Apocalypse Now and Then: The Crazy Irish-Catholic Male as a Trope in “War for the Planet of the Apes”


crazy mel 2


al smith 2.jpg

From Al Smith’s failed bid to be the first Catholic to run for President to Mel Gibson, well, being Mel Gibson… the Irish-American Catholic man has always occupied a special place in the American psyche which is shorthand for social anxiety, angst, violence and instability.  Holding a unique place within the American political landscape which is treated with equal levels of wariness from the political left and right, it is no wonder that author Philip Jenkins of Baylor University has referred to anti-Catholicism as “the last acceptable prejudice“.

*Before reading on, spoiler alert for War for the Planet of the Apes*

As with any group seen of as alien and foreign though, American Catholics can often view their religion in both high and pop-culture through an exotisized, fetishized and romanticized lens which oscillates between the noble savage and the exotic other.  Jesuit James Martin has written of this phenomena being for two reasons:

First, more than any other Christian denomination, the Catholic Church is supremely visual, and therefore attractive to producers and directors concerned with the visual image. Vestments, monstrances, statues, crucifixes-to say nothing of the symbols of the sacraments-are all things that more “word oriented” Christian denominations have foregone. The Catholic Church, therefore, lends itself perfectly to the visual media of film and television. You can be sure that any movie about the Second Coming or Satan or demonic possession or, for that matter, any sort of irruption of the transcendent into everyday life, will choose the Catholic Church as its venue. (See, for example, “End of Days,” “Dogma” or “Stigmata.”)

Second, the Catholic Church is still seen as profoundly “other” in modern culture and is therefore an object of continuing fascination. As already noted, it is ancient in a culture that celebrates the new, professes truths in a postmodern culture that looks skeptically on any claim to truth and speaks of mystery in a rational, post Enlightenment world. It is therefore the perfect context for scriptwriters searching for the “conflict” required in any story.

The War for the Planet of the Apes, in its presentation of antagonist Colonel McCullough played by Woody Harrelson, captures both the exotic and the terrifying with Catholic imagery somehow still tainted with Irish ethnic undertones.

First, before I go on, I’d like to say I’m a huge fan of this reboot, and also was very impressed with something the movie got right.  As a combat veteran (which, as we all know makes me a qualified critic of every historical, political and cultural debate in contemporary society) I watched the previous film, thinking, “Oh, they vaguely referred to a military base ‘up North’… if this film is set in San Francisco, that’s obviously Fort Lewis, not that any of those Hollywood phonies would bother doing research for that!”.  But, lo and behold, the soldiers throughout the film were wearing unit insignia for 2nd Infantry Division and 17th FIRES Brigade, as well as 1st Special Forces Group, all based in Washington State’s Joint Base Lewis McChord (JBLM).  So… good job Hollywood, you managed to get something right in your depiction of the military.

The most obvious allegory that I could draw in comparing the treatment of the apes to historical racist depictions of the Irish as people with simian features, or as this gem from Punch magazine below did, full blown damn dirty apes:


The above cartoon  was written in the context of dismissing the notion of Irish Home Rule or independence (because it would have been silly to assume that the ‘lower races’ were capable of self-governance).  It shows with their pithy pun of Mr. G. O’Rilla, one of the easiest things for Anglo-Saxons to poke fun at Irish people about were their strange names, with funny prefixes.  While this British cartoon used the “O” prefix, a far more common observation in America was the “Mac” or “Mc” prefix, leading to “Mick” becoming a shorthand slur for an Irish or Irish-American.  This was why Woody Harrelson’s character, whose name is not mentioned in the film once, but whose nametape says “McCullough” was so significant.

But the scientific racism of the 19th & early 20th century, largely a result of rapid colonization, in many ways only modified the source of existing prejudices held by those with power.  As Luke Gibbons has pointed out in his wonderful novel Gaelic Gothic, as the British explored further and further continents and encountered cultures more and more different from their own, they did not begin to think of the Irish as more similar to them.  Rather, it heightened their awareness of their continued differences.  And so, with the advent of modern, biologically-based racism, there was finally a scientific answer to one of the most jarring and anxiety-inducing aspects of Irish culture to the British and Anglo-Americans… It was inferior biology which had made them cling to the superstitious and unreformed Catholicism.  Alas!  Their drunkeness, their superstitious rituals and treatment of the dead, their Tamany Hall-style graft, and political violence, it had nothing to do with the Pope, and everything to do with progeny!  But just as scientific racism merely built on old prejudices with new understandings, many of our contemporary prejudices have been handed down from old ones.  This cartoon from America demonstrates the social fears widely held in America that Anglo-Protestants associated with Irish-Catholics.


While it would be easy to dismiss Colonel McCullough as a once off oddity, he represents a long and continuing tradition of American popular culture portraying Irish-Americans with what Diane Negra calls a, “broad consensus in the US that Irishness is available to speak a precariously classed, highly unstable whiteness”.  From Denis Leary to Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly, (and I would add Mel Gibson, born in New York to an Irish mother) Negra has written extensively on the perception of Irish masculinity in American culture.
In many ways Colonel McCullough was an extension of this.  By normalizing the notion of post-traumatic stress, violence and callousness so often used to depict the Irish-American man in film, his Irishness was reinforced.  And from the crucifix he wore around his neck shirtless, to the name of his unit, Alpha-Omega, with its Greek symbols branded onto his minions,  to his making the sign of the cross over those same minions with his straight razor mid-head-shave, the film constantly uses Catholic imagery to simultaneously portray his masculinity and terrifying exoticism.

in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti…

But then, as Woody Harrelson himself has said before….


I’m happy that Hollywood got the unit insignia right on the soldiers from JBLM in Washington State.  I also really liked the homage paid to Apocalypse Now, from the Colonel’s monologue on sacrificing one’s humanity, to his rogue status having to be exterminated by his former superiors with extreme prejudice.  But in a time when veterans across America are battling against constant Hollywood portrayals as two-dimensional psychopathic poster children for post-traumatic stress and walking, talking stereotypes with Southern accents, I wasn’t thrilled to see the portrayal of soldiers as mindless killing machines.  And having been raised with my Aunt Margaret’s oil lamp and rosary beads she brought through Ellis Island on the hutch…a constant reminder my parents would point to  of how easy I had had it as a third generation Irish-American, I wasn’t thrilled to see the angry Irish-American Catholic man used as shorthand for mental instability either.


In the Era of Trump, Forget 1984: Read the Age of Triage!

On  February 10th, 2003, a day before I turned 16, my dad took me to a meeting with other men of our race to become a member of a secret society which has roots going back several centuries.  The men of our race were not determined by their white skin, but rather by being Irish ‘by birth or descent’, and most minutes of the secret meetings were mundane disagreements over how to spend money for charitable donations or the best way to organize cultural or political events.  These suburban working and middle class men I was surrounded by were members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.  The AOH is an Irish-Catholic fraternal organization which was formed in the 19th-century in an atmosphere of intense anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant discrimination and violence sweeping the country.  This came from a deep cultural foundation of secrecy and rebellion in Ireland, where English landlords who had implemented an apartheid style of government over Ireland which disenfranchised and marginalized the Catholic majority of the population to be ruled over by a wealthy Protestant elite known as the Penal Laws.  Through centuries of oppression, secret agrarian societies, distrust for the state, a folk-religious form of Catholicism and violence became deeply ingrained into Irish culture, and was readily accessed and mobilized throughout the 19th and 20th centuries by Irish-Americans to react to hostile forces under which they saw themselves as besieged.

But where Oliver Cromwell’s campaign of genocide in Ireland, or the Know-Nothing Party or KKK’s nativist lobbying and riots failed, middle class success seems to be succeding in eroding a sense of Irish-Catholic identity.  Quoting Robby Jones, the CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, Emma Green notes in a recent article for The Atlantic that in the US, ““Churches have served, for most of the nation’s life, as pipelines to all kinds of civic engagement”.  She goes on to point out that “White working-class Americans of all ages were much less likely than their college-educated peers to participate in sports teams, book clubs, or neighborhood associations—55 percent vs. 31 percent said they seldom or never participated in those kinds of activities.”  This notion of civic and community apathy was apparent to me when I joined the AOH and noticed the huge age gap between myself and the other members (at 15 years and 364 days old the nearest man in age to me was my own dad who had been almost 40).  I was part of the first generation in my family to not be educated by Christian Brothers with Irish brogues in New York City parochial schools, and instead went to public schools in the DC suburbs of a small blue collar town famous for a Civil War battle and Lorena Bobbit.  But just as we had a sense of Irish diaspora, we also had a Northeast diaspora.  The fact that it was my great-grandparents who’d come to America during a time of tremendous political and sectarian violence in the 1920s didn’t matter.  Ireland was not a far-off abstract notion, when our AOH divison’s ranks were filled with other men my father’s age from New York, Boston, Baltimore and Philly who had Irish grandparents, peppered in with older men who had immigrated in the 1950s, or men and women my parents age who had been brought to us as a much needed infusion of fresh Irish blood thanks-be-to-God for the economic recessions in Ireland of the 1970s and 80s.  And of course the Summer I joined the AOH was the same year it seemed a month couldn’t pass without hosting a pack of young twenty somethings living down the street working construction jobs in DC from all over Ireland on J-1 visas.

But through all of this sense of manufactured ethno-religious identity, I was still painfully aware of one thing: we were working against the tide, and this sense of community was fading in the modern, individualistic, middle-class world.  Perhaps Tony Soprano said it best in the pilot episode of the show when he bemoaned to his therapist that, “I think about my father, he never reached the heights like me. But in a lot of ways he had it better. He had his people, they had their standards, and pride. Today, what have we got?”.  The idea of loss of community and traditional institutions in the modern world has not gone unnoticed by the seers and sages of the culture, and perhaps are being paid attention to too late, with head scratching over where we went wrong.  In a recent article for The Atlantic, Emma Green observes that the decline in civic and religious involvement has lead to a political landscape in which, “More and more white Americans are being pulled toward isolation, away from the thick knit of civic and religious life that has long defined American political culture”.

By every possible metric, Catholics in America are what the left likes to call a historically marginalized group.  Within the study of anti-Catholic thought, there is a divide between old and new anti-Catholicism, with the former being linked to Protestant nativism and theological differences and the latter tending to focus on issues such as abortion and homosexuality.  The left ironically inherited much of its anti-Catholic prejudices from conservative Protestants who to this day think that my praying to statues of the Virgin Mary amounts to nothing more than pagan idolatry to a Goddess figure, and my reading of Genesis as a metaphor for evolution makes me a blasphemer.  They don’t seem to apply the same reservations about sweeping Catholic marginalization in the United States under the rug of American history because of the Church’s teachings on sexuality the way they do with the equally, if not more so, conservative theology of Islam.  This inability to fall on the traditional left-right balance of American politics lends way to a sense of perpetual alienation, perhaps best illustrated by the famous Catholic Buddhist beatnik Jack Kerouac, who wrote in letters to friends that he’d probably been the only person in America smoking marijuana while watching the McCarthy hearings on TV and cheering for the iconic Irish-American Joe McCarthy against the Communists.

Whereas many on the right feel it is okay to ask Muslims today if they are American first, or Muslim first, they forget that all of these and much more were trotted out against us first.  While Donald Trump’s executive orders banning entry to people from 7 (then 6) Muslim majority countries were seen as one of the greatest acts of oppression since 9/11 by many on the left, it pales in comparison to the widespread levels of violence against Catholics which went on for entire generations, well into the 20th century.  Of course, as a society we tend to focus on the sensational illustrations of the results of larger demographic shifts and movements than we feel comfortable addressing, whether they be post-truth travel bans, or nativist anti-Catholic riots in the streets of Philadelphia.  My middle name is Roosevelt because my grandfather and namesake was born to Irish immigrants on the day FDR was elected.  Tammany Hall may be remembered as a corrupt club of cronyism to many, but to my people, it was a source of refuge, sanctuary.  Like the opening lines of Scorses’s fictional tale of the Irish Mafia, The Departed, “In the beginning we had the Church.  But that really just meant we had each other”.  And with popular depictions like those below defining a paranoid nation’s perception of Catholics even until the 1920s when Al Smith was the first Catholic to run for president it’s easy to see how he lost in a landslide, being the first Democrat to lose the South since the Civil War.   And it’s easy too, to see how our places of sanctuary, whether they are gangs, civic clubs, political machines, fraternal Catholic societies, brought up the same kind of social anxiety then that so called ‘sanctuary cities’ bring up today.

Al smith


Perhaps it may seem counter-intuitive for me to bring up prejudices of the past century which we have as a society largely moved on from.  Just as it was the losing side of the American Civil War which clings most fervently to the past, so too I at times feel like I am living under the credo of Faulkner’s that ‘the past isn’t dead.  It’s not even past’.  But perhaps my search for answers in the shallow grave of the past is the perfect place to search if you view the current atmosphere of political division in America as a manifestation of a conflict between the forces of modernism and tradition which strips human beings of their value.  Since I read that sales of George Orwell’s dystopian sci-fi novel 1984 had spiked since Trump became president, I kept coming back to a book I read back in 2006, before I enlisted in the Army at the height of the Troop Surge, when I had long hair, listened to loud angry music, and took Philosophy electives at my local community college.  The Age of Triage: Fear and Hope in an Overcrowded World, by theologian Richard L. Rubenstein is considered one of the seminal works of what has come to be known as ‘Holocaust Theology’.

In examining several humanitarian catastrophes from the 19th-century on, Rubenstein explores the role played by modernization and its consequences.  In the 19th-century it went from the enclosure movement in England which overnight rendered virtually all English shepherds unemployable and destitute, to the Irish potato famine which if not an act of genocide, was certainly ‘genocide-adjacent’.  He then explores 20th-century genocides from the Holocaust to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge.  Through all of these, Rubenstein traces a steady and predictable form of ethical rationale based solely on what he termed ‘the Revolution of Rationale’ which reduced human beings to ‘redundant populations’.  This revolution of rationale was rooted in the final stages of the Enlightenment, a darker side of the same revolution against the shackles of medieval feudalism and religious fundamentalism which also produced the Renaissance, the American and French Revolutions, and the notion of modern Western constitutional democracy.  The title of the book comes from the ways in which systems treat the populations made redundant by modernizing forces, that is, those who are triaged to survive, and those slotted to be left to their own devices.  Written in 1983, Rubenstein closes on a darkly prophetic note, musing over a future in which ‘surplus populations’ are reduced by poison-laden drugs, and working class populations of all skin color and creed have their humanity reduced by factories replacing their labor with automation.

I knew as a young man joining the AOH that I was seeking a sense of belonging with something from the past that was vanishing rapidly.  Maybe it was my Catholic tendency towards drama, tragedy, and theater, like Oscar Wilde, perhaps the world’s most famous deathbed-Catholic, that made me want to pin my own destiny so inextricably to the sinking ship which is Irish-America.  Perhaps the allure of tradition to me was in fact not so different to that of my immigrant great-grandparents, who had the Church as a sole source of community and social support, as it must have filled some gap in my youth left from being frequently suspended and expelled from schools.  Perhaps that left me nostalgically romanticizing my own father’s young education at the hands of Irish Christian Brothers in New York at the height of white flight, crime and urban decay.  Maybe that quest for belonging led me to enlist in the Army National Guard at the height of the Iraqi Troop Surge in 2007, where I would joke with buddies that if I’d been made a recruiter, I would have made my annual quota in a single weekend at a hardcore punk show in some dingy basement or run-down VFW or Knights of Columbus Hall full of similarly angsty and angry young men.

But all of those things, those clubs, and institutions, and scenes that’ I’ve once counted myself a member of, are healthy outlets for normal and understandable emotions.  When I was young, the world was full of optimism for a brief time, that World War Three had been averted by the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The seers and sages wrote of “The end of history” and video on the news of laser-guided bombs over Baghdad and Bosnia ordered by Bill Clinton made the horrific ground wars of the past seem like relics of a bygone era.  Only on 9/11 was this optimism replaced with the fear and besieged mentality of a nation that has realized that in the place of the Soviet Dragon was now hundreds of smaller snakes, which could lash out with small bites instead of belching flames at any time.  The world became less predictable, and more violent.  So too, I feel that the optimism of people feeling like the culture wars of the 80s and 90s are all but over, is being replaced by the fear that what will replace it will be far worse.  As Peter Beiniart of The Atlantic recently wrote:

For decades, liberals have called the Christian right intolerant. When conservatives disengage from organized religion, however, they don’t become more tolerant. They become intolerant in different ways. Research shows that evangelicals who don’t regularly attend church are less hostile to gay people than those who do. But they’re more hostile to African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims. In 2008, the University of Iowa’s Benjamin Knoll noted that among Catholics, mainline Protestants, and born-again Protestants, the less you attended church, the more anti-immigration you were.

