlem Renaissance, Anne Spencer. She sent her (untitled) elegy for MacSwiney, who had died in Brixton prison on 25 October 1920, after 74 days on hunger strike, to the Guardian newspaper (then the Manchester Guardian), which rejected it. Her poem, which would remain unpublished in Spencer’s lifetime, is included in Maureen Honey’s important anthology of 1989, Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance.
The Harlem Renaissance, the Manhattan-based black cultural movement of the 1920s, looked to the Irish Literary Revival as a model. For example, in his manifesto-essay for the New Negro, the landmark anthology of Harlem writing which appeared in 1925, Alain Locke argues that “Harlem has the same role to play for the New Negro as Dublin had for the New Ireland” (7). A similar point is made by the poet and anthologist James Weldon Johnson, who takes the example of Synge to suggest the Irish Revival as a blueprint for black writing (xi). Both the Harlem and the Irish Renaissances were the expressions of a subaltern cultural nationalism that was forged in urban centres—Dublin, New York—but which drew much of its inspiration from the folkways of the rural hinterland.
As Honey says in the introduction to her anthology of Harlem women’s verse, Anne Spencer’s poem for MacSwiney is about “the awakening of a rebel whose childhood was spent in carefree ignorance of the system that oppressed him” and who subsequently “dedicates his [adult] life”—and his death—“to overturning the state” (26). Spencer asserts in her poem that “Terence MacSwiney” was “a name to live by” when he was “an Irish lad”—when he ran beside the “glittering shore” and was “Warmed by peat.” By the end of her poem, which is of course her epitaph to him, MacSwiney’s has become “a name to die by” (55).
Spencer, who was the daughter of former slaves and a political activist in her own right, clearly feels an affinity with MacSwiney. Like her, he was a writer, and one who wrote at a provincial, “Southern” tangent to the metropolitan centre—Spencer lived in the mining country of West Virginia. Like her, too, he resisted overtly modernist modes of writing: MacSwiney was ambivalent, at best, about the experimental quality of “the art of our time,” and he was downright hostile to literature written “to shock the bourgeois”—he cited Synge’s Playboy of the Western World as an example (MacSwiney, Principles n.p.).
Anne Spencer’s poem for MacSwiney is a striking example of what Jahan Ramazani terms “elegiac Transnationalism.” Ramazani uses the example of Yeats’s elegies—like his “Easter 1916”—to argue that elegy and the “poetry of mourning can be made to serve both nation-specific and cosmopolitan ends” (72). Neither MacSwiney’s poems to the dead at Eastertide, collected in his volume Battle-Cries (165), nor Spencer’s elegy for him is comparable in aesthetic terms to Yeats’s “Easter 1916”—Spencer’s invocation of “Terence, Terence, in glory forever” (55) is hardly as resonant as Yeats’s tribute to “MacDonagh and MacBride / And Connolly and Pearse,” who
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born. (392)
Nonetheless, I suggest that Spencer’s poem is significant. In an Irish context, it torques the national—and the nationalist—narrative by showing the transnational reach of Irish nationalism and anti-imperialism. In an American context, and even more so in that of the American South, Spencer’s poem is a remarkable expression of transatlantic and translocal solidarity between African Americans and the Irish. A national and nationalist as well as a local hero, MacSwiney was, also, an international icon of anti-colonial resistance from Catalonia to Calcutta whose literary legacy was shaped, at least in part, by the creative, Irish and American and African American, cross-currents of what David Lloyd and Peter O’Neill have termed the Black and Green Atlantic.
Brazeau, Peter. “The Irish Connection: Wallace Stevens and Thomas McGreevy.” The Southern Review, vol. 17, 1981, pp. 533-41.
Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. “Crossroads of Cultures: The Transnational Turn in American Studies.” American Quarterly, vol. 57, no. 1, 2005, pp. 17-57.
Honey, Maureen, editor. Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. Rutgers UP, 1989.
Johnson, James Weldon, editor. The Book of American Negro Poetry. Harcourt, 1922.
Jay, Paul. “The Myth of ‘America’ and the Politics of Location: Modernity, Border Studies, and the Literature of the Americas.” Arizona Quarterly, vol. 54, no. 2, 1998, pp. 165-92.
Locke, Alain, editor. The New Negro. 1925. Touchstone, 1997.
MacSwiney, Terence. Battle-Cries. No publisher indicated, 1920.
—. Principles of Freedom. 1921. Brian Higgins, 1936.
McKay, Claude. The Passion of Claude McKay. Edited by Wayne F. Cooper, Shocken, 1970.
Ramazani, Jahan. A Transnational Poetics. U of Chicago P, 2009.
Spencer, Anne. Untitled Poem on Terence MacSwiney. Honey, p. 55.
Yeats, W.B. “Easter 1916.” The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W.B. Yeats, edited by Peter Alt and Russell K. Alspach, Macmillan, 1977, pp. 391-92.