Cover image for Irish America : coming into clover : the evolution of a people and a culture
Irish America : coming into clover : the evolution of a people and a culture
Dezell, Maureen.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Doubleday, 2001.
Physical Description:
xii, 259 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Format :


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E184.I6 D49 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
E184.I6 D49 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
E184.I6 D49 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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A dazzling and bracingly honest look at a great people in a great land. For many people in this country, Irish American culture conjures up thoughts of raucous pubs, St. Patrick's Day parades, memoirs peopled with an array of saints and sinners, and such quasi-Celtic extravaganzas as Riverdance. But there is much more to this rich and influential culture, as Maureen Dezell proves in this insightful, unsentimental reexamination of Irish American identity. Skillfully weaving history and reporting, observation and opinion, Dezell traces the changing makeup of the Irish population in this country, from the early immigrants to today's affluent, educated Irish Americans. With sensitivity and humor, she pinpoints what unites them: the traditions (if not the practices) of the Catholic Church; a sense of social duty; humor, often self-directed; and the deep-seated, apparently unshakable belief that any achievement is accidental and could easily be taken away tomorrow. From her exploration of the Church in Irish American life to her rediscovery of strong, culture-building women, to her historical and sociological look at the role alcohol plays in the Irish identity (here and abroad), to her discussion on the "New Irish," Dezell does not shy away from the central, uniting myths and methods of this proud heritage. Irish America is more than an enlightening look at a group of Americans masked by their own stereotypes. It is a long-overdue tribute to one of the building blocks of America itself.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Boston Globe reporter Dezell packs a wealth of information about and analysis of the Catholic Irish in America into a relatively short book. Comparing America's Irish and the homegrown variety, Dezell tackles eight broad topics: the Irish American image, the Irish diaspora during the great mid-nineteenth-century famine, the jestingly named CWASP (Catholic or Celtic White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), Irish matriarchy and feminism, the Irish and alcohol, the Irish disposition to public service, Irish Catholicism, and the "New Irish" birthed by economic and pop-cultural globalism. Revelations abound, such as the fact that Irish Americans suffer from alcoholism far more than the Irish of Eire; that there are nearly as many former as active nuns in the U.S. today; and that Jack Kennedy, that exemplary Irish public servant, once said that politics beat the hell out of chasing a dollar like his old man did. Other topics, such as Irish sentimentality and the shame-filled anger it disguises, recur throughout the book. A superb example of popular ethnic studies. --Ray Olson

Publisher's Weekly Review

Those who harbor the desire to burn their auntie's lace curtains, secretly loathe Riverdance or relish the newfound clout of all things Irish will appreciate this unflinching look at the 20 million or so Irish Catholics in the U.S. Beginning with the potato famine of the 1840s and exploring the repercussions of the Irish Catholic diaspora in America, Boston Globe staff writer Dezell concludes that Irish Americans flourish on contradictions. She first examines the phenomenon of "Eiresatz: a sentimental slur of imagined memories, fine feeling, and faux Irish talismans and traditions" that includes everything from the stock Irishman of the stage ("Sambo with a shillelagh") and the beer companies' preoccupation with drunken Irishmen to the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an all-male society that bans gays and lesbians from the St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York City. Dezell voices contempt for the Father O'Malleys and Flanagans of Hollywood, admiringly recounts the adventures of the San PatriciosÄthe Irish battalion that deserted the American army during the Mexican War to fight on the side of Mexican CatholicsÄand examines what she casts as the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church. She observes the evolution of the American Irish into "CWASPs"Ä"CatholicÄor CelticÄWhite Anglo-Saxon Protestants"Äand traces Irish feminism from the IRA's women's auxiliary, Cumann na mBam, to Mother Jones, Margaret Sanger and Dorothy Day. Dezell also investigates the prevalence of alcoholism among the Irish, and their often combative relationship with African-Americans. Astutely deconstructing images and experiences of the Irish in this country, Dezell will have readers shaking their heads in dismay one moment and laughing uncontrollably the next. Agent, John Taylor Williams. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