The secular shift is just as prevalent in the left as the right, just as America seems more divided than it has been in most people’s memories.  This increasingly secular and viscous type of division reminds me of what Rubenstein wrote of in Triage as the rise of racism as we know it today, which was the logical progeny of previous sectarian tribalism.  It nonetheless had profound differences shaped by the radical changes in scientific understanding, most notably Darwinism in an era of rapid industrialization and colonial conquest by a small number of Western nations.  Rubenstein writes that:

Racism or Neo-Tribalism…was an attempt to establish a basis for community on the foundation of shared archaic roots.  The exclusion of the alien was intrinsic to its very nature.  Racism can be seen as a thoroughly modern response to the phenomenon of population superfluity and the fragmented affiliations of atomized bourgeois society.  Racism was also an expression of the trend toward homogenization, centralization, and leveling that is a feature of modern bureaucratized society.  Racism sought to establish an ideological basis for affiliation and community after all of the lesser units of community, such as the village, the Church, and even the nation, had proved unable to meet the challenge.

Today, just as some in the political left in America are calling for there to be ‘no platform’ for debating the policies of Trump, others seem to also be looking back wistfully at their former nemesis George W. Bush as a once worthy adversary the likes of which Trump can’t hold a candle to.  In the same way, the scientific racism used by fascists in the 20th-century and mass murder by atheist Communist regimes can leave one looking back to our tribal, linguistic, and sectarian division in the pre-modern era as somehow less traumatic.  It was, of course, but more so due to technological ability to blood-let which corresponded to the rise of racist tribalism.  And perhaps this sense of looking towards the failures of the past to bring Utopia to earth can help explain how and why Irish-American and Catholic-raised Steve Bannon has reportedly cited the virulently anti-Catholic fascist Julius Evola.

Oh if only we could go back to when having a name like Bannon and being even nominally Catholic made you a pariah in America, then maybe he could commiserate with different cultural others more easily.

Rubenstein points out that throughout the 20th century, the populations which were often rendered redundant were not always the poor, but often they were often the doctors, lawyers, and academics within religious or political minority groups who overnight found themselves on the wrong side of rapid demographic shifts.  In a time of dichotomy being drawn between people who are white, and people of color, with no debate over the imperialism of non-westen nations such as the Ottoman or Japanese Empires, this is one of the reasons that I am looking back to the anti-Catholic bigotry of previous centuries.  Because I know that we are just one hyper-inflated currency or war away from it being me in the crosshairs.  Because I know, as a Catholic distrustful of Heaven-on-Earth Utopian ideas of society, that history does not end.  And as a combat veteran who in my early 20s drove through once-beautiful suburbs of Baghdad which had become hollow bullet-riddled slums after just a few years of neglect and violence, that no affluence or education can keep our darker human drive towards survival, or Original Sin if you want to call it that, out of us us completely.

In Triage, Rubesntein posits that the solution to the revolution of rationale is a spiritual, rather than political one.  Rather than advocating an idealistic and naive return to Eden of destroying the machines which have produced the efficiency that has rendered so many people redundant, Rubenstein makes the argument that because the Revolution of Rationale was made from a religious movement in the Enlightenment, that the way to re-humanize the most vulnerable of society is to have a societal self-examination and new sort of religious revolution, which shifts an emphasis on policy making from rationale to humanity.  It would be impossible to return to Eden, he argues, and abandon technology, just as it is impossible to look at the genocides of the 20th century and lay their blame at the feet of any one ideology, as none have bloodless hands, be they fascist, communist, capitalist, liberal, conservative, religious or secular.  It would be impossible to recreate the large demographic and historic trends which led to my being raised with the quirks of a sense of Irish-Catholic ethnic identity, rooted in empathy towards immigrants, the oppressed, and equal parts love for the working-class and distrust of Communism.  Just as most middle class-heavy societies throughout history have generally been formed by catastrophic cataclysms like war or plague which no politician seems in a rush to mimic, my New York, Irish-Catholic identity was forged by immigration, famine, secret societies, faction fighting, public service, and urban political machines.

But in a world which seems past its peak, in which populist angst seems to be stemming from a sense of people losing their long held economic security rather than struggling to gain any for the first time as my grandparents had, perhaps a collective spiritual introspection is what is needed.  Perhaps Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin is right to call out his own Church for being in need of a ‘reality check’.  Perhaps religious institutions, like political ones, grew too comfortable for too long, and the resurgent rise of both far left and far right ideologies is because of this.  And perhaps, as Richard Rubenstein concluded hopefully in The Age of Triage:

“There is nothing radical about insisting that no human being ought to be considered surplus.  On the contrary, the real radical are those who do not know the difference between a genuine human community and a jungle.  Survival of the fittest may indeed be the law of the jungle, but a human community is not a jungle”

With automation on the horizon, it’s easy to blame immigrants, or anyone who isn’t you.  In times of upheaval, it’s easy to revert to the law of the jungle.  I’ve seen it myself, I’ve lived it myself.  But the efficiency of automation and rising economic inequality doesn’t have to make us all don a mullet and inherit the world of Mad Max, the Road Warrior, and it isn’t radical to say that we deserve better than that as a species.  So please, run, don’t walk, to your nearest book store (before it gets turned into an abandoned ramshackle by online shopping and drone delivery) and buy yourself a copy of the Age of Triage.

Blog Portfolio, Irish Writing and Film

Before I went to Iraq in 2009 I used to try to freestyle over beats in the barracks with the older NCOs I looked up to.  The moniker I thought up  for myself was ‘Fianna Phil’.  It was perfect, because it used alliteration, was highly esoteric to most Americans, and it was Irish.  Being around Southerners (I deployed with the North Carolina National Guard) has always made me feel a heightened awareness of my own New York Irish Catholic ways, even though my family moved to Virginia when I was just a little baby.  So Fianna Phil worked for me.  It’s like free styling.  It’s like my Irishness.  It’s like Milo Yiannopoulos’ Catholicism.  It’s a performance.  The first thing I wrote in my blog was a brief ‘About’ section, and like the early days of punk rock, it was quite primitive:

Hi, I’m Phil Nannery, currently a postgraduate student at University College Cork in the MA in English, Irish writing and film program.  Prior to this, I have lived in several different countries, working in several different fields, and I am very excited to be in Ireland, researching Irish literature.

I come from an Irish-American, Catholic background, and at times feel warring and conflicting ideas of American-ness and Irish-ness, and even Catholic-ness within me.  I want to explore American literature, and how Irish literature influenced it both stylistically and culturally, well into the 20th century, even after the Irish became ‘white’.  One of the strongest correlations that I want to explore, is the literary influence the modernists like Joyce had on the Beatniks of the Post War period, but also, the cultural effect of Catholicism, especially the syncretic, almost folk Catholicism of Ireland, had on writers such as Jack Kerouac.  How did the Catholicism of the Irish diaspora affect its ‘otherness’ in American society long after they were accepted to be white along their Protestant counter-parts?  If English Americans are the largest ethnic group in the US, then why doesn’t New York have a grand Saint George’s Day parade?  These ideas of community, self-segregation, alienation, otherness and solidarity, as well as stylistic influences of James Joyce on a generation of paradoxical outsiders, in love with Catholic and Buddhist mysticism at once, could provide a student with an entire career of opportunities to research and write about.  I would like to spend the next year etching out a small slice of research, on which to form a dissertation of my own.

Yikes.  I knew what I wanted to write about, but like an Army officer, I only had a vague idea, and no earthly clue of how to implement it without an NCO.  But it was strangely fun and a relief to write about my research interests.  It made me feel slightly less out of place coming back to school after taking a few years off.

Following that, I wrote about Dr. Heather Laird’s public lecture titled “Remembering” Past Futures: Commemoration and the Roads Untaken”.  The idea of ‘bourgeoisie nationalism’ was very intriguing to me, and I remember thinking ‘oh, shoot, I should’ve taken more notes’.  But at three paragraphs, it was very much still just probing the blogosphere I still had so many reservations about.


kerouac drinkingbehan1

The next blog I wrote was the first one I cited an essay on, in a cute little works cited page, the first time I’d written a works cited page since finishing my undergrad in 2013.  By now I’ve used that Michael S. Begnal essay extensively, from my editing of Kerouac’s wikipedia page, which I then wrote about in a separate blog post, to my mini-conference Pecha Kucha presentation, to my most recent blog reflection on said presentation.  The essay seemed tailor made to what I wanted to research.  It was such a perfect find, like a blue diamond at the bottom of a rubbish bin.

Around this time as well I reached out to Dr. Donna Marie Alexander asking for help with the technical side of my blog, as I didn’t understand how to make the widgets view-able.  She was super helpful in helping me figure everything out, and it started to look better, with things like my twitter feed appearing on the side margins, and I used a photo I took of Trinity Cathedral at night as a background for the screen.


It was around this time too, that I started to realize, though not surprisingly, that the direction I was taking the blog in was one focusing heavily on Catholicism and the Irish American diaspora.  I’d written a few reviews of films, focusing on the complex nature of colonialism and post-colonialism.  I lived in Japan teaching English for a few years, when I decided to move to Ireland and go back to grad school after reading The Field by John B. Keane.  I’d been working with an Irish guy, and trying to explain why I seemed so markedly different than the other English teachers, who all seemed more positive and upbeat than myself.  Other than having a radically different group of life experiences, I often pointed to how my Irish Catholic upbringing probably gave me a set of fatalistic roles I had grown comfortable performing in.  And so I started talking about how I would go back to school one day, maybe in New York, or Boston, and write a thesis trying to figure out how this sub-culture within America was still so powerful after so many years.  I actually only found out that the GI Bill would cover me studying in Ireland while scrolling through the FAQs page of the VA website for a separate query I’d had.  That was when I decided to move here.

In feedback we got back about halfway through the semester, I was told that I, “strike a well-judged balance between, for example, your engagement with a film and the relevance of what you are studying to considering the ramifications of that engagement beyond the personal” (O’Connor).  I had been happy to hear this, as my biggest fear was that I would allow my own personal experiences to color my research.  I often try to use my own personal experiences as a starting point before launching into a more measured and objective analysis.  If nothing else, I’ve always felt like it could at least explain why I would be writing about such esoteric interests.

For the Blog assignment, we had to write about at least two conferences or seminars we’d attended.  Though I went to several readings hosted by the UCC English Society, I ended u only writing about two events.  One was the lecture by Dr. Heather Laird, and the other was a Writing Workshop I went to.  Like my blog itself, I approached the event a bit cautiously at first, as I’m often nervous embarking on new adventures with new people.  But, like the blog as well, I ended up enjoying it very much.  I find it interesting that in the space of time from Dr. Laird’s lecture to the writing workshop (about 4 months) I went from just a few paragraphs of thought thrown onto the page to a much longer, in depth summary of the event full of photos, gifs, and other visuals.

Finally, I wrote my reflections on the recent Textualities Conference, and my final Literature Review, weaving together as many of my thoughts from my research as coherently as I could.  Like life itself, the course seemed to blow by, frightening at first, and enjoyable almost as soon as it was over.  I’ve enjoyed using this blog, and look forward to continuing it long after the conclusion of this course.  I hope to expand not only my readership but the scope and scale of my writing.  Thank you for reading.


Works Cited:

Begnal, Michael S.  “To be an Irishman Too”: Jack Kerouac’s Irish Connection”.  Studies:An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 92, No. 368 (Winter, 2003), pp. 371-377)

“Milo: Catholics are Right About Everything.”  Youtube, uploaded by Milo Yiannopoulos, 15 December 2016.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5q4u1nE6tI.  Accessed 30 March 2017.

Nannery, Phil.  “About.”  Fiannaphil,  https://fiannaphil.wordpress.com/about/  Accessed 30 March 2017.

Nannery, Phil.  ‘“Remembering” Past Futures: Commemoration and the Roads Untaken.”  Fiannaphil, 03 Novemeber 2016, https://fiannaphil.wordpress.com/2016/11/03/remembering-past-futures-commemoration-and-the-roads-untaken/.  Accessed 30 March 2017.

Nannery, Phil.  “Who Among You?.”  Fiannaphil, 05 November 2016, https://fiannaphil.wordpress.com/2016/11/05/who-among-ye/.  Accessed 30 March 2017.

Nannery, Phil.  “The Eagle Huntress.”  Fiannaphil, 22 November 2016, https://fiannaphil.wordpress.com/2016/11/22/the-eagle-huntress/.  Accessed 30 March 2017.

Nannery, Phil.  “Saint Mel Gibson of the Masochists, Pray for Me.”  Fiannaphil, 23 January, 2017.  https://fiannaphil.wordpress.com/2017/01/23/saint-mel-gibson-of-the-masochists-pray-for-me/.  Accessed 30 march 2017.

Nannery, Phil.  “Wikipedia Editathon!!!.”  Fiannaphil, 20 February 2017.  https://fiannaphil.wordpress.com/2017/02/20/wikpedia-editathon/.  Accessed 30 March 2017.

Nannery, Phil.  “Writing Workshop.”  Fiannaphil, 28 February 2017.  https://fiannaphil.wordpress.com/2017/02/28/writing-workshop/.  Accessed 30 March 2017.

Nannery, Phil.  “Literature Review.”  Fiannaphil, 30 March 2017.  https://fiannaphil.wordpress.com/2017/03/30/literature-review/.  Accessed 30 March 2017.

Nannery, Phil.  “Textualities 2017 Reflections.” Fiannaphi, 28 March 2017. https://fiannaphil.wordpress.com/2017/03/28/textualities-2017-reflections/.  Accessed 30 March 2017.

O’Connor, Maureen.  “Blog feedback.”  Received by Phil Nannery, 08 December, 2016.

Literature and IT Review

In my upcoming thesis, I will be examining the works of three American authors, Flannery O’Connor, Jack Kerouac, and J.D. Salinger, to examine their understanding and portrayal of the way Catholicism affected a rapidly changing post-war Irish diaspora.  Under a working title of “The Irish-Catholic as Other in Post-War American Literature” I want to examine the ways Irish Catholics of the mid 20th century were hindered, or helped, in assimilating into the white middle class.   Conversely, I want to examine the role of Catholicism and ethnic identity in working class Irish Americans seemingly left behind by the rapidly increasing economic affluence of the period.  I am using three different authors spanning a wide array of literary backgrounds because I felt like it would be more reflective of the broader American society.  However, all three writers, two white males and one white female, nonetheless represent a diverse representation of ethno-religuous backgrounds, at a time that many different ethnic white and religious minorities were becoming part of the wider white middle class.  I wanted to explore this area of American literature because as a kid from New York with Irish American parents who moved to Richmond, Virginia when I was young, I was very aware of how alienated I felt being one of the only Irish Catholics at my school.  I think that this gave me an early sense of what Adrian Frazier calls an “ethnic identity” (Hollywood, 19).  I believe that this gave me a greater awareness of white ethnic and religious identity in reading American literature.  I want to use this to make sense out of the rapidly vanishing senses of identity of the post-war period, and in what ways this identity remained unassimilated.  How, several generations since Post-War commentators wrote of the ‘vanishing Irish’, is there still a, “broad consensus in the US that Irishness is available to speak a precariously classed, highly unstable whiteness” (Negra 280).

