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.
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.