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.


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.

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.