SPRUNG FROM A KILKENNY ORPHANAGE to hop a ship for New York in 1933, my father was a classic exemplar of the Irish diaspora. I reversed the journey sixty-three later when I moved from Manhattan to Dublin, part of a different diaspora—and a different stereotype. Over the years a flood of American writers have travelled to the European continent to chercher la muse. A narrower stream of U.S. writers has landed in Ireland, seeking mystical visions at Yeats’s Thoor Ballylee or earthier intoxicants in one of Brendan Behan’s old haunts. (‘Uncle Brendan,’ as I call him when I’m cadging a whiskey at the Brazen Head.)
I like to think I’m more tuned in to Ireland—and reality—than besotted poets searching for fairies under dolmens, but I did come to Ireland for literary inspiration. After more than a decade of skirting the issue as an editor and journalist in New York, I moved to Dublin to try to become what I’d always said I’d be when I grew up: a fiction writer.
Really, it was all a taxi driver’s fault. During a 1990 visit with my father, we got stuck in traffic on Dublin’s quays. (We clueless Yanks saw the situation as a novelty—who knew those adorable Irish had gone and bought themselves so many cars?) As we inched along, our cab driver passed the time by launching into a spirited debate, mostly with himself, about the relative merits of Willie Yeats and Flann O’Brien. I don’t think he gave Willie a fair shake, but I was impressed nonetheless; since many New York cab drivers would be hard pressed to name two serious writers, much less argue their relative merits. During that interminable crawl down the quays, I decided that Ireland might be a good place for me to live if I wanted to get serious about fiction writing. Although I’d always considered it my calling, I’d only really pursued it right after college, when all I’d managed to produce during three angst-filled months in an Italian penzione were a few pages about a heavyset butcher and his cat.
Maybe, I thought, Ireland would work for me in a way that Italy hadn’t. The signs were propitious, and it wasn’t just the cab driver: From my vast network of cousins to garrulous strangers in queues, it seemed that the Irish truly relished language and what you could do with it. Words were the medium that kept the country afloat. I hoped that by immersing myself. I’d be baptised as a writer.
It took me several years to effect my plan. The Irish Consulate tacked on at least a year by tormenting me with passport paperwork. I possessed irrefutable proof that I was the progeny of County Dublin-born James Behan; the sticking point was that they wanted state, not just church, documentation of my parents’ marriage. Frustrated, I challenged the pretty young embassy clerk: Was she telling me Ireland would block my citizenship if I were a bastard? ‘But you’re not now, are you?’ was her arch reply. That was my introduction to how Irish sleeveen trumps New York chutzpah. In the decade or so that I lived in Ireland, I never mastered that ability to turn silvery words into steely points, but I hope to pick up it up one day.
On my first night as an official Irish person in May 1996, I found myself on Dublin’s quays again, this time on foot. A neon sign across the Liffey said ‘Royal Liver Assurance’, which jet lag and my American ear caused me to read as ‘Liver’, not ‘Live-er’. As newly minted citizen of a country where the Guinnessloving populace insured their livers, I was bemused—and wondered if I should take out a policy.
A week or so after reversing my father’s emigration, I headed south and west to Listowel Writers’ Week. The exuberant, sometimes abandoned way that prose, poetry, and theatre were celebrated during the festival confirmed my sense that I’d landed in the right place. Wherever I went, writers were out and about in triumphant abundance—from John B. Keane holding modest court in his modest pub to nuns seeing if anything flowed in writing workshops. As for me, the fiction workshop I’d signed up for was the only part of Writers’ Week that left me uneasy. Not only was I cowed by the reputations of Irish titans like Yeats, Beckett, and Joyce, but at that stage, everyone with an Irish accent seemed like they might be possessed of similar literary might. I was terrified they’d use it to smite me.
To my immense relief, I discovered that the tides of culture flowed both ways. It turned out that my Irish instructor and coursemates were enamoured of the Dirty Realism practised by American short story writers like Raymond Carver and Richard Ford. Though one coursemate was more impressed by Raymond Chandler’s literature noir. Hoping to lend realism to a detective novel he was hatching, he grilled me on every possible permutation of deli sandwich, dazzled by proletarian New York delicacies like a Ruben or a BLT. Equally exotic, to me, was a country that put corn in its sandwiches.