Artist: C.J. Taylor / Michingan State University Muesum, Appel Collection

In doing research for my essay in the film module last year, I compared Caddyshack and The Quiet Man‘s depictions of the Irish American diaspora.  Significantly, I looked at how The Quiet Man was portraying Sean Thornton, an Irish American nostalgically returning to Ireland at a time of unheard-of economic growth and prosperity in America, whereas Danny Noonan of Caddyshack seems unable to escape his Irishness during the economically turbulent late 1970s.  Focusing on the role of class determining a sense of ethnic identity in America will be very important for me to establish early on and throughout my thesis.  I’ve come across good examples of this in Lawrence J. McCaffrey’s book The Irish Catholic Diaspora in America.  Though by the 1950s, the ‘vanishing Irish’ were largely moving from what McCaffrey terms ‘ghettos to suburbs’ it is important to note that not all were.  He points out that from the 1950s to the 1970s, “Not all Irish-American Catholics have experienced significant economic, social, or residential mobility” (187).  McCaffrey goes on to write about how this frustration and insecurity played out in resistance to racial integration of schools and support for the IRA during the Troubles.  Kerouac, O’Connor, and Salinger all write about elements on the fringe of society, from the drug addicts and bums populating the works of Kerouac, to the hairy bellied pimp in Catcher in the Rye, to the Misfit of O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find.  This leaves me with several questions I hope to find through sources such as JSTOR or secondary texts.  First, were these characters on the fringes of society perhaps reflective of those ethnic whites finding their way into the works of these writers, either explicitly, or through coded language?  Were the Irish Americans being left behind coded as more Irish or Catholic because of this?  And how does this compare to the affluence of Irish Americans banding together at wealthy prep schools as in Catcher in the Rye?  Was this just some relic of a former time, or does it truly represent a continuing sense of Otherness among Irish Americans because of their Catholicism into the Post-War period?

All of these are questions that I will attempt to address throughout my thesis, and JSTOR has many titles I believe will prove useful.  Salinger’s Jewish identity for example has many parallels with an Irish Catholic identity of the period.  In Post War America, both were in a state of crisis, rapidly being assimilated into secular white society, and considering the vast improvements in quality of life and economic prosperity that they often accompanied, this was often not seen as any type of ‘crisis’ by individuals within these communities.  In an essay dating from 1966, Professor Allan C. Brownfield writes of the ‘vanishing Jew’ in much the same way many commentators referred to the ‘vanishing Irish.  Notably, he repeatedly divides America into 3 cultural camps, Jewish, Catholic and Protestant.  And like many newly affluent Irish Americans who began to identify less as Irish or Catholic, and more as white, he writes that:

The battle-cry has been lost on deaf ears within the Jewish community. Rather than worrying about what rabbis term an alarming rate of inter-marriage, and a lack of concern about Jewish identity, most American Jews are happy in the feeling that they have never had it so good (18).

In examining Leslie Fiedler’s seminal 1964 essay, “Jewish-Americans Go Home”, Leah Garret points out that Salinger was one of many writers of the era who:

reinvented Jewish protagonists as non- Jews, or gave them “goyish” qualities in order to represent a “universal” form of American alienation. The writings of this generation,  according to Fiedler, are negatively “marked by the abandonment of the Jewish character as a sufficient embodiment of the Jewish author’s aspirations and values, and by the invention, beside him or in his place, of characters who are not merely non- Jewish, but are, in fact, hyper-goyim, super-Gentiles of truly mythic proportions: specifically, sexual heroes of incredible potency (171)

I think that perhaps this is reflected in Holden Caulfield feeling alienated by the constant sectarian tribalism of the other boys at his prep school.  Salinger came from a much more economically affluent background than either O’Connor or Kerouac, and perhaps this played a role in his alienation from the same sort of religiously institutionalized tribalism relied on by working class ethnic whites experiencing class mobility before and after the Post War period.

I have not found many books or essays on the role of Flannery O’Connor’s Irish ethnic identity, or lack thereof.  However, I am confident that I can discover many resources using JSTOR or biographical works in Boole, as I only decided to write about her last, after coming across so much information about her in studying the role of Catholicism in Americann literature.  Though she is the only of the three authors who was Irish American, she didn’t leave a large ethnic footprint, but her mark on the analysis of Catholicism in American literature is massive.  In Ross Labrie’s book, The Catholic Imagination in American Literature, an entire chapter is dedicated to the ways in which O’Connor wrote about Catholicism informing the imagination of a writer.  I had originally come across this in the hopes of using it for my essay in the Gothic to Modernism module, though ultimately I did not.  For generations in America, constructions of Irish ethnic pride and camaraderie went hand in hand with the institutions of the Catholic Church, most heavily focused in the American Northeast and Midwest.  In almost any essay or book’s introduction I have come across of her, O’Connor’s Catholicism is typically mentioned early on, and is usually only a sentence or so away from mentioning that she is also know as a Southern writer from the largely Protestant South.  I’d like to explore if the detachment from Irish ethnic identity also reflects a life of appreciating Catholicism on theological, rather than social grounds.

Kerouac slow suicide

While Salinger and O’Connor may have seemed alienated from the institutionalized sense of ethnic community fostered by the Catholic Church, trying to transcend or escape their ethnic identities, Kerouac was turning into it, all chips in and guns blazing.  Having been a fan of Kerouac’s for years, I’d been familiar with his affinity for Catholic spirituality and his Mel Gibson styled, masochistic Catholic approach to earthly suffering.  My first awareness of any sort of  Irish connection he may have had I actually discovered on accident when searching in JSTOR for articles about the supposedly Catholic origins of the term ‘Beatnik’.  “To be an Irishman Too: Jack Keouac’s Irish Connection” by Michael S. Begnal examined Kerouac’s affinity for Ireland as being linked to his own French American identity.  Perhaps a perfect illustration of this is the huge Joycean influence on his work, or the encounter he had with Brendan Behan in the early 1960s.  Subsequently, I came across an essay by Nancy McCampbell Grace entitled “A White Man in Love: A Study of Race, Gender, Class, and Ethnicity in Jack Kerouac’s Maggie Cassidy, “The Subterraneans, and Tristessa”.  What was interesting about this essay was the inclusion of Maggie Cassidy as a working class Irish-American in an intersectional analysis of race, class and ethnicity in the works of Jack Kerouac.  The romantic longing for the vanishing ethnic identity of white Catholics in communities such as Irish Americans seems perfectly encapsulated in the essay.  As McCampbell Grace writes, Maggie Cassidy demonstrates that,  “whiteness becomes a class charade; race is nothing more than class in fancy dress” (50).

There is no shortage of research on the role of Catholicism in the works of Kerouac or O’Connor, or the role of Judaism in the works of Salinger.  There is no shortage of research in the widespread entry into the white middle class of Irish Americans in Post-War America.  But I have not been able to find much research comparing the role Catholicism played in this process.  Were the centuries-old prejudices against Catholicism overcome and forgotten about as so many Irish immigrants entered into the middle class in Post War years?  Considering that Paul Blanshard’s American Freedom and Catholic Power was a bestseller in America for 1949-1950, selling over 240,000 copies in its first edition (World Heritage Encyclopedia) I find this hard to believe.  I don’t have the answers yet, but I hope to use all of the resources available to me in Boole, texts, peer reviewed articles on JSTOR, the City Library, and any other means possible to document the extent that Catholicism played in portraying Irish identity through the works of these three authors.

Works Cited:

Begnal, Michael S.  “To be an Irishman Too”: Jack Kerouac’s Irish Connection”.  Studies:An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 92, No. 368 (Winter, 2003), pp. 371-377)

Brownfield, Allan C.  “The Vanishing Jew.  The North American Review, Vol. 251, No. 3 (May, 1966), pp. 18-20.

Frazier, Adrian.  Hollywood Irish: John Ford, Abbey Actors and the Irish Revival in Hollywood.  The Lilliput Press, 2011.

Grace, Nancy McCampbell.  “A White Man in Love: A Study of Race, Gender, Class, and Ethnicity in Jack Kerouac’s Maggie Cassidy, “The Subterraneans, and Tristessa.”  College Literature, Vol. 27, No. 1, Teaching Beat Literature (Winter, 2000), pp. 39- 62

Garret, Leah.  “Just One of the Goys: Salinger’s, Miller’s, and Malamud’s Hidden Jewish Heroes.”  AJS Review, Vol. 34, No. 2 (NOVEMBER 2010), pp. 171-194

Labrie, Ross.  The Catholic Imagination in American Literature.  University of Missouri Press, 1997.

McCaffrey, Lawrence J.  The Irish Catholic Diaspora in America.  The Catholic University of America Press, 1997.

Negra, Diane.  “Irishness, Anger and Masculinity in Recent Film and Television.”  Barton, Ruth, pp. 279-295.

Taylor, C.J.  The Mortar of Assimilation–And the One Element that Won’t Mix. Michigan State University Museum, Appel Collection.  http://hppr.org/post/immigration-stories-caricatures-and-stereotypes-stauth-museum.  Accessed 30 March 2017.

Quotefancy, Jack Kerouac.  https://quotefancy.com/quote/947292/Jack-Kerouac-I-m-Catholic-and-I-can-t-commit-suicide-but-I-plan-to-drink-myself-to-death.  Accessed 28 March 2017.

World Heritage Encylcopedia.  American Freedom And Catholic Power, http://www.gutenberg.us/articles/eng/American_Freedom_and_Catholic_Power#cite_note-9.  Accessed 30 March 2017.

Textualities 2017 Reflections

I recently did the *drum roll please…… TEXTUALITIES MINI-CONFERENCE!!!  I ended up having to give my presentation a bit early because I’d bought tickets to fly back to America last year.  I’d wanted to surprise my dad, having found out that he would be the grand marshal for my hometown’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade, which we always hold on the Saturday prior to the holiday itself.  Having to go a few days before the conference ended up feeling like kind of a double edged blade.  On the one hand, I felt sort of nervous not having anyone else to watch and sort of go off of, but on the other hand, I was able to get it over with sooner than anyone else, and have a video record of it.  I was really nervous, even though this course so far has given me an opportunity to write about what I love.  And capturing it on video gave me both halves of that: I would notice how some things I said evoked laughter, just as quickly as the times I misspoke, or my voice cracked.

If you haven’t already seen it, here is a video of my presentation:


So big shout out to everyone who made it out that day to ask questions, thank you! I would like to answer some of those questions now, as well as delving into a few things I have thought of since giving the presentation.

1: Dr. Heather Laird asked me what the Irish diaspora in America was assimilating in to, and what that meant.

  • Part of the difficulty, in fact I think the biggest difficulty of my thesis, will be establishing the language of my research, and I think this was a great example.  Having minored in History during my undergrad, I have always been wary of using contemporary language and paradigms in understanding the way that people of the past thought.  I’ve always felt that this is similar to holding a pre-conceived notion, then molding the world and its events to reach that conclusion, like the exact opposite of the scientific process.  I feel that this is becoming more and more prevalent nowadays, especially in the Humanities.  And because I will be writing about changing perceptions which were taking place in America in the 1940s to 1960s, this will be something I have to be careful of.
  • So, the question remains, what were Irish immigrants assimilating in to?  This speaks to the idea of ethnicity, which is neither racial nor wholly socially constructed.  Ethnicity is not as widely recognized in today’s society, and in an increasingly diverse world, the chasms between different subcultures of the same skin color seem at times to be rapidly disappearing.  The idea of a white American holding an ethnic identity nowadays has largely become something of easily dismissed comedic fodder, see below.
  • But this was not always the case.  As I’ve written before, I grew up feeling a strong sense of ethnic identity, but an identity in a sort of twilight.  As a kid I saw the last of the generation of immigrants in my family die, leaving in their wake heirlooms, mass cards, and stories at the dining room table.  The idea of ethnicity in previous generations was very tangible.  In conjunction with the early 20th century’s scientific racism, most people believed that if you were an American whose ‘blood’ was Irish Catholic then, it didn’t matter if your great grandparents had arrived in America in a previous century, you were Irish.  Or Polish.  Or Italian.  Any of these ‘ethnic’ nations, typically poor peasants, and almost always Catholic, had a type of ethnic difference which only in the last 50 years has been largely transcended by the whiteness of their skin.  It will be very important for me to cite the many resources I’ve come across in the past year in the library which demonstrate that ethnicity did not have in previous generations the same fluidity or ambiguity that we in the postmodern world can apply to our understanding of things.
  • One of those resources I came across earlier this year is the Dale T. Knobel book Paddy and the Republic: Ethnicity and Nationality in Antebellum America.  Dr. Laird asked about the idea of America already being mixed, and while there have always been Catholics and Irish people in America, prior to the challenges of mass migration due to the Famine, America unquestionably saw itself as an Anglo Protestant nation.  In quoting a prominent Presbyterian evangelist of the Antebellum Period of American history, Knobel observed, “‘Puritanism, Protestantism, and True Americanism are only different terms to designate the same set of principles” (5).  I hope to find more material which corroborates this strongly held notion of American identity.

2: Performing Irishness.

  • One of the most surprising things I came across was Kerouac’s fascination with Irish culture.  But as with all great paradoxes, it was surprising, but shouldn’t have been.  In several of Kerouac novels I’ve read, (notably, On the Road and Tristessa) Kerouac’s protagonists were the sons or grandsons of Italian rather than French immigrants.  White immigrants practicing a folksy type of Catholicism and somehow regarded even up until the 1950s as racially ambiguous white people…
  • And Salinger is no different!  Holden Caulfield complains about people assuming he is Catholic because of his Irish sounding last name, and draws alienation from their sense of solidarity, a relic from their time of secret societies and agrarian discontent, carried into the upper middle class of America…. I can’t be the only one who sees this!!!

    I can’t be the only one who sees this!!!
  • As I mentioned in the presentation, in doing research for the film module, Diane Negra from UCD has written extensively on Irishness being used as a visual shorthand in contemporary American culture to communicate a toxic form of whiteness, often masculine, angry, violent and besieged.  No one questions the Irishness of Denis Leary, who grew up in Massachusetts with parents from Kerry, and sings songs about being an angry lapsed Catholic, boldly daring cancer to come for him for enjoying chain smoking and binge drinking.
  • But Jack Kerouac using the same sense of ethnic fatalism so often ascribed to the Irish race to drink himself into an early grave, having a lifelong attachment to the working class, white immigrant, ethnic Catholicism of his mother is often overlooked.  Why did he change Neal Cassady’s name in On the Road, his most iconic work, to Dean Moriarty?  I find it hard to believe that Kerouac, famous for his obsession with words and ideas from other languages he found esoteric or incommunicable, was unaware of the name Moriarty, which, according to Ancestry.com is, “shortened Anglicized form of Gaelic Ó Muircheartaigh ‘descendant of Muircheartach’, a personal name composed of the elements muir ‘sea’ + ceardach ‘skilled’, i.e. ‘skilled navigator’”.  All of this is a performance, and one which is difficult today I think for us to grasp.  It’s what I want to make sense of.

3: Doctor Donna Marie Alexander asked if I will I be examining the role of gender in my research?

  • Short answer, absolutely.  My dilemma is this, and I am still trying to articulate it, but here’s a simplistic explanation: I don’t want it to devolve into a rehashing of my most recent essay on our Gender and Sexuality module, in which I examine the role of Marian devotion, and the pressure mothers historically have put on sons to become priests.  I focused on the sexual otherness priests were historically (and still sometimes to this day) portrayed as by historically anti-Catholic movements.
  • Nor do I want to turn my research into yet another in vogue heap of abuse thrown at a Catholic Church which isn’t exactly popular these days in Ireland, or America.  Since the recent Tuam Babies scandal, I’ve noticed a dearth of denunciation for the society at large which sent unmarried women to the horrible conditions of these homes, other than a few minor opinion pieces here and there.  Similarly, I feel like there has been very little acknowledgement of the fact that these homes were not operated solely by Catholic institutions but also by Protestant organizations, and that these double standards seemingly go completely unchecked.  I find it fascinating that there are so many parallels between the moral panics of the 19th century which led to widespread anti-Catholic violence and the current atmosphere of anti-Catholic thought in the Western world.  A good example is the 1836 Ursuline Convent riots in Massachusetts, in which wholly unsubstantiated accusations of macabre sex rituals and infanticide of babies born to nuns and fathered by priests led to violence on a scale requiring the state militia to intervene.

    ursuline convent
    Photo courtesy Jay Griffin.
  • So… what’s the role of gender in all of this?
  • Glad you asked!  Essentially, I will be examining the way that this deep seated anti-Catholic prejudice cemented a BESIEGED MENTALITY among Catholic Americans in America from the 19th century on.  Due to the history of anti-Catholicism in Ireland, and the link between it and a foreign nation occupying and marginalizing the majority of the population, this was perhaps felt more intensely in the Irish American community than perhaps Italian American immigrants coming from a society where the majority of the population both peasant and politician, were Catholic.  But then, I don’t know, and I want to examine that.  I will be attempting to reach a conclusion I do not already know, and answer questions I don’t already have formed in my mind.
  • Going off of that assumption, what was the role of gender in MOBILIZING this community?  As is often the case of Romantic Nationalism of the 19th Century, young patriotic men are often seen to be coming to the defense of their Motherland.  Look at this: 9460447.0003.205-00000003
  • The role that mothers often played in the formation of Catholic diasporic communities is something I feel is all too often overlooked.  I know that J.D. Salinger’s mother was born Catholic, and that he didn’t discover this until his adolescence, which had a profound affect on him (Gluck).  How did this affect his outlook of the Irish diaspora, with their long association with family feuding, and tribalism?
  • Kerouac’s Catholicism was heavily influenced by his own mother, yet he grew up with a strongly anti-clerical father…. he mentions many times in On The Road, for example, “I took a straight picture that made me look like a thirty-year-old Italian who’d kill anybody who said anything against his mother”(5).  Later, he writes of meeting a woman in New York and, “It suddenly occurred to me this was my mother of about two hundred years ago in England, and that I was her footpad son, returning from gaol to haunt her honest labors in the hashery”(161-162).  In addition to the tribal Catholic Italian trope used, I find it interesting that he used the term ‘gaol’ rather than jail, so strongly evocative of Ireland, yet have found little analysis of either of these to date.
godfather mother
Catholic mother with young Don Corleone in The Godfather.  Photo courtesy of The Niles Files.
  • And for an ethno-religious subculture so linked to the notions of family often besieged, what role did Flannery O’Connor’s vocation to the single life play in her writing?
  • Was O’Connor’s work then affected by her being the only one of the three writers from the heavily Protestant American South?’

