The Irish-American in Popular Culture 1945-2000

Michael O'Sullivan reviews The Irish-American in Popular Culture 1945-2000 by Stephanie Rains, Irish Academic Press, ISBN 9780716528319 £19.95/€27.50 pbk

The Irish-American in Popular Culture

IN THIS timely new study of the complex and often controversial issues surrounding Irish-American/American-Irish popular culture Stephanie Rains examines and analyses how a significant proportion of America's population engages with Ireland and the notion of 'Irishness'.

Drawing on major issues of history, emigration, ethnicity and artistic representation, she focuses on the ways in which the Irish diaspora in the 'new world' relates to certain aspects of Ireland and Irish culture and in the process formulates, or imagines, a type of Irish identity of its own.

To highlight this phenomenon Rains explores the emergence in post-war America of that instantly recognisable type of figure often referred to in Ireland as 'the returned yank' and the frequency with which he is portrayed as a character in popular plays and novels, but most of all in the cinema.

As Rains points out, the general area of Irish-American diaspora studies since the post-second world war period has been something of a neglected one. She goes on to suggest that this may have been due to a feeling that by then the Irish had assimilated so completely into mainstream American that they no longer felt the need to relate to or identify with the 'old country'.

A number of factors however were to ensure that the ties which bound American Irish immigrants to the 'homeland' were far from broken, and that for them a great new 'return' was at hand, not however to claim their heritance at last, but simply as tourists.

What occasioned the great return was the image that they had constructed for themselves of an Ireland at once remote and accessible and portrayed in a range of popular art forms, but especially in movies such as John Ford's The Quiet Man', dating from 1952 and the most successful of many such popular film texts.

The trend intensified in the 1970s following the phenomenal success of Alex Haley's Roots, a semi-fictional account of one man's search for his African origins and its Irish counterpart, the Leon Uris blockbuster Trinity.

Stephanie Rains views this surge of interest in genealogical identity as "...a radical and social development in the politics of individual and group memory and identity formation', and sees it as capable of touching the African-American community as well as the Irish and, indeed, all emigrant populations.

The Irish however were easily the most successful of all the American diaspora groups at capturing and exploiting the interest of their exiles as exemplified by the huge market for Irish cultural products throughout the US, the proliferation of Irish 'theme pubs' and the slick sophistication of the long running stage extravaganza Riverdance'.

This is a ground breaking book in diaspora studies concentrating as it does on Irish emigrants' attitudes towards and engagement with the 'homeland' rather than the by now familiar history of Irish America itself. A neglected area so far; thanks to Stephanie Rains's scholarly efforts it should not remain so for long.

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