When the time came for us to write something to share with the group, I decided the best way to camouflage my modest talents was with the most swaggering piece of Americana I could muster: a sketch about carnies, motorcycles, and carnies on motorcycles. I subsequently turned that sketch into a short story—the first I’d written since abandoning the portly Italian butcher and his cat—and I’m currently wrestling with a novel that builds on that story. The themes I’m exploring are quintessentially American: gun violence and Born- Again religiosity. But it was Ireland that gave me the perspective—and kick in the arse—to start using the writing process to really look at my birthplace. Like Joyce (have no fear, I’m aware that this is likely the only way I’m like Joyce), leaving home helped me make it out more clearly.
Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction
While my fiction focused on America, my daily life centred on Ireland, a new place that resonated with old echoes because it was my ancestral homeland. Relatives had often talked about the Auld Country, sometimes with longing, sometimes with derision, but always with fondness. One of my earliest memories is of my father singing me to sleep with ‘Tura Lura Lural.’ He seemed sad; maybe he was mourning the Irish lullabies he’d missed because his mother died of tuberculosis when he was four. (Because of his rough childhood, Dad detests Frank McCourt more than the worst Limerick chauvinist. In his view, ‘The guy had it easy as a kid, then grows up to make a mint out of whining.’) My Great Aunt Myna also put her peculiar spin on my images of Ireland. A literally and figuratively colourful redhead whose accent was more redolent of the Bronx than her native Waterford, her take on Ireland was usually profane. For instance, she loved to say of her birthplace’s crystal: ‘If I’da known the shit was worth so much, I’da filled my suitcase with it.’
Neither ‘Tura Lura Lural’ nor Aunt Myna’s off-colour cracks prepared me for Celtic Tiger Ireland and I was both sad and relieved that it didn’t much resemble the place my family talked about. When I called the folks back in the States, I didn’t talk about cranes slicing the Dublin skyline, or the fact that many of our Irish cousins drove fancier cars than they did. My father, my aunt, and many of my other relatives wanted to remember their birthplace as it had been, in part because it let them feel sure of their decision to leave. It helped them look forward, not back, and I didn’t see much point in endangering that.
With my freshly minted Irish passport, the big issue for me wasn’t what nouveau Yanks like my family thought of the Irish, but what the Irish would make of me as a nouveau Mick. Even when I lived in America, I saw that my native land sometimes acted like a bullying giant; once I moved abroad, I was braced for attack on those and other charges. But aside from some cracks about ample waistlines and red-white-and-blue windcheaters, the salvos never landed.
About six months after I moved to Ireland, I cornered Colm Tóibín at a reading. After complimenting him on The Story of the Night, I apologised for my accent. He cut me off gently with something like, ‘This isn’t France, it’s Ireland. We sort of like you guys over here.’
Even after America traded the intelligent and well-intentioned (especially when it came to Ireland) Bill Clinton for George Bush the dangerous buffoon, Ireland’s goodwill toward the U.S. didn’t disappear. Indeed, I was touched, almost embarrassed, by it after September 11, 2001. In shops, the post office, wherever I went, people would offer concern and condolences when they heard my accent. I may have been far from home, but I wasn’t alone.
Despite the two countries’ mingled bloodlines, history sometimes creates gulfs that empathy can’t bridge. I remember talking to an Irish friend about how 9/11 shocked Americans because after two centuries of relative security, they suddenly realised they were vulnerable to mass violence. There was some anger in her voice when she replied, ‘You lot were lucky to hold onto that feeling for so long.’ Realising that she was right didn’t diminish my sorrow for America, but it did deepen my understanding of Ireland.
Things are looking up now that we’ve gone from arguably the worst U.S. president to possibly the best (with relatives in County Offaly, no less). Although I now have another major American sin to apologise for (and sometimes ‘Sorry about the financial crisis blighting the world’ just doesn’t cut it), my two homelands seem to be growing closer again. As for me, whichever side of the Atlantic I’m on, I feel strong ties to my birthplaces: America for me as a human being; Ireland for me as a writer. More than any other circumstance in my rather lucky life, being part of both countries feels like my greatest good fortune.