Celebrating and debunking : Ireland as more -- and less

The Argument

Still no place for women, unless they are writers, the land that enslaved Patrick pours forth books

March 16, 2003|By Clarinda Harriss | Clarinda Harriss,Special to the Sun

Ireland: "No country for young men"? The electronics industries have proved W.B. Yeats' 1926 pronouncement wrong. In 2003, Ireland, having leapt headlong into the 21st century after dipping no more than a toe into the 20th, is most certainly a country, maybe even the country, for young men.

Sure, there seemed to be plenty of young men when I spent time there in the 1980s and early '90s, all glorious to look at and all, it seemed, lifting a final pint before heading across the pond to find their fortunes in the U.S. Meanwhile, young men sent by U.S. and European corporations to open branches in Ireland despaired of ever getting electricity turned on and a phone line run in; after waiting months, even years, they exited the isle in droves. Hydroponic tomatoes, I recall, were seen as the next big growth industry, that and the tourism which depended heavily on widows' B&Bs. Today, young men, young technocrats, buy their one-way ticket across the Atlantic heading east.

So: how does Ireland rate as a country for young women? Judging from recent reading, I'd say, "Ireland is no country for young women -- unless they are writers."

January, 2003: The Sun delivered a refrigerator-size carton containing review copies of books written during the past two years about Ireland and / or by Irish authors. I figured I'd flail my way out of the crushing avalanche of green by selecting books by women. I was saved. Of 45 books, only nine were by females (counting one with a male co-author and another whose author was Irish-American).

A sorry statistic. But these nine writers (actually, many more, considering that two of the books are anthologies) look at Ireland, the Irish and Irish-Americans through prisms that differ usefully from the lenses of the male authors whose works Americans venerate and have grown used to.

Having witnessed the rise of the McCourts to the summit of literary power in the U.S. on the sky-blackening smoke of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, I started with a book based (as Ashes is) on leaving the U.S. for Ireland: I'll Know It When I See It, by Alice Carey (Crown Publishing Group, 320 pages, $22), in which a couple go "home."

Carey's captivating story of how she fulfills her mother's dream of returning to the Old Country in grand style speaks more of what it's like to be a sophisticated American than of what it's like to be Irish or an ex-pat. She and her Mammie, Little Alice and Big Alice, daily escaped to Manhattan from a tenement apartment dominated by a father a lot like Frank McCourt's. The pair kept house for Jean Dalrymple, legendary theatrical producer, hobnobbing with the greats of American theatre. (Big Alice called Jose Ferrer "Joe"; Little Alice wore Susan Strasberg's hand-me-downs.)

An AIDS activist and actress, Alice Carey complains (as many of us did in the last century) about the difficulty of getting anything done by Irish electricians, builders, plumbers, real estate agents or bureaucrats when she and her husband try to restore a picturesque ruin. She learns to enjoy the old order, the old mores and manners, of County Cork because they're so un-New York.

But the old order, in all its narrowness, is entrenched. She's a tourist -- worse, a freak, a "woman alone," having neither mother nor children. (She holds onto the New York residence her American dollars afford her.) The widows who ran the well-starched Galway B&Bs where I stayed 20 years ago had a way of arching a brow and ending a sentence with a sharp inward breath that invested a neutral statement, like "Some people shop at the Supervalu in the mall just past the council housing," with killer irony.

No surprise, then, that a good bit of debunking goes on in some of these women's books. It must be a dominant gene: The Irish-American writer Maureen Dezell's Irish America: Coming Into Clover (Anchor Books, 272 pages, $13), a history of Irish immigrants in the U.S., gives us stats to prove the English drink more than the Irish and that San Francisco is one of America's most Irish locations.

Sentimental myth comes in for much debunking. Maire B. de Paor's Patrick: The Pilgrim Apostle of Ireland (Regan Books, 320 pages, $27.95)tackles legends of the saint himself. How many who'll march in this week's parade will know that Latin-educated Patrick was in Ireland only because the Irish kidnapped him in his teens and held him there as a slave? That he wrote (in Latin) one of his two surviving texts expressly to expose Ireland's barbarity?

Carmel McCaffrey, female co-author of In Search of Ancient Ireland: The Origins of the Irish From Neolithic Times to the Coming of the English (New Amsterdam Books, 288 pages, $26), has put together a rich, dense text as a companion to a 2002 PBS series. She hacks false myths with a heavy sword. But -- could many women have been called up from Central Casting for this series? The book leads me to doubt it. At no time, apparently, was Ireland a place for young women.

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