IN 1880, MY GREAT-GRANDMOTHER Mary was born in County Cork, Ireland. Or perhaps it was Cook County, Illinois. Though her parents’ birthplace was indeed Ireland, she offered conflicting accounts about her own, and it’s more than possible she never really knew for sure. Over the years, however, at least within her own mind, a definitive answer was forged. On her 1910 census paperwork, she marked “Chicago” as her place of birth, but by early 1920 — at the height of the Irish War of Independence, before the British burned Cork — she made a grand gesture for the census taker, writing instead two defiant words: “Irish Republic.”
At that time, she had lost a four-year-old daughter, a husband, and two brothers to, respectively, sudden illness, alcoholism, and workplace accidents. Her Irish-American identity was a kind of portal between past and present, shrouded in tragedy, marked by resilience, and carried by her voice — by all living accounts, the gregarious voice of a natural storyteller.
And what is the Irish-American voice? Is it sickness and famine, alcoholism and addiction, Catholic guilt and shotgun weddings, war and poverty and displacement, dangerous factories and soul-crushing jobs? Is it pure, condensed anguish (or worse), like Frank McCourt’s iconically “miserable Irish Catholic childhood”? Perhaps it is fatalism mixed with a wicked sense of humor, like the work of Maeve Brennan, a brilliant literary light extinguished by circumstance and fated to wander New York City like a heartbroken ghost. Perhaps it is the dark symmetry in the life and death of Eugene O’Neill, who, in his own last words, was “[b]orn in a hotel room — and God damn it — died in a hotel room.” Or perhaps it is what these storytellers were able to show us about ourselves in the well-worn years spent “between hotel rooms,” so to speak.
The Writing Irish of New York, a new collection of 23 essays edited by Colin Broderick, is a great repository of truths — harsh, ecstatic, and otherwise — about the Irish-American experience, from the Great Famine to the present day. It is part history and part memoir, part craft essay, part confessional, and part dispatch from skid row. It’s a patchwork quilt of the Irish voice in the United States, a voice developed in exile, in a purgatorial space between two continents, and, as Broderick notes in his introduction, stitched together with a “fine green thread.” Bursting with life, it’s an earnest, wide-ranging, and unsparing tribute to artistic struggle, whether it begins behind a typewriter in a crumbling tenement house or in the scribblings of a ratty notebook held against a barstool at CBGB. The endeavor feels fittingly similar to John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy (1930–1936): it is history by mosaic, occasionally stylized by a stream-of-consciousness lyricism, and woven with Broderick’s astute biographical interludes on relevant figures (the aforementioned Brennan and O’Neill, J. P. Donleavy, Jimmy Breslin, Brendan Behan, and John F. Kennedy Jr., to name a few).
The essayists run the gamut of artistic practice, from novelists to journalists, songwriters, poets, musicians, dancers, actors, playwrights, and screenwriters. Most shifted focus and artistic discipline at least once or twice during their lifetimes. Each has reckoned with Ireland and each has reckoned with New York City — and, in their journeys, each has found something worth passing along.
From the pressurized chambers beneath the nascent Brooklyn Bridge (built, in large part, by early Irish immigrants) to the trash-can fires of 1970s Alphabet City, New York is the crucible in which the Irish-American writer has been forged — where, as Broderick writes, Irish literature “comes to get its passport stamped.” Some find alienation in the city, and others find comfort. Some fail before they succeed, while others succeed before they fail. But first they must plunge to the bottom of themselves, to the deepest pit of the soul. Sometimes there is self-destruction there, stirred by an indifferent metropolis. Elsewhere, there is awakening, the storyteller’s voice straining to be heard — and to make itself known, first of all, to its bearer.
There is no such thing as a road map to becoming a writer, and The Writing Irish of New York presents ample evidence of this fact. Some of the contributors found their storytelling voices at a young age, such as Daniel James McCabe, who daydreamed in the back of his fourth-grade classroom while writing an Arthurian adventure novel. Kevin Holohan’s mature prose was made possible only by working the kinks out via his juvenilia — namely, garage-band lyrics and adolescent poetry. Charles R. Hale looked even further back, to his ancestors, seeking to give voice to the “unknown and unrecorded,” to chronicle an untold past.
Others found the spark much later in life, like Maura Mulligan, a dancer and late-blooming former nun whose creativity, in her 50s, spilled out of the convent and into a literary life. Mary Pat Kelly, also a former nun, forged her path through 1960s activism and an unlikely friendship with an Italian-American named Martin Scorsese. Malachy McCourt, Frank’s charmingly crusty brother — who by his own admission is “swinging in on my brother’s coattails” — was previously a longshoreman, a bar owner, and a film actor. Brian O’Sullivan wrote his first novel in his 40s, after spending “the guts of the twelve previous months in various other madhouses throughout the city, on account of constantly taking suicidal amounts of pills and drinking copious amounts of rubbing alcohol.”
