A long, long way from Clare to here

Joe Jamison reviews Irish on the Inside: in search of the soul of Irish America by Tom Hayden, Verso, £15 hbk ($23 USA)

I KNEW I’d find gems in this splendid book, when the sneering editors at the New York TimesBook Review, evoking Clifford Odets, headlined their review ‘Waiting for O’Lefty’.

Tom Hayden, a leader of the New Left, grew up in complaisant suburban Michigan, and in the 1960s was radicalised by the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. He was one of the ‘Chicago 7’ defendants in a notorious political trial, having led youthful anti-war protesters outside the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. The mayor of Chicago at the time was the right-wing, Irish-American-machine politician Richard Daley.

Hayden went on to public office, and was for many years a progressive member of the California state senate. Recently he has begun to channel some of his considerable energies into labour rights and anti-sweatshop campaigns.

Hayden barely thought of himself as Irish until the thunderbolt of the October 1968 civil rights march in Derry connected his identity as an activist on the US left with his sense of Irish roots. “I was Irish on the inside though I couldn’t name it at the time.”

To a degree, perhaps hard to fathom outside the US, Hayden’s generation was brought up to associate Irishness and Ireland with the political right: Yankee-doodle-dandy jingoism, the McCarthy’s witch hunts, reactionary clerics such as the pro-Hitler Father Coughlin and the pro-Vietnam war Cardinal Spellman, and with racial exclusion in the building trades.

Much of the book is Hayden’s battle to free himself of this less-than-half-true self-image and the linking of the author’s Irishness and Ireland with left and democratic struggles.

The book is divided into three distinct sections. The first, ‘Irish on the Inside’, follows Hayden’s zigzag path toward self-understanding, from a starting point of being an assimilated lower-middle class youth (the son of Chrysler accountant) in the suburbs of post-World War II Detroit, through to his maturing commitment to radical social change.

‘Going North’, traces the impact of the Northern Ireland civil-rights struggle, the republican struggle, and the peace process on his politics and identity.

Finally, ‘Recovering the Irish Soul’ is a meditation on the meaning of Irish identity — in both Ireland and Irish America — in a globalised world.

This last part is the boldest, and most interesting section. He reflects on the future of assimilation in Irish America, which has been offset and even reversed for three decades by the impact of the struggle in the north of Ireland.

As for Ireland itself, he hails the emergence of political republicanism and its across-the-board strengthening of Irish national self-awareness — and most other progressive trends.

This intelligent, thoroughly researched, and gracefully written book by Tom Hayden deserves wide readership in Ireland, Britain and America.

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