Writing Irish America: Communal Memory and the Narrative of Nation in Diaspora

Beth O'Leary Anish, University of Rhode Island


This project follows Irish ethnic identity formation in the United States and the creation of the Irish-American narrative throughout the twentieth century as reflected in Irish-American life-writing—autobiographical or at least semi-autobiographical fiction and memoir—from just after World War II to the early 2000s. All of the works included in this study examine in some way the question of what it means to be Irish in America. The authors in this study collectively show how an Irish identity was given up in America and eventually pieced back together again. Some of the original elements remained, but others were forgotten, misunderstood, or invented. The Irish-American narrative tells of a rise from poverty and oppression to American comfort and respectability. There is pride in this rise, but there is also loss. Symbol has replaced substance in popular representations of the Irish in America, and imagination has been used to create an Irish-American identity that attempts to soothe the pain of what has been lost.^ To think through these works in terms of ethnic identity formation, this study employs theories of home and nation, applying those concepts to a people in diaspora and how they see themselves in relation to two different homes, the one they left behind but that still informs their identity, and the one in which they live and raise their families. In the early twentieth century, the way Irish Americans see themselves against a dominant Anglo-Protestant culture can be traced back to the colonial setting they have left. For this reason some tenets of postcolonial theory are applied to this American literature of a displaced Irish population. This move from one homeland to another, especially when forced by poverty rather than a desire to leave, does not come without trauma. As such, theories of individual trauma and trauma as it is passed down the generations are applied to this literature as well. The theory of ethnic identity formation as an ongoing process is also useful to understand how the Irish understand themselves in America. Finally, what makes it into a national or diasporic narrative has at least as much to do with what is forgotten as what is remembered in the name of presenting a unified whole. Theories of cultural memory and forgetting are used in this project to understand the fractured nature of the Irish-American story that is passed on, and the gaps and fissures found therein.^

Subject Area

American studies|American literature

Recommended Citation

Beth O'Leary Anish, "Writing Irish America: Communal Memory and the Narrative of Nation in Diaspora" (2017). Dissertations and Master's Theses (Campus Access). Paper AAI10262988.