By Joseph Goodrich
Colin Broderick’s new anthology, “The Writing Irish of New York,” offers an engaging portrait of contemporary Irish and Irish-American scribes, as well as a raucous and occasionally rueful look at the city they call home. It also serves as an informal history of New York City’s Irish literary heritage through brief biographies of such luminaries as Eugene O’Neill, Frank O’Hara, Jimmy Breslin and Maeve Brennan.
Though Broderick’s contributors are a variegated band of novelists, playwrights, poets, filmmakers, raconteurs, and singer-songwriters, a common theme emerges: coming to terms – and making peace – with one’s origins and one’s vocation. What is it to be Irish in America? What is it to be Irish American? How does one write about these things? Does one even have the right to write about these things? (Whether a native of Ireland or a 3rd-generation American, ambition is viewed as a shameful thing, and heaven help those with notions above their station.)
Another theme might be titled “The Romance of the City,” and chronicles how, when, and why these writing Irish arrived in New York. It wasn’t all beer and skittles, even for those who were born in New York City, and the often difficult process of finding one’s footing and making a living figures prominently in a number of the essays.
Anthologies are inevitably hit-and-miss-affairs; readers will have their favorites. Several essays strike me as especially worthy of attention, including those by Kevin Holohan, Maura Mulligan and Dan Barry.
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Holohan’s “Standing in Doorways” takes aim at the vision of New York City as the immigrant’s dream, 12 miles of opportunity between two rivers. Noting that the city can be “an exhilarating place,” Holohan goes on to say: “It is somewhat less vibrant since it became a place for the staggeringly and improbably wealthy to temporarily invest their surplus cash by buying apartments to leave empty, but it is still full of fascination.”
Mulligan’s “A Late Bloomer” is a quietly stated account of how she found her voice as a writer – no easy task, as her prior life as a nun required silence, humility and submission, qualities that are guaranteed to stymie expression. A trip to her County Mayo childhood home, slated soon for destruction, is a melancholy reminder of the passage of time.
Barry’s “Last Words” acknowledges how very easy it is to “romanticize your own narrative.” Tethered to an IV feed while undergoing chemotherapy, Barry reflects on his Irish-American upbringing and – in the words of the late Frank McCourt – “the significance of my insignificant life.” Barry ably avoids the trap of romanticizing his past. He evokes with great clarity and sympathy the world of his parents – the hard-won house and plot of grass on Long Island’s South Shore, the dubious pleasures of suburbia – and the fragility of existence.
Essays by Luann Rice, Colum McCann, Seamus Scanlon and Peter Quinn also belong on the honor roll.
“The Writing Irish,” however, is marred by a distinct lack of gender balance. Only five of the 23 essays are by women. And more generally, almost two decades into the 21st century, the concept of who is “Irish” surely ought to encompass more diversity.
On the upside, many of the contributors are members of the Irish American Writers and Artists Inc. Broderick’s book chronicles that association’s achievements and solidifies its place in the literary life of New York City. “There is a fine green thread that binds us all,” Broderick says of New York’s Irish writing community. His anthology explains just why that is.
Joseph Goodrich is an award-winning playwright and the editor most recently of “People in a Magazine: The Selected Letters of S. N. Behrman and His Editors at The New Yorker.” (University of Massachusetts Press, 2018).