Irish American Map

  • Did her Catholic isolation affect the women of her short stories?

All in all, I am happy to report that, much like the director’s cut of Donnie Darko, this mini-conference left me with more new questions than answers.  I was afraid at first that I’d not have enough questions to ask, or material to use to cover 15,000 to 17,000 words for my final thesis, but I no longer have that fear.

Works Cited:

“Euro Americans…Reflections on European Ethnicity in America.”  26 November 2010.  http://euro-americans.blogspot.ie/2010/11/where-irish-americans-live.html.  Accessed 28 March 2017.

Folley, Nick.  “Catholic Church is Not to Blame Entirely for Tuam Babies.”  Cork Independent, 19 June 2014.  http://www.corkindependent.com/20140619/news/catholic-church-is-not-to-blame-entirely-for-tuam-babies-S85780.html.  Accessed 28 March 2017.

Griffin, Jay.  ps09jgriffin.  Medford High School.               http://becomingamerica.wikispaces.com/ps09jgriffin.  Accessed 28 March 2017.

Gluck, Robert.  “J.D. Salinger and the Holocaust.”  The Algemeiner, 27 April 2014, http://www.algemeiner.com/2014/04/27/j-d-salinger-and-the-holocaust/.  Accessed 28 March 2017.

“I Feel Like I’m Taking Crazy Pills! – Will Ferrell In Zoolander GIF” https://www.tenor.co/view/willferrell-crazypills-zoolander-crazy-insane-gif-3547413.  Accessed 28 March 2017.

Kerouac, Jack. On the Road (Penguin Classics) (p. 5-6 & 161). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Knobel, Dale T.  Paddy and the Republic: Ethnicity and Nationality in Antebellum America.  Wesleyan University Press, 1986.

MacLise, Daniel.  “Illustration to Thomas Moore’s song, ‘Erin, the Tear and the Smile in Thine Eyes.'”  O’Shea, Helen.  http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/mp/9460447.0003.205/–defining-the-nation-confining-the-musician-the-case-of-irish?rgn=main;view=fulltext.  Accessed 28 March 2017.

“Moriarty Family History.”  Ancestry.com.  http://www.ancestry.com/name-origin?surname=moriarty.  Accessed 28 March 2017.

@nilesfiles, The Niles Files.  “The Godfather Part II: Fruit of Thy Womb”, The Niles Files, http://nilesfilmfiles.blogspot.ie/2012/03/godfather-part-ii-fruit-of-thy-womb.html.  Accessed 28 March 2017.

White, Victoria.  “Protestant Bethany Homes Babies Ignored Despite Tuam Revelations.”  Irish Examiner, 12 June 2014, http://www.irishexaminer.com/viewpoints/columnists/victoria-white/protestant-bethany-homes-babies-ignored-despite-tuam-revelations-271739.html.  Accessed 28 March 2017.

Writing Workshop

Last week I went to an awesome writer’s workshop for… writers-block-2!!!

[Full disclosure, though, I haven’t been having writer’s block.  Creative writing lately has felt like the easiest outlet for stress or frustration I have.]

Nonetheless, it sounded really fun, and I had been to a few events hosted by the UCC English Society, and they’d all been fun… oh no, need to find synonyms for ‘fun’…. will bring that up next time, hope it will be… fun?

Anyway, here’s the flier:writing-workshop

I hadn’t heard of Kathy D’Arcy before, having done my undergrad in the states, but it was really fun… eh, nice, meeting her at the event.  We started off with a meditation, then some simple writing exercises, describing a person we knew by just writing non stop for 5 minutes.  Eventually, we got prompts, such as, write a metaphor about this person using ‘fire’ or ‘earth’ or ‘water’.  I used the person I always seem to… Brendan Castle, a buddy of mine I met when we were 17 at Scout Camp over the Summer.  We hated each other.  Like, I mean, big time.  His purple hair and anarchy logos were the antithesis to my Catholic iconography stenciled over punk rock lyrics on my jumper.  I didn’t see him again until we were 19, when we discovered we were very much involved in the same music scene when I drove a friend of mine, who was the lead singer for the band Brendan was playing drums for, to the dilapidated recording studio behind the Halal butcher and in front of the Trailer Park off Route 28 in my hometown.  Becoming friends through shared musical tastes, and an affinity for the social circle of others on the fringe of society led him to call me one afternoon in 2008, after I had completed Basic Training and Infantry School, and had been drilling part time as a National Guardsman, preparing to go to Iraq for a year.  Ultimately, we ended up as roommates in Richmond for a while, working civilian jobs and going to college, and drilling on weekends at the same National Guard unit, before going to Afghanistan together, my second deployment, his first.  We stopped being Brendan and Phil, and instead became Castle and Nannery.

Above: A couple of BFFs.

Kathy asked me if I’d heard of Kevin Powers before.  It was strange.  I met him last year, after getting rear ended borrowing my sister’s car by some neck-tattooed hick on the Midlo Turnpike.  Kevin Powers went to the same University as me, and I was there giving a talk to English undergrads about how to teach English abroad, having promptly grown a beard and moved to Japan after ETSing from the Guard and graduating in ’13.  I walked up to him after his reading in the English building on Grace Street, the same Grace Street that had been called Hell Block when me and Castle moved to Richmond, before it became gentrified and safe.  I asked Kevin ironically, if he could ‘spare a cigarette for a combat vet down on his luck’.  He laughed, and we had a smoke together, and chatted.  I told him that I hadn’t read his book, The Yellow Birds, afraid that it would influence me too much as I tried to find my own voice and style.  He understood, totally

Kathy told me that there is a huge demand for ‘war fiction’ now, because it’s happening so recently, and still happening, and there is not much material being written about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  I thought of how it seemed to me that all the memoirs and non fiction books and fiction written about Iraq and Afghanistan seem to come from journalists, or worse… officers.  Not enlisted, not grunts, like me and Castle.  People love the stories of Special Forces, and Special Operations, though they don’t know the difference between the two, and the big shot generals who make the big decisions.  “Gods and Generals”, I believe that Civil War film was called…. I used to joke around with my buddies in Afghanistan, that I would write a memoir one day, about the disconnect between the top brass and the media, and America’s perception from the reality of us ‘boots on the ground’.  Never mind trying to explain the flood of emotions I experience when I read some reporter or politician debating the deployment or definition of ‘boots on the ground’.  That would be impossible to communicate, and I won’t even try.  I would call the memoir ‘Peons and Privates’, I would always say.  While that still remains an inside joke with buddies, I have written a novel since, and am currently sending query letters to literary agents who mostly don’t write back.  Don’t believe me…?  Observe, exhibit A:dwelling-cover

But that’s not done overnight.  It’s not.  And sitting down, and having a fit of eloquent verbal diarrhea won’t magically manage to create an outlet for all of the thoughts, and memories, the sounds, and sights, and smells that I took in and soaked into my mind, my body, my soul, everything for 2 years in my early 20s.  It’s a process.  It’s a fun process.  And Kathy’s input was awesome, and encouraging, and fun, to hear.  She asked me if I was familiar with the Beats, and I grew mollified, and said ‘of course’ and mentioned how I was planning on doing a thesis on the cultural influence of the Irish diaspora on Jack Kerouac.  She told me that she asked because I had these long, flowing sentences, which I recently found a word for (parataxis).  I thought back to my senior year of high school, in the states, after meeting Castle at Summer camp the same week I found out my parents were getting divorced, and shortly before finding out the Marine Corps recruiter wouldn’t take me because of my medical history and getting expelled from school when I was younger, a few years before I joined the Army instead, I would sit in the back of Mr. Miller’s English class in front of a big poster with a picture of Jack Kerouac and a quote of his.kerouac 2.pngI’ve thought about this for years.  It was one of those things that began my interest in writing, in living, in being a beatnik, in going to Ireland to see where my family came from during the Celtic Tiger in 2006, in joining the Army in 2007, in travelling.  And most of all, it is what I have always thought of, since being in Iraq, and always wanting to capture just one image that I remember.  I once saw a line of red tracer rounds shooting across the night Baghdad sky, to shoot down incoming mortar rounds.  I was safe, of course, as it was several kilometers away.  But the image of something so violent, exploding against the night sky, with the Iraqi heat pressing up against my chafed and reddened young skin, has always felt like the most impossibly illusive experience to attempt to communicate to others.  But then, I guess that’s what makes me mad, and that’s what makes me desirous.

I hope to use some of the insights and feedback from the session, and look forward to more English Society events, and a big shout out to the UCC English Society and Dr. Kathy D’Arcy of UCC as well.



Works Cited:

Ott, Christopher.  “Mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved”.  Serviette Scribbles, 11 June, 2013, http://www.serviettescribbles.com/2013/06/mad-to-live-mad-to-talk-mad-to-be-saved.html.  Accessed 28 Feb. 2017.

Wikpedia editathon!!!

I was so happy to recently take part in a wikpedia ediathon for my Contemporary Research class with Donna Marie.  First off, I love wikipedia.  I mean, as in, I am in love with it.  Ever since I discovered it about 10 years ago, I’ve been known to spend hours reading pages, delving deeper and deeper in to obscure and esoteric information.  Second off, I’ve just learned how to insert hypertext, so please feel free to click on the blue underlined stuff, leading to the pages I’ve worked on or used as sources.  A few years back, I had actually created an account to edit a page about The Battle of Doan, which I played an extremely small supporting ronle in while serving in Afghanistan.

Above: Dunder Mifflin Regional Manager Michael Scott agreeing with me concerning Wikipedia.

One of the challenges to this was that I was not very familiar with the complexities of formatting on Wikipedia.  Additionally, I included the role American forces of  the 29th Infantry Division, serving at the time as part of a PRT, played in the engagement.  At the time, a team of journalists embedded with Australian troops made an incredible piece on their deployment to the area, but my additions to the page were entirely based on my own personal experiences and recollection, bolstered by a few sworn statements for awards I’d had from my chain of command.

After this, I had also actually made a few minor edits to the page for the Congregation of Christian Brothers.  Before, there had been a section about the Christian Brothers in “The British Isles”.  I changed it because of the the archaic sound of “British Isles” which has always ruffled my feathers.  I remember being teased as a kid in middle school, about The British Isles needing to be more British when I would get angry debating and arguing with classmates over Irish nationalism, and being likened to terrorists for it.  But, luckily, there are credible debates about the language of these islands, is a legitimate thing, and not just a reflection of my own idiosyncratic  hyper-nationalist Irish-American upbringing… Exhibit A: British Isles naming dispute.

Thanks, Wikipedia!!!!

So, with that limited background of Wikipedia, I dove in to the edit-athon recently and realized…. Yeah, this is still really difficult.  I was writing about Tom MacIntyre, because recently having read his play The Great Hunger for another class, I found that there was remarkably little about him on Wikipedia.  Another monkey wrench in the spokes of my plan occurred when two days prior to the edit-athon, my laptop appeared to have been damaged!!! (Turns out, it wasn’t.  I’d only engaged the button that converted it to a tablet, and couldn’t figure out why leaning back the screen was making it throw a conniption each time).  So, after the awkward start of borrowing Donna’s laptop, I dove in, realizing that it would take longer to correctly cite the plays of Tom MacIntyre from Irish Playography.  It seemed legit… I mean, if it wasn’t, then I would at the very least cite it correctly, as they included on the page their own citation, of the original play programs.  Yeah, I felt confident.  In the end, though, I had to go back after the class concluded, and finished adding information about the plays.  I still haven’t finished all that I would like to, and do plan on returning to the page eventually to add a bit more biographical information.  But I look forward to any thoughts you have on what I’ve done so far:

After updating the info on Tom MacIntyre, I did also add a line to the Wikipedia page for Jack Kerouac.  I made a mention of Joycean influences on his writing style, and cited a great essay by Michael Begnal.


I hope anyone reading this enjoys, and look forward to any thoughts, feedback, or comments.  I also hope that this was only the first of many, many more Wikipedia edits.

Works Cited:

Begnal, Michael S. “‘To Be an Irishman Too’: Jack Kerouac’s Irish Connection.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, vol. 92, no. 368, 2003, pp. 371–377., http://www.jstor.org/stable/30095661.

Quigley, Kaitlin.  When your professor says Wikipedia is not a credible source.  13 December 2016.  Her Campus at Loyola University Marymount Campus, http://www.hercampus.com/school/lmu/finals-week-told-michael-scott.  Accessed 20 February, 2017.

Moveable bookend


One of the things I’m very interested in at the moment, is the flip side of what commentators often call the ‘Francis effect’, ie, the perceived idea that many lapsed Catholics will somehow find their way back to the flock now that the pontiff has adopted a kinder and gentler tone. Many skeptical critics from the left are quick to point out that Pope Francis in no way represents or advocates changes in Catholic doctrine, despite the clear consternation his rhetoric seems to cause the right in the US.  While his rhetoric towards social justice doesn’t seem to sway wary lapsed liberals, his criticism of extreme, “unfettered” capitalism have brought some corners of the Right to War-of-the-Worlds level moral panic.  Ironically though, unlike the cautious skeptics of the left, most conservative pundits have failed to point out that Pope Francis, again, represents NO CHANGE in criticizing the shortcomings of capitalism.

Perhaps because of the euphoria of the Cold War ending, or the rage and fury of the War on Terror beginning, many seem to apply a selective amnesia to the many right-wing feather ruffling stances of the late Pope John Paul II.  He did not hesitate in vocally denouncing US led wars, whether it was his outspoken criticism of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, which he referred to as a “defeat for humanity” (Bruni), the much more diplomatically accepted and consensus appeasing 1991 Persian Gulf War.  Nor were these stances strange anomalies, forgotten for just being the idiosyncratic outliers of individual Popes, unrepresentative of the larger Catholic Church as a whole.  Though Pope John Paul II is often remembered for being a strong critic of the Soviet Union alongside Ronald Regan, the American Catholic Church of the 1980s had a much more nuanced social and political standing in the United States.  A 1983 pastoral letter of the US bishops condemning the nuclear arms race, entitled The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, offers a great insight of this mercurial relationship between American conservatism and Catholicism.  Despite shared enmity towards Soviet Communism and similar beliefs towards abortion and gay marriage, the letter denounced many aspects of Regan’s nuclear policy and “The drafting of this pastoral letter exposed a tension between two conflicting storylines of Reagan and Catholicism” (McBrady, 130).  It is true that the “culture wars” following the legalization of abortion in the US in the 1970s fostered a new era of eccumenicsim and inter-faith dialogue between Protestant and Catholic religious institutions.  However, the US Catholic Church was still culturally rooted in the ethnic immigrant experience, as written about in Lawrence J. McCaffrey’s book The Irish Catholic Diaspora, which I recently had the pleasure of using as research when writing an essay on Caddyshack.  Despite the fact that by the 1980s, Irish American Catholics had begun to vote Republican, reflecting their adoption of middle-class values, nonetheless, “The American [Catholic] hierarchy has been conservative on theological, gender, and sexual matters, but exceptionally liberal in speaking out on economic, social, racial, an peace issues” (187).

