Saturday, March 17, 2012

Colleen and Frank: An Irish Identity Story

Colleen with her favorite ginger writer, Fannie Flagg.
Colleen Devine is one of our favorite people and we are really trying not to hate her for writing our best blog so far.  She has worked in the book biz for over a decade and is currently the Publicist at the University of Texas Press. Colleen's favorite beverage is anything with Bailey's in it (but in a pinch, she has been known to drink a Guinness or three).  

Here's Colleen's rumination on her favorite Irish author.  Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Colleen, Shawn, and
My father raised us to consider ourselves “Irish.” Not Irish-American, or any hyphenated bullshit like that, but that we were direct decedents of, and cousins to, people who lived on the isle of Erie. We believed him. He started a collection, encouraging us to donate any money we had, towards a trip to the homeland (he used that word a lot.). We saved for what seems like my entire childhood.

Then the day came: The Devine family went to Ireland for the first time in 1982, when I was 11 years old. Finally, a chance to be reunited for the first time with our extended family whom we had never met!

Back then, flying internationally was like traveling by wagon train. We had to drive from Baltimore to New Jersey and stay with my Aunt Laura (also the first time we visited New Jersey), spend the night at her house, and the next day my cousin Tony drove us to JFK airport in New York.  This was one of the three airports in the US at the time from which Aer Lingus, the Irish airline, went directly to Ireland. We then flew eight hours to Shannon airport on the West coast of Ireland.  From there, we rented an economy-sized car( for five people and luggage). After not dying but coming close many times as my dad tried to get the hang on driving a stick shift and on the other side of the road (this was so long ago that it wasn’t cliché to talk about how hard it is to drive on the left side, or to say you were going ‘across the pond’), we set out for our accommodations.  Eventually we made it to the hotel in Dublin, which is literally on the other side of the country from the airport. So, door to door, traveling from Baltimore, Maryland to Dublin, Ireland, in 1982 took nearly four days. Yes, we slept in the car one night.
Smile for the camera!  The Devines:
Ed, Shawn, Colleen, Brian, and Kitty Devine (real name!)

So, we figured out pretty quickly that we weren’t Irish, we were AMERICAN and everyone in Ireland knew it; they not only had seen our kind before, they had built an entire tourism industry on us.  All the Irish kids we met who were our age were better educated, better behaved, and even knew more about the U.S. than we did(oh, Ireland is smaller than the U.S.? A lot smaller?  Are you sure?). At one place we stayed, we had to milk a cow in order to have any milk, and then skim the cream off the top for our tea.  It took maybe half a day for my brothers and me to become totally enthralled with the place, the entire country, every person we met.  Thank God they weren’t like us! Thank God they were so damned Irish! (On the God thing, we went to church many times on that trip, and it was nothing like church at home; it was more like going to a play. Thank God again!)

Castle Matrix (possibly made
up name) in Limerick,
This is a lot of background to introduce my favorite Irish writer.  I just want you to understand where I’m coming from when I say that I’m excited to have the chance to talk about Frank McCourt. Yes, a writer born in New York City, who lived the majority of his life there, is one of my favorite Irish writers. Write your own article if you want something on Joyce or Synge (and guess what, it’s already been said).

Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes was published in 1996. It was the tale of a wrenchingly poor Irish family who had traveled to New York to find the American dream, but when the father drinks the dream away they return to Ireland in 1934.  Their lives were many years of hunger, exposure, grief, and abuse, that somehow endured and created a close and loving family in the end (there’s much more, like kids dying and priests behaving badly, read it if you aren’t familiar). Maybe you remember 1996 – if so, you might also remember that Angela’s Ashes took the U.S. by storm.  It was as if every person who identified as themselves as Irish-American took McCourt’s story as their own history: it became the collective memory of 40 million(or more? Or less?  It’s too late for me to look up the real number) people in a very short time.   Angela became Irish-America’s mother, and we all wanted to give her something savory to eat and some peat for the fire.  Frank became a member of all of our families.  Then we found out that his brother Malachy was a soap actor and been in many of our living rooms for years, but we still liked Frank better.
The next year Angela’s Ashes went on the win the Pulitzer Prize, was a bestseller(in hardcover! Never going to happen again unless James Patterson ‘writes’ Alex Cross’s memoir) for another two years, and was also made into a film, which was possibly more depressing and horrific than the book.  Movie theaters were packed for weeks. It was our time; we had a national identity and it was hungry and in need of a bath. There was the small issue of both Angela and Malachy publicly disagreeing with Frank’s version of this classic Irish tale of woe and bare feet in winter, but we politely ignored the controversy for the sake of the family. My own family embraced the McCourts fervently, and came to love Frank more than some of our actual relatives (still accurate to this day).
Frank McCourt

I believe that Frank McCourt, who was truly a lovely man and lived a life that I find to be both admirable and inspiring (not enough room to go into his own struggles to become educated, his 30+ years of teaching kids to write, etc., just trust me, he was very cool) actually wrote the catharsis of the Irish-American story. We no longer needed to band together for an identity; most of us were not all that Irish anyway, maybe a great-great grandparent on one of our parents’ side, but no one we ever knew. And we realized what they had left long ago, and what they hoped to find in America.  Guess what?  Many of us found it; and not only did we have the American dream, but we had inherited the dream from the previous generations in our families. Frank McCourt would remind us that we have done it, left poverty and unimaginable hardships behind, but that these oppressive conditions still exist for others who may identify themselves as Americans, people who live in Detroit, or Memphis, or New York City, not in Ireland.  He might say we’re all Irish when it comes to hardships.  I don’t really know, he’s the guy with the Pulitzer. 

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