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I had a conversation last year in Finnegan’s of Dalkey–a phenomenal Dublin pub where novelist Maeve Binchy used to drink, and Bono now does drink–with an Irish attorney acquaintance. He had read my book of stories Little Bridget and The Flames of Hell, all of which deal in some way with the Irish in contemporary San Francisco, where I live.
San Francisco’s Irish community was, and still is, a major element in the culture of the city. As in so many other U.S. cities, the Irish came here in droves in the 19th century. But the diaspora has come upon us once again in the few years since the Celtic Tiger stumbled so badly. A victim of the same muscle-flexing hubris and financial thoughtlessness that almost brought the United States to its knees in 2008, Ireland is only just now beginning to recover. In the intervening seven years, there has been a noticeable increase of young Irish living and working in San Francisco, people in their early to mid-twenties.
My attorney friend enjoyed the stories I had written. He was surprised by the accuracy of my dialog when spoken by an Irish character, given that I had indeed never lived in Ireland. I explained that my knowledge of those conversational idiosyncrasies came from two sources: the kitchens of my mother and her mother (where I had spent so much time as a child listening to them talking and laughing, with their female relatives, at almost everything being said) and the University of California at Berkeley.
The women in those kitchens spoke in ways that seemed simply American to me, always with mid-west Chicago accents. I thought that the way my mother and grandmother told stories was how stories got told in every kitchen in the United States. What I did not realize was that, although their accents were in no way Irish, the idiomatic expressions those women often used were unique to the Irish. That revelation came to me when, as a student at Berkeley, I began reading Brendan Behan, Edna O’Brien, James Joyce, Frank O’Connor and all the others. Those writers worked in a kind of English dialect that I recognized from my mother. The turns of phrase, the wandering humor and laugh-inducing self-deprecation that had come into my own manner of speaking had originally come, I realized, from Dublin and its surround, from Cork City and Galway, where my great grandparents had lived.
But my attorney friend found fault with some of the stories I told in my book. “You’re writing about Irish sentiments from the 1950s or 60s, Terry. But not now.” He shook his head, his eyes softly observing the Finnegan’s pint before him. “No, not now, boy-o.”
Because of the duplicitous malfeasance of so many priests in Ireland–those most particularly who sexually attack children, and those who protect the attackers–the Catholic Church has lost its footing in that country. What was, until very recently, the single most repressed Catholic society in western Europe is now thoroughly revising its opinion of the Church. The most recent, and most stunning, example of that revisionism is the vote last month in the Republic of Ireland to legalize same-sex marriage. It is the first country whose entire populace has been asked to vote on the notion, and sixty-two percent of them said “yes”.
Ireland, of all places!
When I was writing my book ten years ago, I would no more have predicted such a vote than I would have claimed to be an English aristocrat. So my attorney acquaintance was right. Ireland is not the Ireland we once knew. But I was writing about a community of people who had arrived in San Francisco in the mid-twentieth century, and I now realize that that was an eon ago. The stories are terrific, believe me, but the Irish in Ireland have changed profoundly.
I am more or less devotedly heterosexual. But this same-sex marriage is a grand thing, and God save the Irish for having voted it in.
Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published on May 1.
On a recent St. Patrick’s Day, a Latino friend whose family has lived in Arizona and California since before 1848, asked me “What immigration problem?” He leaned far over the cappuccino on the café table between us, shook his head slowly and then looked up at me once more, a smile on his face. “Are they talking about all these gringos that have been showing up around here?”
He refers to California — where we both live — and the Southwest as “Occupied Northern Mexico.”
Recently the nation has been in the throes of a debate about immigration. The immigrants being identified by the right wing of the Republican Party as threatening to the American consciousness and economy are mostly Central Americans, more specifically Mexicans. They are uneducated, we hear. They take jobs that should be reserved for American citizens. They don’t speak English. They got here illegally, and are coming in droves.
In their Pulitzer Prize-winning book Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, Edwin G. Burroughs and Mike Wallace write about the 1842 founding of a new political party in New York — called the American Republican Party — the main platform of which was anti-immigration:
What tied these disparate groups [merchants, professionals, editors and shopkeepers] together was a shared Protestant culture, a nostalgic belief that New York City had been a far better place just after the Revolution, and the conviction that the evils now afflicting it — rising rates of crime, pauperism and immorality — were foreign imports. The party wanted to extend the naturalization period to twenty-one years.
The particular group that offended the party then was the Catholic Irish. In the previous four years, about 60,000 of them had immigrated to the United States — almost all of them to New York City — to escape the economic and religious policies of the Protestant British government toward the Irish in their own, now long-occupied, country. The problem was far worsened by the Irish Potato Famine of following years, during which one-fourth of the population of Ireland left that country, most of them coming to the United States.
By the 1980s, the Irish in the United States had for the most part transformed themselves. In The Columbia Guide to Irish American History, Timothy J. Meagher writes, “The achievements of Irish Catholics now did not merely surpass Irish Protestants but carried Irish Catholics finally into the highest reaches of the American economic hierarchy … They appeared to have made it everywhere.”
The Irish, of course, are no angels. One need only read about the Civil War draft riots in New York City in 1863, during which Irish gangs took the opportunity to lynch many black people whose release from slavery, they felt, was the cause of the draft that was forcing their boys into the war. Also, a look at the history of the desegregation of public schools requires the telling of how Boston Roxbury Irish attacked yellow school buses taking black kids to white schools in 1974. There are many such stories.
Nonetheless, things had changed, and as it was with the Irish, the current hate-ridden xenophobia about illegal immigration will prove to be ill-advised.
Central American immigrants do not particularly want to leave their homeland. But as with the Irish, local economic conditions, issues of personal safety, and an atmosphere, in their countries, of government indifference to their plight, make travel to the United States a necessity. Surprisingly, the values that the Republicans say they espouse — the importance of family, daily prayer, a belief in hard work, insistent religious comportment — are indeed espoused by a great many Central Americans entering the United States. One would think that these are the kinds of people that the Republicans want.
But the Republican right wing’s flailing for power seems more a clear effort to bring about radical social re-engineering (getting rid of Planned Parenthood, for example, dismantling women’s rights, re-demonizing gay people, destroying what is a balanced –and popular– national health plan and imposing Christian sentiments on what is basically a pluralistic, democratically-elected, secular government), and less an embracing of democracy and its ideals. It voices its pious nostrums in order to wrest that power to its party’s agenda, while the Central American immigrants are here simply to practice their version of the American dream, which has always been the democratic ideal in this country.
Because of that, I believe, these new immigrants will formulate much of the history of this country in the 21st century, as the Irish Americans did in the 20th.
The stories in Terence Clarke’s collection Little Bridget and The Flames of Hell tell of the Irish in contemporary San Francisco.