A good example of this muddling of lines can be seen in a recent Breitbart article entitled “Jesuit Priest Stokes Fake War Between Pope Francis and Steve Bannon”, in which the anti-Catholic mass hysteria of the mid 19th century seems to be jumping right out of the pages into current year paranoia.  The fact that he was a Jesuit was interesting, it actually reminded me of a recent article I read about androgyny playing a role in Anti-Catholic movements of the 19th century.  During the 19th century in America,

Protestant men imagined the Jesuit in two contrasting ways: as symbols both of unfettered authority and effeminate submissiveness. In his power over other Catholics and his sexual prowess, the Jesuit took on an almost inhuman masculinity. But viewed in another light, the Jesuit’s total submissiveness to the dictates of the Church hierarchy represented the emasculation of the male character in its most dramatic form. In their depiction of the Jesuit, nativists emphasised his super-human willpower and single-mindedness. Unlike the corpulent monk, the typical Jesuit was described as tall and lean to emphasise his sense of purpose and discipline. The Jesuits had a mission to extend the power of the Pope over all civilised nations and thus everywhere extinguish liberty- and as Papal agents could command the unquestioning loyalty of clergy and congregation (Verhoeven, 14-15).

As if that wasn’t enough, Pope Francis, successor to Saint Peter, on top of being a Jesuit, is the first pope ever from Latin America.  A deep fear of all things Spanish speaking permeates Anglo culture as much as its fear of all things Catholic, going back to centuries before America even existed as a country to be made great, conjuring up terror of armada based invasion.

Above: 1920s anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic propaganda.

My question is whether or not middle class Catholics will be able to look at the current debates over immigration from Latin America and refugees from the Middle East as Catholics, who once arrived in America as a distrusted and alien people, or with the middle class values typically (but not always) ascribed to Americanism.  Will middle class white Catholics abandon Catholicism if it continues to vociferously denounce US immigration policy, or will they adopt the type of ‘cafeteria Catholicism’ employed by many politicians on the left who disagree with church teachings on abortion but want working class Irish American votes in the Northeast?  Will Catholics fall out with other middle and working class whites into the category of marginalized, and if so, will they be accepted by the left who claim the mantle of tolerance, as they do with Islam, which often holds strongly conservative views?  Or will Catholics be relegated to a social standing of distrust by the left and the right?  Will they go back to being the white people that other white people can’t vouch for?  The closing line of the Breitbart article doesn’t leave me feeling paranoid asking these questions: “Those members of the Church militant [Jesuits] sure are a sneaky bunch”.

Works cited:

Bruni, Frank.  “THREATS AND RESPONSES: THE VATICAN; Pope Voices Opposition, His Strongest, To Iraq War.”  The New York Times, 14 January, 2003.

Clarke, Branford.  This Tree Must Come Down, 1925.  Pillar of Fire Church, Zarephath, New Jersey.  http://vintage-ads.livejournal.com/4914004.html.  Accessed 15 February, 2017.

McBrady, Jared.  “The Challenge of Peace: Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, and the American Bishops.”  Journal of Cold War Studies, Volume 17, no. 1, Winter, 2015, pp. 129-152.  Accessed 15 February, 2017.

McCaffrey, Lawrence J.  The Irish Catholic Diaspora in America.  The Catholic University of America Press, 1997.

Williams, Thomas D.  “Jesuit Priest Stokes Fake War Between Pope Francis and Steve Bannon.”  Breitbart, 13 February, 2017.  http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2017/02/13/jesuit-priest-stokes-fake-war-pope-francis-steve-bannon/  Accessed 15 February, 2017.

Verhoeven, Timothy.  “Neither Male Nor Female: Androgyny, Nativism And International Anti-Catholicism.”   Australasian Journal of American Studies, vol. 24, no. 1, July, 2005, pp. 5-19.

Wuerker, Matt.  Politico.  https://www.pinterest.com/williamsonc0522/editorial-cartoons/  Accessed 15, February 2017.

Doers and sayers

Over the last few months, it has felt surreal at times to work on this program.  I sometimes vacillate between feelings of triumph and defeat, as if going back to school after a few years working was either the best or worst decision I could’ve made.  I recently had one of those moments though that reminded me of why I love what I’m doing, and why I’m happy I decided to go back to school after teaching for some time, that I’ll share here.  So I was in Spain last Summer.  I’d gone for the Running of the Bulls with my brother Aidan who is ten years my junior and my buddy Rob from Limerick whom I used to teach English with in Japan.  We’d talked about it in Japan, and said that if I had moved to Ireland as planned, we’d do it.  My brother Aidan being there was an added bonus, as I’d used that Summer as a way to connect with him and catch up, realizing that we really had had separate childhoods since our parents split when he was 7 and I was 17.  Rob often tells me that I waffle on and on with hubris when I tell stories, so I was a bit nervous that my little brother would witness some scrutiny which took me down a peg in his eyes.  It took me back to being a kid, when everyone would be fighting and I’d feel like being the oldest I’d have to be the one to keep everyone calm as the wheels flew off the bus hurtling down the proverbial mountainside road, as I always do when congregating with people I care about whom I know from separate circles.

Above: Me embarrassing my little brother Aidan in public, after a morning of running from bulls.

It was last July, and the bus carrying us over hills an valleys from Pamplona to San Sebastian which was the nearest place we could find accommodation was hot, sticky, and cramped, reminiscent of the back of a Bradley* as I impressed all present with my precise skills of discreetly urinating into empty bottles as the bus bumped and jostled along, without spilling a drop in the furthest back seats.  We were passing around plastic bottles of sangria, which sounded exotic but was really just the same kind of fortified wine drunk by tramps and 19 year olds back in America, just marketed to tourists like us.  The adrenaline and endorphins were still being dumped into our blood vessels from our brains as we recounted the morning’s adventure, and planning how we would return the following day to make it in to the plaza following the run through the narrow cobbled streets.  Ahead of us, a large group of Americans without discernible accents were talking about how they’d gotten on for the morning.  They all looked about 20 or so.

*Above: a Bradley

They went to Notre Dame, and were mostly from the West Coast.  We made small talk a bit, knowing that the bus ride was over an hour, and feeling friendly on such an occasion.  Aidan made one of them angry when he made a joke about San Francisco (something implying that it was full of Yuppies  who’d never done manual labor before).  Her boyfriend became angry as well, and I could sense the tension on the back of the bus, and tried to change the subject, even though I laughed at the exchange, because the irony seemed lost on them that they all sort of seemed like the daughters and sons of start up Yuppies who’d never done manual labor before.  But I didn’t want the day ruined, so we talked about books, because I’d told them about how I was getting ready to start an MA in English for Irish writing and film.  I remember being surprised that they said they were Catholic, and I remember being surprised that they went to Notre Dame.  I have to remind myself still that the world is not the same as our father’s generation, a memory of a time before mine and even my time is passing rapidly.  I’ll turn 30 this weekend.  Jesuits aren’t an automatic indicator of someone belonging to ‘our thing’ as the Italians used to call it, because there isn’t even an ‘our’ or ‘us’ anymore, though their institutions remain.

So six months back, on the bus, in the backseat, in Spain, I argued that Jack Kerouac was the greatest American writer definitely of the 20th Century, and possibly of all time, which shocked the young man I was talking to.  I made arguments based on his life, and times, what he did, what he believed, how his philosophy and beliefs had evolved with time, and I grew louder and more bellicose, my olive branch turning to an arrow as I grew angry at their perfect pearly white smiles, and carefree young attitudes, and Rob and Aidan were getting a kick out of how worked up I was getting about everything once the sangria had run out in the back of the bus.

Just the other day, I came across this great biography of Jack Kerouac at the Boole Library, searching for Catholic and Irish influences on his life and writing (spoiler alert, there were plenty).  In the forward of the book, there was a perfect quote by William Burroughs that I wish I’d had 7 months ago, riding in the back of a hot, humid bus after having run from bulls in the streets, connecting with my younger brother who grew up separate from me but still remembered there being “lots of Irish people around” and feeling Irish like me in America as a kid.  It’s so perfect, and succinct, and because I don’t believe in coincidences, I thought I’d share the quote, and put it in my back pocket to save for a rainy day, and by that I mean the next time I have to have a heated debate over why I think Kerouac was the greatest American author of the 20th century certainly, and of all time, possibly.  Because I have to learn to articulate myself, and my frustrations: otherwise, all the pearly-white-smiled children of startup yuppies the world-over will always win, and the people like me and Aidan won’t have to tap the Rob’s of the world’s shoulders and ask coyly and ironically if they can tell the difference between us, because our angst and frustration will make it all too obvious.  I’ll just be an arrogant fool who waffles on, without being able to convince anyone that I have a good reason to do so.


“Kerouac was a writer.  That is, he wrote.

Many people who call themselves writers and

have their names on books are not writes

and they can’t write-the difference being,

a bullfighter who fights a bull is different

from a bullshitter who makes passes with no

bull there.  The writer has been there or he

can’t write about it.  And going there he

risks being gored.  By that I mean what the

Germans aptly call the Time Ghost-for example,

such a fragile ghost world as Fitzgerald’s

Jazz age…What are writers, and I will

confine the use of this term to writers of

novels, trying to do?  They are trying to

create a universe in which they have lived

or would like to live.  To write they must

go there and submit to conditions which they

may not have bargained for.  Sometimes, as in

the case of Fitzgerald and Kerouac, the effect

produced by a writer is immediate, as if a

generation were waiting to be written.

William Burroughs


Works Cited:

Clark, Tom.  Jack Kerouac: A Biography.  Plexus, 1984.

 JohnyCarcinogen.  “PSA: If you ain’t cav, you ain’t…”.  http://www.AR15.com, 13 January, 2015, http://www.ar15.com/forums/t_1_5/1706895__ARCHIVED_THREAD____PSA__If_you_ain_t_Cav___.html&page=3.  Accessed 06, February, 2017.

Saint Mel Gibson of the Masochists, pray for me.

So I recently watched Martin Scorcese’s latest film, Silence, about two Jesuit priests who go to Japan to find and rescue their mentor during a period of Christian persecution there.

First off, spoiler alert for the films The Mission and Silence.

Also, on a personal note, having lived in Japan for nearly two years, where I actually started to get back into going to Mass, I had to try my hardest not to swoon over the nostalgia it induced in me which possibly coloured my view of the film.  Below is a trailer for it off of Youtube.

That being said, I found it interesting that I left the theater with really different impressions of the film than my girlfriend who wasn’t raised Catholic like I was.  Being the New York-Irish Mel Gibsonesque Masochistic Catholic that I am, I was going on and on about how beautiful it was, seeing people’s faith tested, and being martyred, and how it should remind us of all of the suffering and people being killed for being Christians, or Druze, or Shia now by ISIS, or the many Islamic nations with anti-apostasy laws even in the 21st century.

I thought about the 1986 film The Mission directed by Roland Joffe.  Besides the fact that both films feature Liam Neeson and several other Irish and Irish-American actors, they are both also about two Jesuits attempting to proselytize to non-western people.  One of the biggest differences between the situations of the two groups of Jesuits was that Japan was never colonized, whereas Brazil and Paraguay were.  Japan in fact, besides having the notable distinction of being one of the few nations of East Asia to not be colonized by Western powers, held the further honour of being the only major colonial power of the late 19th and early 20th centuries which was not Western.  This came after widespread reforms across he country known as the Meiji Restoration throughout the mid 19th century.  However due to the short lived nature of this imperialism, compared to Western colonialism “It is thus far less complicated and ambiguous a phenomenon than western colonialism: historians do not have to stretch their imaginations over four centuries and worry about the continuities and discontinuities between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ colonialism, as they would with European history” (Iriye, 142).  Part of the implication I think, is that this puts Japan’s colonial conquest and administration further to the fringe of the historical Western canon, for better or worse, in much the same way as conquered European cultures like Ireland, Poland, Lapland, or the Basque country.

Anyway, both Silence and The Mission took place during the period sometimes referred to as ‘old colonialism’, with Silence taking place during the zenith of the Portuguese empire, and The Mission taking place towards its nadir, in the mid 18th century.  However, director Roland Joffe did acknowledge that he was attempting to draw parallels to contemporary conflicts across the world.  He has said that the Mission was:

Absolutely a contemporary metaphor. It’s a metaphor for South Africa, where exactly the same thing is happening, where priests are standing up against the Church. It’s absolutely a metaphor for Central America and the problem of commitment. What I wanted the story to be was two things: in one sense, as a modern metaphor for what is going on in Central America where the forces are exactly the same – a certain element of racism, commercial pressure, ideological struggle, the imperitives [sic] of commerce (Bird 40)

One of the biggest concerns I have with a lot of contemporary post-colonial analyses of literature and film are the dangers of arriving at racially Manichean conclusions.  The danger I think is that those black and white definitions of oppression and marginalization further reinforce an ethnocentric worldview, in which all oppression is viewed through

Political cartoon in a French newspaper depicting Britain, Germany, Russia, France and Japan dividing China shortly before the outbreak of the Boxer Rebellion

the narrow lens as part of the Western canon, as if non Western cultures were somehow ‘incapable’ of the same avarice as Europeans.  The Opium War of the early 19th century was an obscene waste of human life, which saw grossly disproportionate numbers of Chinese killed by the Europeans of mostly France and England, and I am by no means attempting to refute that or act as an apologist to it.  My dilemma is that this can not speak for European nations which never colonized foreign lands like Ireland, Poland, or Lithuania, which were themselves occupied by other, far more powerful European nations.  Nor do most analyses of imperialism account for the fact that Japan, a non European, non Western, non white, non Christian nation, deployed troops to brutally repress the Boxer Rising and subsequently continue colonizing China later in the 19th century, alongside mostly European and American forces.

It’s easy to lose sight of the forest focusing on the tree, as the old adage goes, and I think that many (though not all) post-colonial paradigms throughout the humanities of Academia are guilty of this, by often forgetting that the violence and trauma of the past as universal tragedies of human nature.  Below is a piece of artwork by Italian artist Milo Minara which I think captures the sentiment of universality in the violence depicted in Silence and The Mission.

Bericht van @DesideriaSB.


It is in this archetypal experience which I find the most hauntingly beautiful aspects of spiritual expression, of seeking the better angels of our natures and intangible virtues like love and compassion.  And that is what I loved about Silence, and The Mission.  They both depict some of the weakest foibles of human nature as Jungian style archetypes, which transcend any political, racial, or religious identity.  The beauty within these depictions of pain, suffering, torture, murder, mayhem, malice and martyrdom, was the will of characters to believe in things beyond their own world of misery, and the love displayed therein.

Above: Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) marches forward holding the Eucharistic adoration towards certain death alongside native converts.

Works Cited:

Bird, Thomas.  Interview with Roland Joffe.  Bomb, no. 18, 1987, pp. 36-41.

En Chine.  1898/01/16, no. 374, Le Petit Journal, National Library of France.

Iriye, Akira. “Reviewed Work(s): The Japanese Colonial Empire, 1895-1945 by Ramon H. Myers and Mark R. Peattie.” Taylor & Francis, Ltd. 8.No. 1 (1986): 142–144. Print.

The Mission.  Directed by Roland Joffe, perfromances by Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro, Warner Brothers, 1986.

Silence.  Directed by Martin Scorcese, performances by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, Paramount Pictures, 2016.

Saint Denis Leary of the Assholes, pray for us.

At times I feel I was either born in a zenith or renaissance of Irish American identity, and both are partially true.  My father grew up in Rockaway, Queens, the Irish Riviera as it’s sometimes jokingly called.  As I grew up being told, everyone was Irish, and that statement carried with it an undertone of pride in what much of our modern society categorically rejects, namely, tribalism along ethnic lines.  But growing up as a kid, the idea of an ethnic struggle was not one linked in any way in my mind to racism, but rather, one in which working class people of all ethnic groups and religions competed at various levels for success within America, and the only people who would call such competition racist, were the same wealthy white liberals who contrived things like the Boston bussing riots.  While the rich would espouse noble progressive ideals, it was the poor white people, the ethnic whites, who would bear the burdensome label of racist.