While a sharper title for her book might have been "Catholicism in Irish Americans," Dezell (Boston Globe) has interviewed a variety of Irish Americans to document cultural changes. She is reporting, and since Irish American behavior varies, the report wanders. Dezell notes that adherence to Catholicism is waning, but its virtues, notably charity, remain. Irish Americans seek upward mobility while struggling with a streak of modesty that the author sees as uniquely Irish. Finally, those generations most removed from Ireland are now seeking out faux Irish culture, "multiculti fuzziness" like Riverdance and the music of Enya. Thus, behavior is perpetuated even if its origin is forgotten. Reading like a collection of columns, Dezell's narrative employs hooks and melodrama that entertain the reader but undermine her authority. Ultimately, though, the book is entertaining and at times insightful, making it a viable choice for public libraries in Irish American enclaves. Robert Moore, Southboro, MA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Dezell, a journalist of Irish descent, presents portraits of Irish Americans and their culture. Based on interviews with a cross-section of Irish Americans concerning Irish self-identity, community, and worldview, the book provides an historical account of the traits and traditions associated with Irish American character, the process of assimilation, stereotypes, the textures of Irish communities in Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, and the making and remaking of the American Catholic WASP. Readers are told that Irish Americans are the best-educated and wealthiest people, with good humor, charm, hospitality, gregariousness, loyalty to family and community, trust and humility. These friendly, witty people with a fondness of drink have also been successful in business and politics. The study sheds light on the status of women in Irish culture, their emphasis on education for both sons and daughters, Irish Catholicism, and philanthropy, and depicts the nature of religious order in the areas of sexual morality, gender, and authority and the changing Catholic Church. Dezell describes sea changes in recent years in both Ireland and Irish America. Despite assimilation, Irish Americans exist as a viable ethnic group. This book is a welcome addition to the growing literature on ethnic studies. General and undergraduate collections. D. A. Chekki emeritus, University of Winnipeg



