Over the years, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about what it means to be Irish. Occasionally, my public writings and ruminations on the subject have led to me being described (and dismissed) as a “professional Irishman.” If only it were true! Unfortunately, I’m still a semi-pro, forced to make a living at activities unrelated to my ethnic investigations.
A crucial revelation came during the time I spent at University College Galway, in the mid-1970s, when I discovered I wasn’t really Irish at all. Raised in the Bronx, I’d grown up presuming I was Irish. Everybody in that borough, at least everybody I knew, had an ethnic identity other than American. It was basic to the place, like asphalt and elevated trains. If you didn’t know what you were, somebody else did, and if you found yourself in a neighborhood where you were something everybody else wasn’t, you ran a good chance of getting your you-know-what kicked.
At UCG I was disabused of what I’d learned in the Bronx. Arriving there on my first prolonged stay in Ireland, I expected not so much a warm welcome as a joyous reunion with the long-lost relatives my family had been separated from a century before. I quickly discovered that the separation was permanent.
My fellow students saw me as indelibly American. Some were good-natured about it. Others were vehemently contemptuous of Americans in general and Irish Americans in particular. A literature teacher I had, who went out of his way to avoid Irish-American students, told me he was “embarrassed by the racism, jingoism, and intellectual poverty of Irish Americans.” It was my first face-to-face encounter with the negative stereotyping of Irish Americans. (Over the years I would encounter plenty more, in Ireland, America, and Great Britain.)
Intellectually, my experience at UCG was a turning point. Instead of focusing on the history and culture of Ireland, I began to look more intently at the Irish entry into America and the epic implications for the country they left and the one in which they arrived. I became absorbed in the story of the Famine Irish and their mass descent on New York, a saga of which my own family had been part. Out of this came my decision to write Banished Children of Eve.
Along with the professional desire to write about the Irish passage into America, I was increasingly drawn into a personal reconsideration of my relationship with the Catholic Church, an institution that had been central to the post-Famine experience of Irish America and to my own family’s sense of Irishness.
In 1967, during my junior year at Manhattan College, I happily left the church. I was far from alone. Most of my friends, veterans of parochial institutions, were doing the same. A decade later, as a graduate student at Fordham, I reached what I considered an objective grasp of the church’s role in Irish history that neither set it on a pedestal nor derided it as the bane of everything truly Irish.
Gradually, for reasons having little to do with history, I felt myself undergoing a rebirth of faith. I considered the possibility that what I was experiencing was driven more by false nostalgia than true belief. I waited for the whole episode to pass. But despite my best efforts to disbelieve and against the advice of apostate friends (all of whom have forgiven me my un-apostasy and remained my friends), I once more became a practicing Catholic.
Returned, I found myself on the side of the reformers and progressives. The desire to restore the rituals and trappings of the pre-Vatican II Church struck me as akin to the “Bundle Christians” who were discovered by 19th-century missionaries to Japan. Descended from converts made by Jesuit missionaries three centuries before, these Japanese Catholics had wrapped their sacred icons and statues and hidden them away during a period of persecution. Over time, they had forgotten what was inside and worshiped the bundling.
I also found little to lament in the rapidly attenuating link between Irishness and Catholicism. As well as idolatrous, the equation of religion and nationalism is, in the end, poisonous to both. But breaking the automatic association of religion with ethnic identity isn’t the same as saying that religious values are formed in a vacuum, divorced from history and devoid of cultural context. My faith is rooted in my Irish-Catholic heritage. That’s who I am.
For me, the significance of this background – and the core of what will always keep me Catholic – is contained in the example of a Maryknoll nun whom I met almost half a century ago. I was a small child vacationing with my parents on Shelter Island. The daughter of a wealthy, politically powerful Irish-Catholic family, she was preparing to leave for the missions in Central America.
Although I sometimes recalled the attention she focused on my brother and myself, I didn’t see her again until recently when, looking through a Maryknoll publication, I came upon an article in which she was featured. She has aged a good deal – as I have – yet though she had shed the traditional habit I remember her in, she is still doing the work she set out to do. Refusing to be silenced by threats from the military or the murder of other nuns, she is still working to achieve the gospel message of human equality and social justice.
To the loaded and sublimely subjective question of what it means to be Irish, I find the intimation of my answer in that nun, in the willingness not to wallow in a romanticized notion of a collective past but to be prodded to embrace those whose everyday struggle for dignity and survival is being waged this very moment. ♦