I did not grow up in that environment, but rather in the post-white flight DC suburbs of Virginia, and in that way, yes, I did grow up in a sort of zenith of the older Irish American diaspora.  However, growing up, my sense of community and place was still largely based around cultural institutions which survived white flight, which I had been told was the government’s effort to ‘destroy Irish-American culture’.  These institutions included the local Catholic Parish (All Saints Catholic, Manassas, Virginia) the Emerlad Society Pipe Band my parents both played in, perpetually surrounding me with Irish Americans working as firefighters and law enforcement, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and the Knights of Columbus.  And every kid I knew from these institutions, like me, was the son or daughter of an Irish American or an Italian American from New York, or Boston, or Philadelphia, or Chicago, or Baltimore, all lured down south for the economy built around the federal government in DC.  We had as much of a Northeast diaspora as we did an Irish one.

In doing recent research, I came across a great essay in “Screening Irish-America: Representing Irish-America in Film and Television”, edited by Ruth Barton.  It was entitled “Irishness, Anger and Masculinity in Recent Film and Television” by Diane Negra.  It is always both humbling and frustrating at the same time to come across essays like this: on the one hand I feel a sense of vindication at someone far more educated and successful than myself pointing out something I’ve spent years casually observing over pints to family members and friends.  On the other hand, there is a knee jerk reaction to angrily observe that, I’ve been saying this for years and no one ever published my observations.  I apologize there if my angry Irish masculinity was showing.  So much of what she observes, I have always felt when watching films about Irish-Americans, such as: “The fact that this material has been so transparently ‘Irish-ized’ reinforces the broad consensus in the US that Irishness is available to speak a precariously classed, highly unstable whiteness” (Negra, 280).

One of the toughest questions I have been struggling with, is whether or not something manufactured is unreal.  So many of the gangster films discussed in Diane Negra’s essay were made in the 2000’s, but largely rely on social trends of the 1980s and 1990s, such as the Irish mob portrayed in series like Brotherhood and The Departed, or gentrification of Hell’s Kitchen in the series The Black Donnellys.  I think that a part of this is just cultural inertia, as these series and films were largely created by people who would have been coming up in a world in which these social trends would have been more contemporary.  But many people have spoken over pints about social trends casually observed. As the rise of the internet and social media has proven to us though, it is which of these conversations the wider society as a whole picks up on which makes it pertinent.

In addition to exploring the social trends which have created a market with an ear to the angry Irish male in gangster films, I found it interesting to read about the idea of the Irish American trend of the civil servant.  The essay has a section entitled “Managing the Politics of Disposability”.  In it, she looks at Irish American males in the series Rescue Me, and The Wire.  Growing up with a father who played the bagpipes for a Fire Department’s Emerald Society, and as a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who always raises a glass alongside first responders at both Saint Patrick’s and Veteran’s Day parades alike, this section strongly resonated with me.  Denis Leary will always represent so much of the Irish American identity that I share, so I suppose that this video is a fitting testament to the essay, taking place in New York in the decade prior to 9/11 by House of Pain, an Irish American hip hop group.  Denis Leary’s direct confrontation with the audience through the fourth wall did twenty years ago what I suppose I am trying to do today: to divide with an iron curtain personal experience from the hypothetical, the emotional from the intellectual, and draw a line in the sand over which one can be comfortably Irish, where the culturally manufactured is real, and the punditry may be damned.  Great song though.

Works Cited:

Negra, Diane.  “Irishness, Anger and Masculinity in Recent Film and Television.”  Screening Irish-America: Representing Irish-America in Film and Television, edited by Ruth Barton, Irish Academic Press, 2009, pp. 279-296.

The Eagle Huntress

Over the weekend I went to see two films at the Cork Film Festival.  First I watched “The Eagle Huntress” at the Everyman on MacCurtain Street.  It was a story about Aisholpan, a young Kazakh girl in Western Mongolia who wanted to become the first female eagle hunter in over 12 generations.  I think that part of the reason that I enjoyed the film so much was due to experiences in my own personal life.  I commented afterwards that the landscapes in it reminded me so much of Afghanistan, which had me leaving the theater in a fit of nostalgia.  Indeed, it wasn’t until the end of the film when one of the hunters mentions that the people are ethnic Kazakhs rather than Mongolians, and it instantly clicked, how I had recognized some of the words used over subtitles, which bore so much resemblance to the Dari of Northern and Central Afghanistan.  The people in the film looked and interacted much like the Hazara and Tajiks I had used to work with in Afghanistan, who had been a hated and oppressed minority under Taliban rule, suffering several waves of ethnic cleansing in the 1990s.  They had been quite fond of the American presence in the country.  It was often said to us over tea, and biscuits and cucumber and raisins and rice, spread out across massive Persian rugs, that the Hazara were direct descendants of the Mongolian hordes which had stayed on and never left Afghanistan.

A big part of why I so readily identified with the film was probably due to my own sense of frustration with cultural attitudes the West often has with regards to progressive values.  While on the one hand the promotion of individual liberties and progressive values is understood to be universally and unquestionably virtuous, it often belies its own aversion to colonialism and imperialism.  Take for example feminism and gay rights.  Though these are causes widely taken up in affluent democracies, Western progressives stress the importance of multi-culturalism of non-Western cultures.  An inevitable dilemma occurs when non-Western cultures hold on to materialist values which may seem to be antithetical towards feminism and gay rights  How could one watch the film and not recognize the utilitarian value of large families in the setting of a society wholly dependent on subsistence farming and hunting?  How can one criticize this division of labor without looking like a cultural bully, ignorant and unemphatic to the harsher realities of others?  I have witnessed this myself first hand in Afghanistan.  If we in the West can all look back at the Bush era neo-conservative, democratic nation building paradigm as ethnocentric and culturally naive, than I think it is impossible not to place the same cultural standard upon progressive activists.  “The Eagle Huntress” did what the US couldn’t in central Asia: it entered into a foreign world, and with precision observed a social change magnificently and artfully without getting bogged down.

I cynically feel at times like much of the Western world is attempting to recreate the colonial scramble for global influence of the 19th century, under the banner of self-proclaimed progressive values.  A cursory look at the rise of conservativism in Russia contrasted with the widely liberal United Kingdom alongside military adventurism by both nations in central Asia hearkens back to the 19th century’s “Great Game”.great-game  But “The Eagle Huntress” remarkably didn’t have the tone of Western moral denunciation for something deemed sexist.  Instead of coming across as this sort of culturally imperialist hatchet job that liberals in developed nations like to watch in order to hoist themselves above the plebeian masses, it very objectively, and very humorously showed a cultural collision, in a microcosm of the human tale, in plainly human terms.  Any local indignation and conservative voices opposing Aisholpan’s decision to follow her dreamss were humorously depicted as something akin to little boys huddled in tree houses with signs above them reading ‘no girls allowed’.  And they were proven wrong.  Aisholpan’s victory at the Eagle Hunting competition (against dozens of far more experienced men) is roundly summed up as ‘not a true test of an Eagle hunter’.  Until she can go out into the cold of the frozen steppes and actually catch a fox, she is not a true eagle hunter, they assert.  She then goes out into the frozen steppes and catches a fox with her father, as he did with his father.  And they show a remarkably human reaction to Aisholpan’s dream.  Though initially finding it odd for a young girl to want to do, they simply shrug, and agree that if it’s what she wants to do, then why not give her their blessing?



In further avoiding the Ghost of Colonial Empires Past (sorry, it’s near Christmas time, I’ve Charles Dickens on the mind) the film’s narrator had a distinctly British accent, but spoke seldom.  This helped to convey a very objective portrayal of Aisholpan as she attempted to do something so incredible.  There was no grand statement made by her; she was simply a 13 year old girl who enjoyed what all the other 13 year old girls in her village did.  From Monday to Friday she lived in a dormitory with her classmates at school; they laughed, and told stories, and studied, and played ball.  They painted their nails, and braided their hair.  And they asked her, amazed, and intrigued, how it felt to train eagles to hunt.  And she told them, shrugging, it was fun.  They laughed, in shock while she was in training, and then clapped, inspired when she won in competition.  The film was a snapshot of a world most of us are completely unfamiliar with.  And it was told on Aisholpan’s terms, and on her culture’s terms, in a universal language, which everyone in the theater could laugh along with.  That was nice.

Works cited:
Grantham, Andrew.  “Railways of Afghanistan: Afghan Railroads, Past, Present and Future.” http://www.andrewgrantham.co.uk/afghanistan/railways/the-great-game/

The Eagle Huntress.  Directed by Otto Bell, performances by Aisholpan Nurgaiv, Nurgaiv Rys, Almagul Kuksyegyen, Dalaikhan.  2016.

Who among you?

“Let’s just say, there’s a reason New York don’t have a Saint George’s Day parade, son”.  My father told me this once when I was young.  America’s largest ethnic group, those of English descent, had no huge revelry downtown in America’s largest city, most visible to the rest of the world.  But on the 17th of every March, the feast day of Saint Patrick, glorious apostle of Ireland (*crosses oneself) millions across the country and the world, witnessed live and on TV a massive form of cultural self-expression, made largely by Irish Americans several generations removed from what we call ‘the Motherland’.  Quite simply, my father would always say, ‘this is the one day of the year, where everyone wants to be Irish.  And we let them’. 

To many in Ireland, however, my father is not Irish.  I am not Irish.  While we define our Irishness in ethnic terms, or cultural terms, to many here on this island, by virtue of being raised somewhere else, and having American accents, we could never be, and have never been Irish.  And that’s fine.  I have always, when faced with those ideas, chuckled and asked ‘who died and made you the Pope of who gets to be Irish”?  And it is important to note, that to this day, the Office of the Department of the Sheriff Who Judges Who is Properly Irish, and Who Ain’t remains vacant in Dublin.  But why then, does the sense of being Irish remain so strong, comparatively, to other ethnic groups in America?  As Brendan Behan once famously quipped : “other people have a nationality.  The Irish and the Jews have a psychosis”. 

How fitting then, that in Michael S. Begnal’s article, “To be an Irishman Too”: Jack Kerouac’s Irish Connection”, he details the chance encounter between Brendan Behan, and Jack Kerouac.  Kerouac himself held a lifelong fascination with Ireland, and the Celtic identity (371).  It has to be remembered that in the 1950s, the idea of Irishness being separate from mainstream white America was not a long distant relic of the past, and that this paradoxical idea of white and not white at the same time is the exact sort of paradox Jack Kerouac, Catholic and Buddhist, Beatnik who hated hippies, would have found fascinating.  And Begnal writes that Kerouac and Behan were very compatible, speaking highly of each other afterwards (375).  The idea did cross my mind that perhaps this was a more antiquated version of I-have-a-black-friend syndrome.  However, I think that that type of cynicism is a way of people, like those self appointed deputies of the Sherrif Who Judges Who is Properly Irish, and Who Ain’t, to try to diminish the genuine sense of belonging that people get from wanting to belong to groups they somehow identify with.

Works Cited:  

Begnal, Michael S.  “To be an Irishman Too”: Jack Kerouac’s Irish Connection”.  Studies:An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 92, No. 368 (Winter, 2003), pp. 371-377)


‘“Remembering” Past Futures: Commemoration and the Roads Untaken’

Hello, this seems to be the first blog post I am writing (other than the brief ‘about me’ I put up last month) and I am really excited to be doing so.  I recently had the pleasure of attending Dr. Heather Laird’s public lecture “Remembering” Past Futures: Commemoration and the Roads Untaken.  One of the reasons I was so excited about the lecture was that it was one of those beautiful intersections of literature and history I love so very very much, having majored in English and minored in history for my undergrad in the states.

One of the main ideas which Dr. Laird got at was that the past “could have been other than what it was” and to use this in our understanding of how we can shape both the present and future.  I have always been fascinated by, but intellectually wary of the ‘what ifs’ and ‘if only’s of historical musings.  On the one hand, it can help us to appreciate the level of human progress, and on the other it can put one into a depressed tail spin towards nowhere.

As a kid, so much of what I had always heard was that “if x hadn’t happened, we’d be speaking German” in regards to any event which could have potentially turned the tide of the second World War the other way.  That optimism though was contrasted with the lamentation that “if only” was what caused the partition of Ireland, but “what if” was what kept my great grandfather, Big Jim from being killed in Ireland in a conflict about a treaty euphemistically alluded to, rather than emigrating to New York in 1924.  “Could have” stopped flight 93 from reaching DC, where my father was working the morning of 9/11.  And countless “what ifs” I had while driving over IED laden paved roads in Iraq and backroads of Afghanistan.  I have traded a few resentments for a larger happiness of how history turned out.  I have always been drawn to historical fiction, since I was kid.  I hope to look up articles or books in the coming weeks which deal with historical fiction.  Let’s strip it down and get to the meat on the bones.

Your Charges of Catholic Loyalty are Soooo Post-JFK

Questions of American Catholics’ loyalty are not a thing of America’s past. The only thing that has changed is the political leaning of those questioning our loyalty.


My middle name is Roosevelt and my full name is Philip Roosevelt Nannery III, which people often tell me sounds posh, like royalty.  The reason that’s my name is actually the complete opposite. My Grandfather was born in New York to Irish immigrants seconds after midnight on the day in which FDR was elected President.  To Irish-Catholics like us, the Democratic Party was sacrosanct, along with the Unions and the Catholic Church, and the three formed a Holy Trinity on which our communities were based for generations.  I grew up in the suburbs of Washington DC being told this and many other blarney-and-bullshit tales of the not-so-distant past. And one story from the past that stood out and I was told about again and again, was anti-Catholic bigotry.  While I applaud Steven Waldman’s recent article comparing dual-sympathy charges against Muslims today to the anti-Catholic bigotry of America’s past there was one thing I found all too familiar and troubling: namely that he alluded to anti-Catholic charges of dual loyalty as just that- a thing of the past.  As a proudly-hyphenated American, my two main issues with this article were as follows: anti-Catholic bigotry was not some flash-in-the-pan reaction to increased immigration in the 1840s, but rather part and parcel of the very fabric of the American nation, predating the Declaration of Independence and woven into the very culture of the original thirteen British colonies.  And second, just as many white parents have a tendency nowadays to tell their children that racism is simply a ‘thing of the past’, non-Catholics often say the same of anti-Catholic bigotry.  Anti-Catholic bigotry though, is not some long-dead beast but rather, like anti-Semitism, it never truly goes away, but just calms down until it flares up again.

Anti-Catholicism is older than the American Republic, because it was intrinsic to British identity first.  Following so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ in which English Protestants triumphed over foreign Catholic powers, those who chose to still cling to the old religion in areas under English rule, particularly in Ireland, were subjected to a series of laws called the Penal Laws.  Broadly speaking, these were Apartheid-style statutes which prevented Catholics from owning land, property or livestock worth more than a certain amount, voting, owning firearms, practicing law or even teaching our children about our religion. Our priests were forbidden to celebrate Mass, and were often hunted like animals and murdered for bounties.  And while Catholic Emancipation happened in the early 1800s, just like the Emancipation Proclamation, the legacy of this lingered on long after, and still hangs like a dark cloud over Britain. Until 2013, the Law of Succession automatically forfeited a British Royal’s right to the throne if they became a Catholic. Until 2013, anyone who looked at British currency and saw the Queen’s face, the very human personification of British-ness itself was necessarily not Catholic.  They could be white, black, Indian, Jewish, Hindu, or Muslim, but no British Royal until 2013 could be a Catholic.

The Penal Laws were practiced in varying degrees in the original Thirteen Colonies.  Growing up as a kid I treated Maryland as a sort of Mecca, reminded constantly by older generations that it was so named as a Catholic safe-haven from Protestant pogrom deprivations colloquially known as Mary-land, that is to say… the land of ‘Mary Worshippers’.  It was no coincidence of course that her largest city, Baltimore, came from the Irish, Baile an Tí Mhóir, translating roughly to the place of the big house in the native tongue of two of my father’s grandparents who passed through Ellis Island in the 1920s.  