Selling the Songs in Their Hearts The Irish American Image in Popular Culture Each year in early March, the mud thaws, the days lengthen, and advertisers roll out images of shamrocks, party-hearty leprechauns, and freckle-faced inebriates. St. Patrick's Day is fast approaching, and competition is keen to sell beer and spirits by suggesting an Irish brand endorsement--a seal of approval of sorts from the ethnic group "known" to overimbibe. St. Patrick's Day advertising is sui generis in the realm of niche marketing, and a slogan the Leo Burnett Company came up with to sell beer one year--" Irish I had a Schlitz "--explains why. The logo was the exception that proves the rule that unflattering ethnic images are far too offensive to use in the serious American business of selling. No sane advertiser would create a commercial for Florida condominiums suggesting: " Jewish it cost less ?" None would put together a promotion for a white-shoe financial services house urging: " Take the sting out of investing. Have WASPs watch your money ." Obnoxious caricatures of the "clever Jew," "penny-pinching Protestant," or "inscrutable Asian" have mercifully disappeared from the American mainstream. The Irish boozer still bobs about in media flotsam, not because some pernicious prejudice keeps the cliche afloat, but because Irish Americans endorse it. Drinking to wretched excess is a time-honored tradition on St. Patrick's Day in the United States, an annual occasion in which a splendid heritage is reduced to Eiresatz: a sentimental slur of imagined memories, fine feeling, and faux Irish talismans and traditions. On the American day when everyone is Irish, lovely lasses and pugilistic Paddies parade on urban avenues carrying lucky clovers and silent harps; leering leprechauns serve as symbols of Irish wit and cunning; mawkish music and fight songs pay "tribute" to the Irish spirit; public drunkenness passes for Irish pride. "No other ethnic group demeans itself this way," the Irish-born Los Angeles psychiatrist Garrett O'Connor has noted. "The Irish character becomes caricature" around St. Patrick's Day, "when being drunk is supposed to be the same thing as being Irish." The New York St. Patrick's Day parade, which has long made a concerted effort to counter cultural clowning, is a caricature in its own right. A solemn, quasimilitaristic display of staunch Roman Catholicism, self-righteousness, and Irish republicanism, the event is recognized around the world as a symbol of Irish culture, when, in fact, it is not. The pageant reflects nothing so much as the membership and mind-set of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the all-male fraternal society who organize the parade, and who once led an unsuccessful campaign to keep America safe from the Abbey Theatre. Today, they bar the equally insidious and threatening Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization from the line of march. The essence and ethos of the New York parade were vividly expressed on a gusty, sun-warmed March 17 morning of 1999, when the late John Cardinal O'Connor greeted Irish screen actress Maureen O'Hara, grand marshal of the parade, on the steps of St. Patrick's Cathedral: conservative Catholicism meets The Quiet Man . As the country's oldest, largest ethnic group, the Irish have been secure enough for long enough to shrug off anachronisms and hackneyed stereotypes that might raise hackles among others. Reasonable people of Celtic heritage figure that St. Patrick's Day displays are silly; life is too short to get exercised over a parade or a fifteen-second TV spot of a winking leprechaun swilling a Budweiser. Why get upset? Why indeed. Self-lampooning, a St. Patrick's Day staple, dates at least to vaudeville days, when struggling immigrants and their children realized that their comic sense and the songs in their hearts would sell. The stage Irishman's blarney-imbued "Don't mind me, I'm just a funny Irish guy" renditions of shuffle-alongs and happy drunks were officially hooted out of music halls and theaters in the 1900s--in a campaign led by the Ancient Order of Hibernians. But American popular culture by that time had embraced the idea that the Irish were a genial, down-to-earth, self-effacing people with a romantic past and a weakness for drink. For better and for worse, so had the Irish--which is why those notions define Irish America's image and self-image to this day. A stage Irish story Descendants of dreamers and tale-tellers in the land of money, myth, and Disney, the American Irish early on developed a capacity for romanticizing their heritage and sentimentalizing themselves. The throngs who fled Ireland's Great Hunger and their children had little choice but to reinvent who they were. Famine immigrants spilled out of coffin ships into American cities "dressed in rags, weak with hunger, and numb with the fresh memory of corpse-filled workhouses, skeletal children, and tales of cannibalism," in Dennis Clark's words. They were premodern peasants, "homeless, nationless, and all but hopeless after a grim sea passage to an unwelcoming land." Like immigrants who would later take their place on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder, they represented much of what upstanding American society abhorred. The Irish were Celts, not Anglo-Saxons; Papists, not Protestants; rebels fighting to expel America's Motherland from their homeland. They were communal in a land of vaunted individualist achievers; drinkers at the dawn of the American temperance movement; a gregarious and boisterous people who showed little interest in serious American enterprise but loved politics. Newspaper and magazine illustrators who provided visual definition for the pre-tabloid, pre-television age borrowed from British newspaper pages and vaudeville stages to reflect prevailing opinion with drawings of apelike Irish, drunken Paddys, menacing Micks, and surly Biddies. The influential cartoonist Thomas Nast "regarded the politicized Irish Celt as a menace to a good society," L. Perry Curtis Jr. writes in Apes and Angels: The Irishman in Victorian Caricature. Anytime he "drew an Irish-American, he invariably produced a . . . cross between a professional boxer and an orangutan" (see illustration, page 142). The Irishman onstage was Sambo with a shillelagh. Actor, producer, and writer Tyrone Power (forebear of a theatrical family that would include his namesake, the movie actor, and the director Tyrone Guthrie) made himself a star in the role of "Paddy Power," a re-creation of a blabbing, blundering Irish peasant who was such a hit in London. The Paddy stage schtick called for Irish props--pigs in the parlor, whiskey--and almost always featured a fight that turned into a melee. Brawls were a trademark of Irish immigrants, who gave name to the police vehicle, the paddy wagon. Excerpted from Irish America: Coming into Clover; the Evolution of a People and a Culture by Maureen Dezell All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.