Finally, some learned, quite brutally, that a voice, once unearthed, can still be stamped out — Oscar Wilde’s well-ornamented spirit was crushed by his British jailers, and Brendan Behan’s bold voice collapsed under the weight of self-fulfilling prophecy and alcoholic spectacle.
Reality checks are in abundance here: along with the epiphanous, soaring freedom to express oneself, there is still the physical labor required to earn one’s keep. Consequently, The Writing Irish could easily be retitled The Working Irish; there are no private incomes or trust funds here. Though every contributor is a writer, they have also been — in their past (and sometimes present) lives — plasterers and bank tellers, receptionists and buskers, doormen and nuns, ESL teachers and camp counselors for juvenile delinquents.
Kathleen Donohoe’s “Brooklyn, Writer” vividly describes the uphill battle of writing and selling a book while working full-time at a staffing firm. When her co-workers send her a card on Administrative Professionals Day, she takes it home and sets fire to it. “Writer, I thought as I watched the card burn in the kitchen sink. I’m a writer. Somebody give me that card.” John Kearns, in “Bronx Thunder to Riverside Angels,” presents a guerrilla writer’s notes from the underground, exploring the feeling of living “like an artist under cover, working through the day as a responsible employee while keeping my true identity a secret.” In “Standing in Doorways,” Kevin Holohan depicts the slippery slope between being “an office drone who scribbled with a drawerful of unpublishable half novels” and “an office drone […] letting go of the whole writer thing altogether.” As the author wrestles with himself, he turns an apt phrase: “It can get drafty standing in the in-betweens.”
And the in-betweens could reasonably apply to every tightrope walker (“So where in Ireland were you born? Avenue J, I’d answer,” writes Donohoe) and instance of fractured identity (J. P. Donleavy attended Dublin’s Trinity College on the GI bill, for instance) presented in this volume. The Irish-American writer’s life is portrayed as a series of balancing acts, of synchronicity and opposition. Irish or American? Sated or hungry? Success or failure? Artist or doldrum jobber? Writer of the sacred or of the profane? In his haunting essay “The New York Book of the Dead,” Colum McCann settles on, “I am a New Yorker and an Irishman and I see absolutely no contradiction in this.”
Perhaps the most evocative illustration of living “without and within” can be found in Christopher John Campion’s “Watch the Gap.” At a moment when Campion and his wife are weighed down (physically and mentally), carrying reams of food-stamp paperwork through city streets, they encounter a Barnes & Noble storefront displaying, “in a fateful act of karmic mockery,” Campion’s book Escape from Bellevue: A Memoir of Rock ’n’ Roll, Recovery, and Redemption (2009), which was published a year prior. Meanwhile, he’s been selling his personal library (cookbooks fetch the best prices) to the Strand Book Store in order to afford groceries. Success is never truly the journey’s end, whether you’re Frank McCourt or Oscar Wilde.
Since we are known globally for our gift of storytelling, it stands to reason that every Irish person should have published at least one novel in his or her lifetime. […] If you’re Irish and you’ve ever published a book, you have only done so by letting go of what it means to be Irish.
So writes Mike Farragher in “The Collared One,” one of the volume’s strongest essays. Farragher wrote Collared (2004), a suspense novel about a Catholic sexual-abuse scandal, based in part on his own traumatic experiences as a youth. In his essay, he lucidly depicts the process of unveiling the novel to his devout parents (his mother is deeply concerned that it will speak ill of the Church) and, later, actually discussing the book with his old abuser — an act that is not without consequence. It’s a riveting essay about the way fiction can morph into therapy and weave its way back into the real world, with serious repercussions.
A final contradiction: Writing is a choice, and writing is not a choice. As The Writing Irish of New York attests, it is not a vocation bereft of pain, nor is it a sensible means to prosperity and comfort. It is capable, however, of unlocking the shackles of resentment and regret, of breeding empathy, of allowing us to find meaning in lives lived and lives lost.
In the late 1970s, when my great-grandmother Mary was nearly 100, my father gifted her with a copy of James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914). If there is a story collection more concerned with the identity of everyday Irish people, I have yet to read it. Though Mary was never much of a reader, she devoured the book, tearing through the stories with lightning speed. After she finished, her manner was contemplative, almost shaken. She said, “That’s the truest book I ever read. I knew every single person in it.”
Her comment is a testament to the power of words — and to the value of the most Irish-American advice I can imagine, offered by Frank McCourt to his writing students: to explore the significance of your own insignificant life.