Read The Banshees: A Literary History of Irish American Women Online

Authors: Sally Barr Ebest

Tags: #Social Science, #Literary Criticism, #English; Irish; Scottish; Welsh, #Feminism & Feminist Theory, #European

The Banshees: A Literary History of Irish American Women (4 page)

in part as an expression of desire. Such desire can be seen in the work of Erin

McGraw, who legally changed her fi rst name from Susan to Erin to better

refl ect the infl uence of her Irish heritage (McGraw 2003), or in the fi ction

by Mary McCarthy, Mary Gordon, and Eileen Myles, whose works high-

light their Irish Catholic heritage. Conversely, the New Irish—emigrants

born in Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s who emigrated en masse during the

1980s—tend to view themselves as commuters between Ireland and America

rather than as Irish Americans per se. As Helena Mulkerns explains, “The

fact that I’ve been living here for ten years doesn’t necessarily mean I get to

call myself Irish American” (quoted in Wall 1999, 67). This refusal to self-

identify therefore precludes their writing from this study.

The term “Irish American” can be defi ned by geography as well as birth.

Maeve Brennan, for example, was born in Ireland and then moved to Amer-

ica (Bourke 2004), whereas other authors can trace their lineage through

their forebears. This ethnic doubleness allows the authors to draw on what

Vincent Buckley calls their “source-country,” whether that be names, myths,

speech, or slant—traits William Kennedy terms a “psychological inheritance”

(Quinn 1985, 24, 78). As Irish Americans assimilated into the United States,

measuring these traits became more diffi cult; nevertheless, these writers’ lit-

erary works remain recognizably Irish. Thematically, they can be identifi ed

by the presence of stylistic or cultural language patterns or customs. Many of

these traits can be traced to James T. Farrell, whose “regional realis[m] cre-

ated a solid base of Irish-American fi ction” (Fanning 2001, 359). Through-

out the twentieth century and into the twenty-fi rst, writers such as Maureen

3. See Vivian Mercier,
The Irish Comic Tradition
(New York: Oxford, 1969), and

David Krause,
The Profane Book of Irish Comedy (
Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1982).

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12 | T H E B A N S H E E S

Howard and Elizabeth Cullinan continued this approach as they wrote

about women’s roles and the impact of the church on their psyche.

After the fi rst generations of emigrants, some writers chose not to self-

identify. Nevertheless, they too may be characterized as Irish American

if their work contains the following traits: “The dominant mother in her

fortress house; the fi rst son marching off to the priesthood; the convent-

educated daughter playing the piano in the parlor; parochial schoolmates

turning into leaders of the Young Men’s Sodality or incorrigible criminals;

lives affected by extremes of dissipation, abstinence, profl igacy, and piety;

lives organized around ideas of religion, family, nationhood for Ireland, hard

work, homeownership, the rise to respectability; tableaus of ritual gathering

at deathbeds and christenings, weddings and wakes; the gift of humor and

invective in public speech joined to an inability to express love and compas-

sion in private; a penchant stylistically for formal experimentation, linguistic

exuberance, and satiric modes” (Fanning 2001, 3).

Alice McDermott’s family preferred assimilation to self-identifi cation

(McDermott 2000). However, her novel
At Weddings and Wakes
not only

takes its title from the above defi nition, but also includes many of its iden-

tifying traits. So does her award-winning novel
Charming Billy
, whose plot

emanates from Billy’s death from alcoholism—an Irish and Irish American

trait touched on by Mary McCarthy and running throughout the works

of Joyce Carol Oates, Tess Gallagher, and Eileen Myles. Similarly, the

works of other “non-identifi ers”—Mary McGarry Morris, Jean McGarry,

and Tess Gallagher—exhibit clear-cut “regional realism” in their settings;

possess explicit names such as Fiona Range and Martha Horgan, Peggy

Curran and Joe Keefe, Mr. Gallivan and Bernadine, respectively; and are

propelled by plots hinging on fatalism, forgiveness, and redemption. Irish

American women writers represent an amalgamation of these traits. In

this, they are unique among their race. “Having made the trajectory from

rejection to acceptance to success in the United States by ‘passing,’ many

Irish never developed a sense of ethnicity extant their religious identity

that wasn’t sentimental or superfi cial” (Dezell 2001, 84). Not so with Irish

American women.

Self-deprecation and social anxiety are ubiquitous among these descen-

dants of immigrants (Dezell 2001, 65), often expressed through satire, an

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I N T R O D U C T I O N | 1 3

Irish habit traceable to Gaelic poets, essayists, and playwrights.4 In the twen-

tieth century, Mary McCarthy broke tradition by using satire to take on

the Catholic Church. Jeanna del Rosso argues that satire “allow[ed] women

writers of Catholic literature to demonstrate how the girls in their narra-

tives push the paradoxes of their religion with an irreverence that lessens the

severity, although not always the sincerity, of their belief” (149). Addressing

issues previously excluded from Catholic girls’ lives, topics might include

erotic pleasure, egalitarian marriage, homosexuality, engrossing careers, or

political activity. Irish American women used their fi ction to construct an

inner life and assert women’s dignity so as to overcome, if not deny, tradi-

tional roles. Yet the role of the Catholic Church in women’s literature has

been widely ignored (Del Rosso 2005).

