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Not Easy Being Green

A powerful mini-series on PBS follows Ireland's refugees from the Great Famine to America, from labor camps to the rarefied seats of power.

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Wheels of fortune: New Irish immigrants on parade, in The Irish in America: Long Journey Home.  

Perhaps you’ve forgotten what the Great Famine was all about, besides a fungus that came by cargo hold to England from America, and by breeze from England across the Irish Sea to County Mayo, where in 1845 it blackened potato crops. The Irish in America: Long Journey Home (Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, January 26, 27, and 28; 9 p.m. to various times; Channel 13) will remind you that it was about white people, the Irish, being treated by other white people, the English, as if they were black people in some African, Indian, or Caribbean outback of Empire -- that is, sermonized unto starvation. Let them eat peat! A million died. Another million and a half emigrated, just in time to bleed on both sides of the American Civil War; to fill up the hospitals, foundling homes, and jails of Boston; to perish of yellow fever in New Orleans; to build by brute labor the Erie Canal, the railroads, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Butte, Montana; to upwardly mobilize themselves in prizefighting and vaudeville, trade unions and the Democratic Party, ward politics and saloon culture, organized religion and organized crime. My own father sang tenor, drank rye, and died young. I used to sing “Danny Boy” for free drinks in Third Avenue bars on St. Patrick’s Day, back when I was young and thick.

The Peabody, Writers’ Guild, DuPont-Columbia, and Emmy-award-winning Thomas Lennon (The Battle Over Citizen Kane) produced these remarkable six hours, narrated by Michael Murphy. It is also available on home video from Disney, with a companion volume, from Hyperion, of photographs and essays by Terry Golway, Maeve Binchy, Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill, and Frank and Malachy McCourt, and a CD soundtrack including mostly lugubrious music by Elvis Costello, Sinead O’Connor, Van Morrison, and the Chieftains. For Monday night’s famine segment alone, the mini-series would be worth it -- for the “potato people” and their pigs, cattle, and kids all in the same stone shambles, bear-baiting and raucous wakes, the boats not big enough to fish rough seas, the evictions, the workhouses, and the “disappeared,” whose unmarked graves still litter a keening countryside. The segment on Butte, with its Anaconda mine, would be worth it, too -- what Salt Lake City would have looked like if the Irish instead of the Mormons had built it. And the mini-history of the self-emancipating Irish servant girl and her sisters in nursing and teaching. Nor are race relations neglected. The Irish had to climb over somebody’s back to get to the head of the line at the trough.

But The Irish in America is supposed to be a triumphant tale, to take us from steerage to suburbia, from tenements, stables, slaughterhouses, coal pits, and factory fires up through Tammany Hall to Al Smith; from bare-knuckled John L. Sullivan to Eugene O’Neill and a Nobel Prize; from James Curley in prison to John Kennedy in the Oval Office (“a Protestant from Harvard!” says Peggy Noonan with a mordant grin). Why, then, does it still sound like a long day’s journey into night? Because the story of the Irish diaspora is the story of lost community, of nostalgia rather than redemption. Much will be made along the way of Know-Nothings vs. Molly Maguires, of Andrew Jackson and Father Coughlin, the “grog house” and a “ferocious communal will,” Murphy tells us. But memories of the Old Sod are “so distant, they were no longer about a place but about a longing.”

Much, necessarily, will also be omitted: Guns and money for the I.R.A. Jackie Gleason, Grace Kelly, and Bishop Sheen. The McCarthys (Mary and Joe), Dorothy Day and Dennis Day. William Kennedy, the Faulkner of Albany, and John Gregory Dunne, the bicoastal laureate of class animus and bloody grudge, both show up as talking heads, albeit briefly, while Mary Gordon and Maureen Howard don’t, and the Danny O’Neill and Studs Lonigan novels of James T. Farrell, the Chicago Trot, aren’t even referenced.

This is not mere nitpicking. I grew up wanting to read Yeats at the University of Chicago just like Danny O’Neill. Maureen Howard has done for the Irish of Bridgeport, Connecticut, what Joyce did for the Irish of Dublin, and in Natural History upped the ante by adding P. T. Barnum, Walt Kelly, Remington rifles, and Sikorsky aircraft plus the usual convent schools, a Catholic left, and Walter Benjamin’s arcades. Nobody has ever written more knowingly about the American Irish than Mary Gordon, who suggested in The Other Side that unhappiness is somehow bred into our bones, a kind of sickle-cell anemia; that we like the idea of something better than the thing itself; that we prefer standing for something to being someone; that we’re a culture of “flops.”

And if you are going to sit John Gregory Dunne down in front of a camera to talk about the servant class in the big houses of the absentee landlords on the great estates of nineteenth-century Ireland, couldn’t you at least ask him about Harp, his own scary memoir of growing up diasporic in Hartford and trying to even the score at Princeton; about his animus for Wasps and his contempt for his own posturing in that resentment; of the passage from immigrant to outcast to assimilated to deracinated; of the Dunne disdain for an Irish comedy of the small mind, the mean spirit, the secret vice, and the exposed vanity -- shamrock Schadenfreude?

And if you’re going to talk to William Kennedy about Eugene O’Neill, why not also ask him about the Erie Canal -- especially since you will be devoting so much time to the building of it and Kennedy wrote a novel on the subject, more or less? In the underrated Quinn’s Book (1988), he imagines a young Irish-American newspaper reporter come back from a Civil War to a class war, to labor riots and the forced relocation of lullaby-singing poor white Irish from Dutch-Nativist Albany in boxcars, like Indians or Jews; to the lynching of a conductor on the Underground Railroad over the tomb of a half-breed outcast; to a rich man murdered by an owl and fire and flood and demented pigs; to a dream of a revolutionary alliance of the have-not Irish and have-not blacks, an army of “paddyniggers”; and to a treasure buried in the bottom of a birdcage -- an ancient magical Celtic disk, a divine riddle, a bloody coin. The journalist will become a warrior, dreaming over his disk “a savage dream of a new order: faces as old as the dead Celts, forces in the shape of a severed head and a severed tongue . . . .”

The Irish in America is so good I want it to explain everything, including how come, after O’Neill disappeared into a bottle and Kennedy into a bullet, the Irish dream of social justice ended up with Peggy Noonan in a Reagan White House, with Pat Buchanan instead of the Berrigans.


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