Date of Award

2017

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

English

First Advisor

Ryan Trimm

Abstract

In this project I trace 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. I argue that symbol has replaced substance in popular representations of the Irish in America, and that 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, I employ 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 I apply some tenets of postcolonial theory 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, I also employ theories of individual trauma and trauma as it is passed down the generations. 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. I use theories of cultural memory and forgetting to understand the fractured nature of the Irish-American story that is passed on, and the gaps and fissures found therein.

Share

COinS