Book Review: Sweet Liberty

 Sweet Liberty: Travels in Irish America
Joseph O’Connor
Roberts Rhinehart 1996 pp. 317

Any culture, taken out of the place that wrought it, will tend towards caricature. It’s not just that it seems out of place in it’s adopted environment (I think of those hacienda-style bungalows in Connemara) but it also becomes prone to invention and exaggeration. Like Irish stepdancing, where the costumes of today have more in common with a Las Vegas aesthetic than with the rural Irish culture from which the Irish dance sprang. (This aesthetic first started appearing in the US but the Irish in Ireland were quick to adopt it and, indeed, are today probably more ‘glam’ than their American cousins.)
In my own experience as an immigrant, I was baffled from the beginning by Irish-American culture. The idea that corned beef and cabbage was the traditional food of Ireland. The affection for the maudlin ‘Danny Boy’ and the notion that it was ever an Irish song. The wearing of green clothing on St. Patrick’s Day -- not to mention the drinking of green beer. And the comic-book versions of Irish history with the noble Irishman suffering under the perfidious English yoke.
So, when I saw this book of Joseph O’Connor’s a number of years ago, I was hopeful of gaining insight into the forces and conditions that brought about this culture.
O’Connor is an Irish writer (the author of the bestsellers Star of the Sea and Redemption Falls) and is a lover of things American. He refers to the country as “one of the greatest experiments in mass idealism since the dawn of human history”. His affection is profound and real and so, too, is his curiosity. He had lived for four months in New York in 1991 and was told constantly that New York is not “the real America”. “I knew I wanted to write a book about Irish America, but I decided pretty early on that I needed to broaden the meaning of that term. I wasn’t particularly interested in green beer or inflatable leprechauns or that Reaganesque ‘Oirish’ America of complacency and conservatism …” (Of course, it was that America he mentioned that I’m curious about -- and had hoped to gain insight into.) So where should he go looking for this America? Eventually, he decides to visit all of those places he’d heard of as a child -- the Grand Canyon, San Francisco, Dallas, Las Vegas -- but he also comes up with a plan to visit a long list of towns called Dublin along the route.
O’Connor takes to the road starting in Boston (of course!) and ending in San Francisco. What ensues actually gives little insight into Irish America -- most of the towns called Dublin have little or nothing Irish about them. But it does give lovely warm and often hilarious insight into America as seen through foreign eyes. The tone gets a little ‘wiseguy’ if you read too much in one sitting but, truly, it’s hard to put this book down.



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