While Steven Waldman’s article did point out that America was full of anti-Catholic bigotry in the nineteenth century, I think that he utterly failed to convey the level of violence towards Catholics that this involved.  In Boston, nativist mobs burned a convent to the ground based on unsubstantiated and sensationalized rumors of macabre sexual rituals and child sacrifice, leading to bloody clashes with local Irish-Catholics. In the ensuing violence, the state militia was called in before the crowds were dispersed.  During the Mexican American War of the 1840s, an entire Battalion of mostly Irish-born conscript soldiers defected to the Mexican Army due to widespread anti-Catholic discrimination within the American ranks as well as abuse witnessed by the American Army towards Mexican Catholic clergy during that war.  Upon America’s victory in that war, most of the leaders of that battalion, the San Patricio Battalion were hanged.  And in Alabama in the early 1900s Father Coyle, an Irish-born priest in Alabama was murdered by E.R. Stephenson, a Methodist minister and member of the Ku Klux Klan, hours after officiating over the marriage of Stephenson’s daughter had converted to Catholicism to marry a Puerto Rican man.  E.R. Stephenson was not found guilty by a jury of his peers in the deeply anti-Catholic South, despite his open admission to the murder.

Anti-Catholic bigotry in America at the hands of Anglo-Saxon Protestants was not some minor unpleasantness or brief anomaly.  It lasted for centuries, from generation to generation, with blood and tears spilt freely at times, and the effects of which have lingered on long after in the psyche of many American Catholics.  This was the backdrop against which Father McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus in. And for generations the Knights of Columbus didn’t just protect us from vicious and violent attacks at the hands of Protestant nativist xenophobes, but it provided us with material support both before and after the advent of the modern welfare state.  It gave us working-class Catholics a sliver of hope in an otherwise inhospitable New World. To this day the Knights of Columbus provides life-insurance for millions of Catholic Americans as a legacy of their support for working class Catholic families whose fathers and husbands would leave their families destitute if they died working in dangerous factories otherwise.

I have faced anti-Catholic bigotry in my life.  I have been asked what I am first, an American or a Catholic (both before and after I volunteered to serve in places like Iraq and Afghanistan with the US Army in my early twenties).  And while that is anecdotal, the fact is that Kamala Harris, one of the current front-runners to contend the 2020 election as the Democratic challenger to Donald Trump recently questioned Brian C. Buescher’s fitness to serve as a district judge in Nebraska on the basis that he was a Catholic and a member of the Knights of Columbus.  This story, which received little outrage or even coverage outside of right-leaning news outlets, made my blood boil and the hairs stand on the back of my neck for a reason. It wasn’t just because I grew up with my local Knight’s Hall, with the portraits of Father McGivney who founded the organization next to Pope John Paul II and American flags.  It was because in doing so she was nearly quoting the Ku Klux Klan of the early Twentieth-century in her discrimination towards an American Catholic as openly as Father Coyle’s murderer was in the admission of his guilt, to little or no consequence.

If you are surprised that a presidential primary front-runner in an increasingly left-leaning Democratic Party could espouse towards a Catholic Judge the same sort of anti-Catholic talking points almost verbatim from the KKK’s rhetoric, don’t be.  Like anti-Semitism which is found in both the far-left and the far-right, anti-Catholicism, especially in the English-speaking world often relies on many of the same tropes: typically conjuring images of puppeteer Jesuits and conniving Popes who held his entire global flock dumbfounded and beholden to his every nefarious whim.  But perhaps the most illustrative example of the bridge between the ‘old’ anti-Catholicism of typically conservative Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and the ‘new’ anti-Catholicism of modern liberalism, is the 1949 best-seller by Paul Blanshard, American Freedom and Catholic Power. Written in the euphoric years immediately following the Second World War in which it was assumed that certainly all (white) Americans could put the old prejudices of the past behind them in the brave new world, this book stands out like a talisman to historians who can point to the passing of the torch of anti-Catholicism from distrust towards all of the Catholic Church’s members based on theological reasons to social reasons.  Despite the triumph of Democracy over Fascism and the nation at the time banding together in unity against the rising threat of international Communism, that book single-handedly demonstrated to American Catholics that distrust towards them would never truly go away. The campaign against JFK a decade later based on questions of his loyalty, or today’s examples from Senators Feinstein or Harris levelling the same distrust towards us simply confirm that these prejudices, like anti-Semitism never dies out completely but just lingers on forever like a dormant virus.

And like with Mr. Waldman’s article, most non-Catholics in my life have forever alluded to this tragic disparity between the American Dream and the American reality as something of the ancient distant past, shrouded in fog and cloud that should be forgotten and moved on from, only to be brought up on occasion when cultures clash.  But I know, as most American Catholics know, either consciously or sub-consciously, that despite the marriage of convenience between Protestants and Catholics in the American political landscape since the outset of the modern culture wars, that we ethnic-type Catholics were the last ones dragged aboard the ship of so-called White-privilege, and we will be the first ones who are thrown overboard the second the waters seem too choppy and dead weight needs to be shed.


‘From Ghettos to Suburbs’ – The Irish American Diaspora From The Quiet Man to Caddyshack

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Sadly I have found there to be a dearth of academic scholarship on the 1980 classic ‘Caddyshack’.  Consider the below essay from my MA at UCC a remedy to that.


Over sixty years has passed since the release of John Ford’s 1952 Technicolor romantic comedy drama, The Quiet Man.  Today many of the film’s themes may seem outdated, camp, and at times even cringe worthy.  Nonetheless, it was culturally significant in that it portrayed many cultural and historical trends of the time within Ireland as well as the Irish diaspora.  Like a cultural time capsule, the film gives us an early view of the Irish diaspora returning to Ireland.  It set an early example of a common theme of an Irish-American returning, often “expressing interest in love or land acquisition” (Monahan 326).  This can serve as a modern understanding to trends amongst the people of Ireland and the Americans of Irish descent who were struggling to cling to an Irish identity abroad.  Interestingly, many of the same historical trends which director John Ford fit into, can be seen mirrored nearly thirty years later in the comedy film Caddyshack.  This is not to say though, that the two films do not have significant differences in the social patterns being portrayed.  Both films document the interaction between the Irish from Ireland and the Irish-American diaspora as well as demonstrating a sense of ‘otherness’ felt by Irish-Americans within the broader White Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP) culture of America.  However, both films also form an inverse of one another; where The Quiet Man explores these narratives in the context of an Irish-American in love with an Irish woman set in Ireland, Caddyshack depicts an Irish-American in and out of love with an Irish woman, set in America.  This essay will compare the depiction of Irish people and the Irish diaspora in both films against the backdrop of contemporary social and demographic trends, namely, that The Quiet Man took place in an era of Irish-Americans beginning to rapidly enter into middle class white American society, while Caddyshack depicts Irish-Americans largely left behind from this affluence, thus continuing to cling to an ethnic Irish identity.

In order to understand The Quiet Man as a more complex film than it is often seen as, one must first look at director John Ford’s sense of Irish identity, which was equally complex.  America has long held the paradigm of allegiance to nation over ethnicity, as Adrian Frazier writes “Emigrate or starve had been the dilemma in [first-generation immigrants’] home countries, and integrate or starve was often their only choice in America”, (Hollywood 19).  Prior to the internet and jet travel to bridge the two nations, it is easy to see how first generation Irish-Americans must have felt a tremendous burden of isolation and otherness during this integration, and John Ford was no exception.  Frazier goes on to write that “An ethnic profile could, as Emile Durkheim suggested, provide citizens of a modern state with spiritual guidance and consolation, helping them steer clear of the despair that attends complete normlessness (anomie)” (Hollywood 19).  This is an important aspect of understanding the dominant social paradigm John Ford was trying to speak to.  He was attempting to prove his American-ness as a first generation American, as well as asserting his Irish-ness, as a first generation Irish-American.  What makes this dual identity so noteworthy, was the precarious nature of experimenting with loyalty and national and ethnic identity in the conformity-focused age of McCarthyism.

At first glance, John Ford seems to be as patriotically American as one could have been.  He spent the bulk of his careers making Westerns which celebrated many of the romantic ideals upon which the United States was formed, and achieved the rank of Admiral in the United States Navy in World War Two, even earning a Purple Heart at the Battle of Midway (Frazier 13-14).  However, this manufactured sense of national identity as an American, was just as much complemented by, rather than contrasted with, a strong manufactured sense of what Frazier refers to as an “ethnic identity” (Frazier 17).  In the post-war period of The Quiet Man, however, an ethnic identity could at times oscillate between questions of loyalty and pride.  James P. Byrne writes of the idea of The Quiet Man thus being an expression of “ethnic revenge”, whereby, “While McCarthyism struck fear and suspicion into the large majority of Americans, for an Irish-American community whose identity was still uncertain, it registered pride and signified recognition of their American identity” (Byrne, 32).  This dualistic sense of an ethnic group taking pride within American society as it both assimilates and maintains a distinct sense of otherness is perhaps best  exemplified in the ‘fighting Irish’ motif.  In addition to long-held images of the Irish police officer or firefighter, a common visual theme of the Irish-American is that of a pugilist, as well as patriotic war veteran.  Both of these last two are captured in Sean Thornton (John Wayne), by his profession as a boxer, and alluded to more subtly in his nickname “Trooper Thornton”.  However, in the fictional village of Inisfree, all of the aspects which form Thornton’s dualistic sense of Irish identity in America mean nothing to the Irish people who see him only as an American.


Conversely, in Caddyshack, protagonist Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe) presents to the audience an image of an Irish-American as both how they see themselves, and how society sees them.  Like John Ford, star Bill Murray and his brother who co-wrote the film, Brian Doyle-Murray are Irish-Americans whose “parents were Irish Catholic [and] one of his sisters is a nun” (Shoard).  Though Caddyshack is not a film explicitly about anything Irish, it uses the Irish-American identity as a backdrop for its clearly class based comedy.  Like the film itself, its protagonist Danny is implicitly but not explicitly Irish.  As the film opens, with its upbeat theme and animatronic gopher, it has no difficulty in presenting itself as the silly comedy it was initially marketed as.  Nevertheless, the film immediately transitions to the home of Danny Noonan, and the music transitions from the extra diegetic to the diegetic, as if to remind the viewer that this is the setting of reality, whereas the country club with dancing rodents portrayed the implausible.  This early scene establishes Danny Noonan’s Irishness with several classic tropes: in addition to his Irish name, he has many siblings, living together in a home with Catholic icons of the Virgin Mary and saints on the walls.  The family’s patriarch is his working class father, who complains about Danny’s inability to save more money to attend college at the fictitious, presumably Catholic Saint Copius.  Danny replies to this, “I don’t know about that place anymore, you know?  I talked to a guy who went there, and he said there were only two girls, and they were both nuns”.  This immediately establishes both the ultimate goal and conflict of the film, to ‘get girls’ as well as establishing Danny’s dual sense repression.  He is repressed for his class and ethnicity by the wealthy WASPs to soon be introduced, and also feels trapped by sexual desire within his own community.  He then storms off, his father yelling at him and threatening to have him sent to work in the lumberyard if he does not go to university.   This sets up the second of Danny’s goals at stake; to escape from his working class surroundings, and achieve middle class status.  As he leaves, the film’s theme song again plays extra diegeticly, as if to remind the viewer that they are going back from a real world of class struggle inhabited by Irish-Americans to a goofy comedy.

While The Quiet Man was man was made in a decade of unprecedented middle class growth, affluence, and optimism in America, Caddyshack was made in a period of economic doubt and despair.  John Bodnar writes:

Changes that took place in the sixties and beyond were not only the result of the well-known political controversies of the time but were also induced by the growing ability of mass culture to dominate both cultural and political expression.  Thus, by the decades of the 1970s and 1980s, with the power of political, moral, and even film authorities in some decline, the disorder, confusion, and anger that existed in the emotional and social worlds of common people was transferred more directly to the screen than possibly at any time in the era of sound pictures (Bodnar 178).

This sense of economic frustration is displayed as Danny rides his bicycle to work at Bushwood Country Club, crossing the tracks, and looking admiringly at the increasingly large and wealthy homes.  His struggle for socio-economic mobility, the foundation of the American Dream, is almost exactly the opposite of the beginning of The Quiet Man, in which Sean Thornton is returning to the more pastoral Ireland from the powerful and industrial hub of Pittsburgh in the United States.  Both Danny and Sean however, rely on an ethnic identity which sets them apart from wealthy WASPs, making Danny as different and other to them, as Sean’s American identity makes him to the Irish people of Inisfree.  In Caddyshack this is seen immediately at Bushwood, where the other caddies have similar ethnic profiles, such as Tony D’Annunzio (Scott Colomby), the slick Italian American against whom Danny is in competition, or Smoke Porterhouse (Jackie Davis), the African-American shoe shiner.

While The Quiet Man is a world free of sectarian division, with Catholic Father Lonegan (Ward Bond) and the Protestant Reverend Cyril Playfair (Arthur Shields) getting along amicably, the world of Caddyshack has regressed to a world in which Catholics are just another group to be marginalized.  The wealthy antagonist Judge Smails (Ted Knight), begins a joke to Bishop Fred Pickering (Henry Wilcoxon), a Protestant vicar, “Say…have you heard the latest one, about the Catholic, the coloured boy, and Jew who go to Heaven?”.  Even wealth is transcended in determining one’s otherness at Bushwood.  Judge Smails and Bishop Pickering represent traditional WASP “old money” culturally contrasted by the “new money” of Al Czervik (Rodney Dangerfield).  He enters with one of the only non-white characters, Mr. Wang, telling him jokingly that the country club is “restricted” and to therefore not tell anyone that he is Jewish.  The joke is of course that Czervik clearly represents the Jewish trope of the film, using Yiddish words like “shmear” and “rabbi”.  As for his unprivileged background, he tells his caddies on the green that as a young man their age, he would carry bags of ice up 15 flights of steps, and jokes to Tony that “They say for Italians this is skilled labor”.  This recollection of manual labor conveys some sense of hope and inspiration for the young, ethnic, working class caddies, but Al Czervik is the exception and not the rule.  For the most part, the wealthy WASPs of Bushwood, even the sympathetic and likeable Ty Webb (Chevy Chase) who comically alludes to a lumber yard he owns but cannot recall the location of, remain largely aloof to the caddies, and it is hard to imagine they ever had to perform manual labor as youths to reach their current stations in life.


Like the portrayal of Sean Thornton in The Quiet Man being an astute reflection of trends within the Irish diaspora of his time, it is impossible to dismiss Al Czervik as nothing more than Animal House style silliness.  A tremendous amount of social, cultural, economic and political changes occurred between the release of The Quiet Man and Caddyshack.  Most notably, was the large-scale shift from working to middle class.  Lawrence J. McCaffrey refers to this in a section of his book, “From Ghetto to Suburbs” (The Irish Catholic Diaspora).  However, it is important to note that by the late 1970s not all Irish-American working class urban communities had transformed into the successful middle class model immigrants that many others had.  While many Irish-Americans who had become economically affluent over several generations gradually focused their identities less and less on an Irish ethnic profile, those who remained economically stagnant seemed to entrench their Irish ethnic identities even further (McCaffrey, 187).  Just as America was experiencing radical economic changes, and increased secularism, many Irish-Americans who were economically frustrated like Danny Noonan, and unable to advance like other Irish Catholics, grew more conservative in their Catholic identity.

