Appalled that the Irish-American image has been reduced to the crudest stereotypes, which if visited upon other cultures would be met with cries of insult, Boston Globe journalist Dezell seeks a more meaningful and historically informed understanding of the Irish identity in the US today.
The author suspects that there is more to the Irish-American culture than the booze and song claptrap that runs rife through the popular imagery. “The Irish may have assimilated less than some other American ethnics, because it was easier for them to blend in,” thus preserving their distinct identity. But what she finds is no particular, defining cultural characteristic; rather, she finds humans, with all their complexities and contradictions. It’s no great shakes for Dezell (or anyone for that matter) to debunk the classic stereotypes, those unflattering ethnic images that have been draped across the shoulders of Irish-Americans as weepy sentimentalists and reel-and-roar drunks (“the Wild Irishman, the apelike Irishman, and the stage Irishman are among the colonial legacies the British bestowed upon the world”). From Boston to San Francisco, by way of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Minnesota, and Montana, she finds Irish-Americans to be devout and irreverent, street-smart and mawkish, people of bonhomie and affability and irony. Some characteristics feel apt (humility and self-deprecation to a fault, for example, as well as a streak of fatalism), while others that Dezell suggests (a strain of anti-intellectualism that places more importance on respectability than creativity) seem wide of the mark. What about all those poets, musicians, and performers? Two solid contributions are her chapters on the importance of women in the Irish immigration, and those self-limiting peculiarities, typified by the “green ceiling” that frowns upon rising above one’s situation.
While Dezell’s conclusion that Irish-Americans are a “study in contradictions” is hardly momentous, this survey of their cultural expressions is a welcome relief from the green beer and kiss-me-I’m-Irish inanity.