Irony & the Irish
To the Editor:
I wish to make two comments on Robert W. Greene’s gracious review of my book, That Most Distressful Nation: The Taming of the American Irish [Books in Review, April].
The first has to do with a matter of statistical fact: like most other American-Irish intellectuals, Mr. Greene simply cannot believe in the economic success of his own kind. In fact, a recent NORC monograph, The Demography of Religio-Ethnic Identification, establishes beyond all doubt that in both income and education the Irish are second only to Jews and ahead of British-Americans—even in the big cities in the North where the Irish are concentrated.
The other point is much more difficult to make. How does one Irishman say to another, “You’ve missed my irony”? How does one say, “Lamenting the end of everything is an old Irish trait and simply cannot be taken literally”? If the irony has been missed, it was rotten irony.
But at the risk of committing the capital sin of explaining irony, let me say that I don’t believe for a minute that the American Irish have lost their soul or that the wild poetry of bog and the hill has been socialized out of us. What Mr. Greene thinks is schizoid (to use his word) is ironic—however inept my irony may have been.
I suggested in the beginning of the book that there was a double theme: that the Irish had become like everyone else and that the hell they had. But perhaps Mr. Greene was so taken with Ambassador Moynihan’s introduction that he didn’t have time to read mine. I guess I can understand that. I thought I had signaled my real meaning in the last sentence of the book. I quoted Nancy Mc-Cready’s “Lullaby for Liam” (as fierce a testament of Gaelic fire as I ever hope to hear), and concluded, “Maybe the Irish haven’t been tamed at all!”
Andrew M. Greeley
Center for the Study of American Pluralism
University of Chicago
Robert W. Greene writes:
In my review of Father Greeley’s book on the American Irish, I expressed essentially three criticisms. I deplored first of all the absence of a section on Irish-American history; secondly, the author’s failure to explore the possible reasons for his own typically Irish ambivalence about a central concern of his book, success; and thirdly, his not relating the subject of his book to the new ethnicity and thus his leaving his study in a scholarly and social vacuum. At no point in his letter does Father Greeley address himself to these rather basic criticisms.
Regarding the first of the two points he does raise: How is economic success to be determined? According to income and education alone, as Father Greeley implies? To mention just one other rather obvious consideration—the more children one has, the more income one needs for economic success.
As for his other objection, where does one draw the line between delightful, illuminating irony or paradox and the dead end of self-contradiction? Father Greeley appears not to have the faintest notion. (His few assertions to the contrary notwithstanding, the overall tone and substance of his book are those of a lament or an elegy, especially in the closing chapters.) One wishes Father Greeley would leave off straining after a cleverness and an “Irishness” that seem beyond his reach and that are irrelevant to the important work he is doing.