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COVER REVIEW

Homeward Bound

IRISH ON THE INSIDE: In Search of the Soul of Irish America, By Tom Hayden, Verso: 312 pp., $25

January 06, 2002|FRANK McCOURT

Toward the end of his latest book, "Irish on the Inside," Tom Hayden throws down the gauntlet: history or amnesia. Take your choice. It reminded me of a moment when I was teaching high school English. (No, don't go away. This won't be a "personal" review.) We were discussing the hyphenated American, so reviled by Woodrow Wilson.

Except for one, my students were happy with their hyphens. I asked that one: "Joey, if I were to wake you in the middle of the night and ask you what you are, what would you say?"

His reply was, "Tired."

If Joey were to respond to the Hayden challenge, he might choose amnesia, but if Hayden were his teacher, he wouldn't let him get away with it, not in this book. Hayden would urge on Joey the glories of an Italian heritage just as he dwells on the richness of his own Irish heritage.

And no, he won't let it go at that. "Irish on the Inside" is an urgent book, fueled by a great, somber energy. As the title indicates, it's about Irishness, the search for Irishness, the definition of Irishness, the achievement of Irishness, the perpetuation of Irishness. It is, first of all, the story of Hayden, who angrily erases his racial designation from a census form, "White, non-Hispanic" and pencils in "Irish, born in the United States, American citizen." (Joey might have said, "Yo, man, that's too much.") That response to a census form was, perhaps, the first stroke in Hayden's long swim toward the Shamrock Shore.

You wonder: "Why bother? Isn't it enough to be American? Heavens, man, isn't it hard enough being human without taking on the Celtic burden?" Especially when you're Tom Hayden. Tough, thoughtful, radical, you've straddled history. You've faced the dogs and cops of Chicago; you've bothered J. Edgar Hoover and you know what that can lead to; you've sat (although sitting is not your favorite activity) in the California Legislature for nearly two decades; you've fought for migrants and immigrants and for the environment; you've denounced globalization and assimilation and all things that lead to blandness.

A little diversion here; comedian Fred Allen once defined the Lace Curtain Irish, the more well-to-do of the clan, as "people who keep fruit in the house even when no one is sick." He, of course, was Irish. (Where else would you find a melancholy so hilarious?)

Allen was looking at what happens to us when we become respectable, a fate abhorrent to Hayden, sprung (if that's the word) from the middle class, Midwest. If Hayden were Garrison Keillor, he'd sweep aside all those sweet stories about a Scandinavian Lake Wobegon. He'd swarm in there urging the natives to hold fast to their Norwegian-ness, lest they be lost in the blandness of a consumer culture.

The United States is a big country, but not big enough for Hayden. He would have made a hell of an Irish monk in ancient times, a great missionary. You can see him setting out for distant shores, bringing light to the barbarians of Britain and lands beyond. That's what he's trying to do now--and there's an air of desperation in his life and message. The world already knows much of that life, which is laid out in Part I of his book. The titles of certain sections speak for themselves: "What Is an Irish Soul?" and "The Sixties Made Me Irish."

So far, so good. Along the way we meet Che Guevara, C. Wright Mills, the Molly Maguires, the San Patricios. Here, Hayden is filling in his Irish American past. When he says the '60s made him Irish, he refers mainly to the Kennedys, particularly Bobby--the more Irish of the two dead Kennedys. He glances briefly at Bobby's transformation from close aide to Joe McCarthy to his role as champion of civil liberties. He reflects on the growing conservatism of Irish Americans, how they rushed to the flag of Ronald Reagan. Even as he understands, he despairs. He understands that the late Richard J. Daley, mayor of Chicago and arch tormentor of the Chicago Seven, carries a "psychic burden" of the Famine generation.

That is the value of Hayden's book, the search for understanding, and Hayden expects us to engage in the same quest. A tall order. (Joey would have been too tired.) New Age philosophy tells us, "Wherever you are, there you are." Not for Hayden or thousands of Americans who travel the globe in search of roots or identity or a cure for whatever ails them. There are Americans and American Irish who write of going back, buying ruined houses and castles, dealing with the charming eccentricities of the locals as if County Cork were an Irish Tuscany.

Again, not for Hayden: When he returns to the Ould Sod, it's not to pub and thatched cottage. It's directly to the North. Nobody goes to the North; it's not a tourist destination and you go there only if you're a spy, a diplomat, a gunrunner, a Sinn Fein sympathizer.

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