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.

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.