Stony fathers and distant mothers are almost universal characters; Eliz-

abeth Cullinan and Mary Gordon showcase them well. But Irish Ameri-

can women are also “formidable and tenacious,” and they make sure their

daughters are too (McGoldrick 1998, 172–73). Whereas early works fea-

tured convent-educated daughters, twentieth- and twenty-fi rst-century her-

oines generally hold college degrees. The Irish maintain “this very nice mix

of being intellectual without being pretentious, this love of literature and

writing . . . this commitment to thinking” (Dezell 2001, 70), traits that can

be observed throughout the works of Maureen Howard, Joyce Carol Oates,

and Kathleen Hill. Moreover, as Lisa Carey has shown, female characters are

quite often responsible and independent, for they believe they cannot rely on

men to take care of them; consequently the mothers may express a sense of

martyrdom when they are not accorded the status commensurate with their

responsibilities (McGoldrick 1995, 176).

Such attitudes contribute to male characters’ ambivalent relationships

with their female peers. “From a distance they admire [women’s] fi re,

strength, and martyrdom, but up close they are often tense, scornful, and

4. As Charles Fanning writes in
The Irish Voice in America
, “writers of Irish

background who have chosen not to consider Irish ethnic themes—Flannery

O’Connor, for example—will not appear” (4). Similarly, Mary McCarthy merits a

single sentence (301).

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14 | T H E B A N S H E E S

hostile and underneath deeply frightened of their [partner’s] power”—char-

acteristics that break down only when mixed with alcohol (McGoldrick

1995, 173). Remarkably, Ann Beattie’s male characters have retained these

traits over the past four decades. Married couples often appear to live sepa-

rate lives—when the women deign to tie the knot—for they are still among

the latest and most reluctant to marry, traits illustrated early on by Maeve

Brennan and most recently by Jacqueline Carey. These innate beliefs stem

from how Irish American male and female siblings are raised: the boys are

pampered while the girls are forced to be self-suffi cient (McGoldrick 1995,

175–76). Nevertheless, relationships between brothers and sisters are often

strong, growing into friendships as they mature, although as Diane O’Hehir

has demonstrated, bonds between sisters are even stronger.

Mary McCarthy earned the moniker “Contrary Mary” because of her

oppositional stances, not least her dismissal of feminism while developing

feminist themes in her early novels. In this, McCarthy refl ected her Irish

roots, for contradiction is a constant among Irish Americans. McCarthy’s

heroines, like those depicted by Jean McGarry and Mary McGarry Mor-

ris, are both persevering and prone to depression, witty but cold, brave yet

fatalistic, loyal and thus quick to drop disloyal friends (Dezell 2001, 71).

Although the Irish love the drink, drunkenness is followed by guilt and

depression. They forgive the male alcoholic but condemn the female (Dezell

2001,133); they value loyalty then ask why a wife stays with a drunken

spouse. Hence the plot of
Charming Billy
. The Irish “bottle up” their grief

until it explodes into “alcoholism, addiction, risk-taking, and self-destruc-

tion” (Walsh quoted in Dezell 114).

Like feminism and Irishness, women’s Catholic fi ction can be viewed

along a continuum. A novel may be considered Catholic even if it does

not make religion its primary focus or include explicitly Catholic themes.

Catholicism intersects with a range of other “isms”: racism, classism, sex-

ism, and heterosexism—which allows these authors to write from multiple

perspectives. Non-Catholics, usually Southern Scots-Irish Protestants such

as Carson McCullers, Blanche McCrary Boyd, Dorothy Allison, and Bobbie

Ann Mason, may also be considered members of this genre if elements of

their fi ction include interactions with the religion. Like Judaism, Catholi-

cism is cultural as well as religious. As Jeanna del Rosso notes, “One does

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I N T R O D U C T I O N | 1 5

not need to practice Catholicism—or even consider oneself Catholic—to

experience it” (2005, 17).

The Banshees

To illustrate the growth and contribution of Irish American women’s writ-

ing, this study is organized chronologically by decade. Each chapter details

the progress and setbacks of Irish American women during that period

by examining key themes within their novels and memoirs contextualized

within a discussion of contemporary feminism, Catholicism, American

politics and society, and Irish American history. Chapter 1, “1900-1960:

Ahead of Their Time,” provides the background. Historically, Irish Ameri-

can women have long constituted the single largest ethnic group of working

women. Contrary to popular lore, not all were in low-status occupations;

they also comprised the majority of teachers and professional women writers.

This chapter examines the factors that helped form and differentiate these

women from their peers and predecessors: the Irish American work ethic,

education and religion, and an instinctive feminism. In the process, it intro-

duces the foremothers of Irish American women’s writing and the themes

characterizing their works as well as those that followed. These women laid

the groundwork, not just for Irish American fi ction, but also for contempo-

rary feminist novels.

Chapter 2, “The 1960s: The Rise of Feminism,”
juxtaposes the political

movements in society and the church with the appearance of the feminist

novel. Although women of other ethnicities were writing novels during that

decade, Irish Americans stand out not only for their productivity, but also

for their distinct characterizations representing women’s fi ghts to gain per-

sonal identity, independence, and respect not just from their husbands or

lovers, but also from the non-Irish American community as well. Manifestly

autobiographical, these characters’ struggles catch our attention because of

their realistic insider’s view. Irish American women’s writing opened the

doors on American marriage and motherhood and put a human face on the

women Betty Friedan revealed in
The Feminine Mystique
. At the same time

these works are uniquely Irish American, for their stories are inextricably

interwoven with the Catholic Church. Hence the themes of guilt and repres-

sion, anger and rejection, depression and disappointment.

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16 | T H E B A N S H E E S

Chapter 3, “The 1970s: A State of Upheaval,” refl ects the attitudes and

at times the animosity generated by the feminist movement and the church’s

intransigence. While Americans demonstrated against the war in Vietnam,

the feminist movement warred within itself even as Irish American women

revolted against the strictures of the church. Assimilation played a major

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