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

CRAZY IRISH-AMERICAN CATHOLICS:

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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 got something right.

Now, moving on, 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:

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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.

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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 way 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.

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in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti…

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

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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.

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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.

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:

https://ucc.hosted.panopto.com/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=e330e566-df25-4bcd-9f5a-3d230475bcb0

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!!!

    Mugatu
    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.