This can be seen in the film’s attitudes towards Danny’s sexual relationships with Lacey Underall (Cindy Morgan) and Maggie O’Hooligan (Sarah Holcomb).  Though immigration continued in the post war era, it did decrease significantly until a slight uptick in the late 1970s and through the 1980s, although by this point “The older immigrants and established ethnic community thought the newcomers to be arrogant and ungrateful for the hospitality of their hosts.  So the two groups often clashed” (Almeida 563).  This is not to say of course that many New Irish immigrants like Maggie did not assimilate into existing Irish ethnic communities, further entrenching their status within America.  Though critical analysis of Caddyshack is sparse, it is interesting to note that many contemporary film reviews mentioned Maggie’s stereotypical feminine Irish archetype, as well as the seemingly contradictory nature of that archetype in a rapidly changing social landscape.  Judy Stone, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle at the time said, “the Poor but Passionate [sic] Maggie O’Hooligan, as Irish Catholic as can be, but she thinks she may be an unwed mother.  Joke.  (Actually, Sarah is a breath of fresh Galway air in this jocks’ locker room” (Weinman).  This demonstrates that contemporary audiences interpreted Maggie more as a manufactured Irish archetype than a character in her own right, who happened to be Irish.  Though she is a manufactured archetype, with a stereotypically manufactured accent, she provides a contemporary view of many cultural attitudes and expectations of the Irish in America at the time.  Though Danny Noonan is an American, with parents who both have American accents, he is understood by the viewer to be somehow Irish, as demonstrated through class, religious, and ethnic devices.  Yet despite his attempts to rise economically, or his sexual activities which stand in stark contrast to the Catholic Church’s teaching, when Bishop Pickering asks him if he is a Roman Catholic, he answers unequivocally in the affirmative, as if it is something he cannot change.  He floats the possibility of Maggie seeking an abortion, and resignedly offers to marry her when she declares her intention to ‘keep’ the baby.  Like Sean Thornton who tries to be both Irish and American, as well as Irish-American communities in the 1970s and 1980s, Danny seems to want to rise past his Irish identity, while at the same time clinging to it.

Just as Ford saw The Quiet Man as his ‘sexiest film’ (Frazier 230), Caddyshack was similarly considered a sexually risqué film of its time, and reflected the contemporary social attitudes regarding sex.  As mentioned before, the onus of the film is entirely on the ability of the male characters to have sex, as opposed to winning over a single woman, as in The Quiet Man.  Additionally, a striking parallel between the two can be see among the characters of Al Czervik and Michaeleen Oge Flynn (Barry FitzGerald).  Both men appear at times as the archetypical old man, and at others as a rowdy source of mischief.  As Michaleen states towards the end of the film ‘Homeric!’ ‘Impetuous’ in viewing the broken marital bed of Sean and Mary Kate.  Similarly, towards the end of Caddyshack, Al shouts to the crowds after his and Danny’s victory, that “We’re all gonna get laid”, to triumphant jubilation as the film concludes.  McCaffrey says of this attitude around the 1970s that, “Literary and theatre depictors [sic] of Irish-American Catholicism have dwelled on sexual frustration as the sources of its neuroses, psychoses, and alcoholism” (Irish Catholic Diaspora, 179).  In examining the idea of an Irish-American male’s story of sexual conquest in the manner of sexually frustrated neurosis, The Quiet Man and Caddyshack explore not only the economic but also social and sexual attitudes contemporary within Ireland and the Irish diaspora.

To many viewers, Maureen O’Hara was the embodiment of Irish feminine sexuality, and seems as much a romantic prop in The Quiet Man’s nostalgia as the beautiful green landscape behind her.  Maggie O’Hooligan in Caddyshack could not be further from this depiction.  Maggie’s role is played by American actress Sarah Holcomb, who employs a hardly believable stage-Irish accent throughout the film.  She initially is pursued by Danny after he wins his caddy’s tournament.  He approaches her sitting on the steps of her house alongside the only black woman seen in the entire film, who says nothing but rather sits there silently as if to only signify that Maggie, like the ethnic white males of the film, can be lumped together as the Other to the WASPs of Bushwood.  After their initial sexual encounter, however, Maggie is ignored completely, and humiliated as Danny’s attention shifts back towards Lacey Underall, the embodiment of WASP beauty.  Remarkably, Danny seems to be at a loss for words much the same way Sean Thornton found himself in The Quiet Man for Mary Kate.  This inverse could be interpreted perhaps as a cynical rebuke of The Quiet Man’s portrayal of the Irish feminine idyll.  While The Quiet Man uses Mary Kate’s beauty in portraying an Irish-American pursuing his “dream of returning to Ireland” (Gibbons, 77), Caddyshack seems to be portraying an Irish-American attempting to escape this identity, but ultimately failing.

Though he does eventually sexually conquer Lacey, it does not represent his ability to transcend ethnicity and class, or to conquer the WASP hegemony which she symbolically represents.  Danny is discovered by her uncle, Judge Smails, chased, humiliated, and humbled, just before discovering Maggie may be pregnant.  Ultimately, they discover she is not, and embrace, further demonstrating that Danny, symbolically never moved from ‘ghetto to suburbs’ and clung to an ethnic Irish Catholic identity.  In addition to remaining sexually frustrated, Danny remains by the end of the film culturally unassimilated and unaccepted by the WASPs of Bushwood.  Though Al Czervik assures him he will make turning on Judge Smails at the final climactic golf tournament “worth [his] while”, this is never seen on screen, and only alluded to, like a marriage being assumed to lead to a life happily ever after.  Additionally, Danny’s economic success is earned through Al, another ethnic outsider, rather than through a ‘blue blooded’ American relying on the traditional Protestant work ethic which historically created the American culture so initially hostile to Irish Catholic immigrants to begin with.

Though immigration and demographic trends have changed drastically in the United States since the 1950s, with a much larger proportion of immigration coming from Latin America than Europe, the cultural phenomena of Irish-American identity remains.  From the famine to the Second World War, Irish immigration to the United States remained steady, and entire communities were formed based on this ancestry.  Nearly thirty years after the optimism of The Quiet Man, Caddyshack seemed to be making the point that if by that point in America’s progress, someone was still ethnically defined by where their ancestors came from, and still hadn’t moved from working to middle class, they probably never would.  In many ways, Caddyshack set the stage for what Diane Negra would write of decades later as “The Politics of Disposability” (Irishness).  While The Quiet Man utilized a comedic and romantic method of addressing Irishness within America during the height of the Cold War, Caddyshack did so during the economic uncertainty of the 1970s and 1980s.  Though the Irishness in The Quiet Man is sentimental and stereotypical, and in Caddyshack it is cynical, the Irish diaspora in both was pegged to ethnic, religious, and class definitions, and in contemporary post 9/11 film and media, this trend seems to be continuing, though oftentimes more in the vein of Caddyshack’s cynicism than The Quiet Man’s optimism.







Works Cited:

Almeida, Linda Dowling.  “Irish America, 1940-2000.”  Making the Irish-American:

History and Heritage of the Irish in the United States, edited by J.J. Lee and Marion R Casey, Copublished with Glucksman Ireland House & New York University, 2006, pp. 548-573.

Barton, Ruth, editor.  Screening Irish-America: Representing Irish-America in Film and

Television.  Irish Academic Press, 2009.

Bodnar, John.  Blue Collar Hollywood: Liberalism, Democracy, And Working People in

American Film.  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Byrne, James P.  “Ethnic Revenge: A Structural Analysis of the Western Tropes of Twentieth

Century Irish-American Assimilation.”  The Quiet Man — And Beyond: Reflections on a Classic Film, John Ford and Ireland, edited by Sean Crosson and Rod Stoneman, The Liffey Press, 2009.

Caddyshack.  Directed by Harold Ramis, performances by Michael O’Keefe, Rodney

Dangerfield, Ted Knight, Chevy Chase, Sarah Holcomb, Cindy Morgan, and Bill Murray, Warner Brothers, 1980.

Frazier, Adrian.  Hollywood Irish: John Ford, Abbey Actors and the Irish Revival in

Hollywood.  The Lilliput Pree, 2011.

Gibbons, Luke.  The Quiet Man.  Cork University Press, 2002.

McCaffrey, Lawrence J.  The Irish Catholic Diaspora in America.  The Catholic University

of America Press, 1997.

Monahan, Barry.  “Defining Ourselves Through the Irishness that we Sell: The Comedy of

Cultural Commodification in Mark Joffe’s The Matchmaker (1997).”  Barton, Ruth,



Negra, Diane.  “Irishness, Anger and Masculinity in Recent Film and Television.”  Barton,

Ruth, pp. 279-295.

Shoard, Catherine.  “The Gospel According to Bill Murray: Impending Apocalypse, Seatbelt

Safety and his Favourite Saint.”  The Guardian, 20 November, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/nov/20/gospel-bill-murray-new-film-st-vincent-interview.  Accessed 14 December, 2016.

The Quiet Man.  Directed by John Ford, performances by John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, and

Barry Fitzgerald, Republic Pictures, 1952.

Weinman, Sam.  “Here’s a review skewering “Caddyshack” When it First Came Out.”  Golf

Digest, 20 May, 2015, http://www.golfdigest.com/story/heres-a-1980-review-skewering.  Accessed 7 December 2016.

Feliz Dia de San Patricio


This Paddy’s Day, let’s all take a stroll down Memory Lane, and revisit the Saint Patrick’s Battalion, a decorated artillery unit of the Mexican-American War… Or El Batallón de San Patricio, as they were known after defecting to the Mexican Army.  As with any historical anomaly, this defection from predominately recent arrivals from Ireland was not a flash-in-the-pan of History, but rather the collision of many larger forces and movements, centuries in the making.  To understand these forces, you need to take a look at the history of the Irish-American diaspora, and the many contemporary parallels in modern politics.

Above: The author of the article during a deployment to OIF in 2009, pretending to be tough.  See the ‘Erin Go Bragh” flag in the background, which was the battalion flag of the San Patricio Battalion and a frequent symbol of the Irish diaspora.



Recently, Donald Trump declared March to be Irish-American Heritage month, which will surely be a thorn in the side for any sensitive conservatives who are still reeling from the trauma of African-American History month.  Take for example Facebook’s favorite uber-patriot and self-appointed Gruntstyle model who never served in the military, Adam Calhoun, who posts gems like these which insist that there is no such thing as a “hyphenated-American”.  Sadly for Adam and other right-wing snowflakes like him, though, the butthurt over so-called hyphenated Americans is nothing new.  Theodore-Roosevelt for example, was a critic of the term and frequently criticized it in speeches, including one to the Knights of Columbus, a fraternal Catholic organization founded in part to combat anti-Catholic discrimination which was widespread throughout America in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Another typical trope this time of year is the legions of these very same #MAGA hat-wearing unhyphenated Americans posting memes asking when was the last time that you ever heard the Irish complain about being oppressed, like this:



Never mind the staggering irony that most of the people posting these memes seem to come from the very groups who oppressed Irish-Catholics for centuries in the first place.  And yes, so-called ‘Scotch-Irish’ throughout the American South would fall into that category.  The people in America called ‘Scotch-Irish’ are actually descended from the Ulster-Scots[1] who were brought in to Ireland by the British to force the native Irish-Catholics off of their land in the sixteenth century, and continued to oppress and intimidate the Catholic population into the 20th century and even arguably till today.  Clearly this meme is the biproduct of people who are not Irish-American, because as any Irish-Catholic-American clearly knows, there is an entire musical cottage-industry of songs which seek to remember this very same oppression.  In addition, groups like the Knights of Columbus and Ancient Order of Hibernians actively continue to fight against retailers pushing crass stereotypes about the Irish to this day.

But in addition to going toe to toe with the largest retailers in the nation, the AOH lobbies for immigration reform, and in particular the rights of undocumented Irish immigrants in the United States.  So this Saint Patrick’s Day, as the country is in the throes of a seemingly never-ending culture war in which Mexico is playing a central role, what more fitting saga to revisit than the Saint Patrick’s Battalion, and the myriad of reasons why they chose to defect?

Similar to today’s toxic political environment in which many influential people question whether or not Islam is a legitimate religion protected by the First Amendment, the 1840’s America that many Irish refugees were arriving to was one in which many similarly influential people were asking the same questions about Catholicism.   In the United States this atmosphere of intense anti-Catholic bigotry was manifested in many riots between nativist mobs and Catholic immigrants, typically from Ireland, such as in Philadelphia and Charlestown Massachusetts.  This wave of anti-Catholic nativism gripping the young American Republic in the 1840s occurred during a decade of surging Irish immigration.  And unlike the Irish immigrants, both documented and undocumented, who I knew as a kid in the suburbs of DC, the Irish arrivals of the 1840s were fleeing a devastating famine which resulted in 1.5 million people dying or emigrating from a nation with a population of about  8.5 million at the time.
The apathetic response by the British government to this disaster was best summed up in the Lord Governor’s oft-quoted observation that “God sent [the Famine] to teach the Irish a lesson”[2].   In fact, many contemporary historians point to the fact that the Famine was in large part caused by the centuries of Apartheid-style rule of the British government which gave all governing power to a small privileged Protestant minority over the native Catholic majority, known as the Penal Laws.  In not being allowed to own large areas of land (or vote, or hold office, or serve in a court of law) the native Catholic population had to rely for centuries on subsistence agriculture made possible only by the potato.  While many historians debate the precise reason that the Saint Patrick’s Battalion defected, this long tradition of oppression was the cultural foundation which thousands of newly arrived Irish-Catholic immigrants possessed when they were conscripted into the United States Army to fight an unpopular war which was largely being promoted by Southern Democrats in the hopes of expanding slave-states[3].

Thrown into this milieu of social ambivalence was the fact that most of these Irish soldiers were subjected to discrimination and abuse by their fellow native-born soldiers and commanders because of their Catholic faith.  This probably did not help the fact that the invading US military frequently committed what are now known as war-crimes against Catholic churches and convents, priests and nuns[4].  Given the centuries-long history of Irish foreign military service in Catholic nations’ armies, especially Spain and Portugal, often known collectively as the Wild Geese, defecting from the Anglo-Protestant American invaders to the Spanish-speaking Catholic Mexicans likely seemed plausible, and even commendable to many Irish at the time.  In all likelihood, though, the reasons for defecting were probably as varied as the hundreds of soldiers who did so.   This was not of course limited to Irish immigrants, as there was a number of French, German, and Polish born soldiers who defected but by and large the vast majority of the Saint Patrick’s Battalion were Irish, and virtually all were Catholic.  Led by John Riley, who had previously served in the British Army as an artilleryman, the battalion provided the Mexican Army with much needed expertise and training in artillery tactics.  The San Patricio Batallón went on to serve honorably in the Mexican Army, fighting in the battles of Buena Vista, Churabusco, and Mexico City before the vast majority of them were captured, put on a show-trial, and executed.


Above: The Battle of Churabusco, in which the Saint Patrick’s Battalion fought bravely against numerous American assaults before finally being overrun.  Nebel, Carl, The War Between the United States and Mexico, Illustrated.”  1851.

Other than a modestly successful film with Tom Berenger in the 90s and the odd tune which may show up in an Irish trad music fan’s shuffle, the legacy of the San Patricios has been minimal in the United States despite its stranger-than-fiction nature.  In the city of San Angel, Mexico, however, there is a monument and plaque with the names of seventy-one members of the battalion executed[5].  Clifden, County Galway also holds an annual commemoration of the Battalion’s leader, John Riley, who was born there two centuries ago[6].  So this Saint Paddy’s day, along with cringe-worthy alcohol-fueled appropriations of the day meant to celebrate the Catholic patron-saint of Ireland, let’s take a moment to reflect on the Saint Patrick Battalion’s place in American historiography.  It is important to reflect on the fact that we as veterans once swore an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States, not the culture of the United States.  And one of the most crucial aspects of that Constitution, is the freedom of religion.  It is the freedom of all people to not have to answer questions like “What are you first, Catholic/Jewish/Muslim or American?”.  Sadly though, this brave and wonderful paradigm which has shaped the modern world’s moral compass, was not the American reality which countless Irish-Catholic immigrants were exposed to when they arrived in America and were forcibly pressed into service for a war against a Mexico which had never wronged them.

[1] Moloney, Deirdre. “Who’s Irish? Ethnic Identity and Recent Trends in Irish American History.” Journal of American Ethnic History. Vol. 28, No. 4 (Summer, 2009) pp. 100- 109.

[2] https://www.irishcentral.com/roots/history/british-treatment-of-irish-like-america-s-racism-says-english-writer-of-victoria

[3] Olson-Raymer, Gayle. Whose Manifest Destiny?  The Conquest of Northern Mexico.  Humboldt State University, 31 December, 2014, http://users.humboldt.edu/ogayle/hist110/unit3/MexicanAmericanWar.html.

[4] Hogan, Michael F. X.  “The Irish Soldiers of Mexico.”  History Ireland, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Winter, 1997), pp. 38-43.

[5] Hogan, 43.

[6] Paredes, Martin.  “The Irish Heroes of Mexico.”  Clifden and Connemara Heritage Society.  04, December, 2010, http://clifdenheritage.org/the-irish-heroes-of-mexico/.