A conversation between poet Vona Groarke, author of the multi-genre, poetic narrative, Hereafter, and Mary Burke, author of the cultural survey, Race, Politics, and Irish America: A Gothic History. Groarke’s book probes the limits of archival record and family memory to devise an account of Irish women domestic servants in late nineteenth–century New York that blends research, imaginative projection and poetic response. Burke’s Race, Politics, and Irish America (hereafter Race) uses the words and lives of Black and white writers and public figures of Irish connection to illuminate the cultural and political legacies of centuries of Irish presence in the Americas, from the forcibly transported and Scots-Irish to post-Famine Catholic immigrants.
Mary Burke (MB): The first thing that must be said about Hereafter is that it is a beautiful object. Online reproduction does not do justice to the dust jacket’s gloss and gilt! Its pages are also full of visual interest, from reproductions of photos, passenger ship manifests, and lampoons to wallpaper-effect backgrounds. Hereafter is a pleasure before one has read a single word. Is this how Irish poets do prose?
Vona Groake (VG): I agree the book is a beautiful object but I’m afraid I can’t take the credit for that. Martin Coleman, my book designer at New York University Press, did a great job of ascribing visual code to the various elements of the book, so that they were both distinct in themselves and complementary to each other. I’m mindful that it could have been a very different book, however, with a publisher keen to save money on production and not willing, for example, to have the sonnets on individual pages, or the history quotes coded and linked with a patterned background. The visual cues here really help to draw those elements together, so the book coheres more tightly and organically. I have published a prose book before, Four Sides Full (2016), a book-length essay on the subject of art frames, their history and metaphoric resonance, and did think at the time that it’s a book that would have greatly benefitted from the inclusion of photographs and illustrations. But publishing with a small poetry press (The Gallery Press in Ireland), that wasn’t really a runner. Poetry publishers tend to operate on a very tight budget and also to work on the expectation that their usual books won’t need color (or any) illustrations. So, I’m very grateful to NYUP for fully embracing the visual component of Hereafter. Especially dealing with a book of historical subject-matter, it’s important, I think, to try to set the scene. Since no image of Ellen herself exists (that I know of, anyway), the chance to illustrate something of her historical times was as close as I could get.
VG: Can you tell me about the cover of Race, Politics, and Irish America: A Gothic History and its subtitle?
MB: The cover (by Michael Abate/Squared Labs), shows three of the book’s many subjects: Grace Kelly (who became Princess of Monaco), John F. Kennedy, the first president of Catholic Irish immigrant descent, and Frank Yerby, a highly successful author of African American and Irish heritages who wrote a best-selling 1946 novel about a Dublin-born Southern planter.
My subtitle (“A Gothic History”) refers to my argument that the Irish of various stripes brought sectarianism and settler-colonial violence across the Atlantic from the disordered motherland. As a result, the Irish became both colluders in and victims of social and racial oppression in the Americas. History is “gothic” in cultural narratives of Irish America – right down to the supposed “Kennedy curse” (p. 163-72) – because the undead Irish past replays within America’s contexts of race. Just one example: Eugene O’Neill particularly critiques the Irish presence in the Americas over centuries as one long failure to create solidarity with their fellow oppressed. As a result, unfinished Irish histories – the Ulster Plantation, moments of Afro-Irish alliance in the seventeenth-century Caribbean, and the Famine – return to haunt the American action of O’Neill’s drama (p. 63-83).
VG: I love your phrase that “history is undead in Irish-American narrative” (p.1)! I wonder if, in conjuring the character of Ellen who, as a ghost, is both dead and not, I haven’t performed what’s essentially a gothic act?
MB: Gothic, as I read it, points to culpability and complicity. In the gothic and ghost stories of the Scots-Irish Poe and James, ancestral violence and trauma (from settler-colonial Ulster) repeats on American soil (p. 24-29). Hereafter’s resurrection of Ellen is too affirming in its recuperation of women who get lost in the historical record to be traditional gothic. Your beautiful descriptions of Ellen’s presence in your New York office were convincing. Maybe the best word to describe Hereafter is not “gothic,” but a kind of séance!
MB: What does your subtitle in Hereafter mean?
VG: My idea was for the word “Telling” to suggest the story of a life but also to hint at that life being suggestive and expansive, as in “a telling detail.”
MB: Belinda McKeon’s blurb about Hereafter noted that “there has been nothing like it from an Irish writer before.” Given the depth and length of Irish emigration to America, is it extraordinary that this is the case?
VG: I think the Belinda McKeon quote is addressing not so much the story itself but the way it’s told, the mix of sonnets, history, fiction, lyric prose and visual elements. That multi-genre approach to storytelling is one that interests me more and more. Irish literature tends to be highly genre-specific: novelists write novels, poets write poetry, playwrights write stage plays. Occasionally someone jumps the high fence so that a poet might write a novel or, even more unusually, a novelist produce a book of poems. But there’s very little sampling or commitment to the idea of mixing it up, and I don’t quite see why. The story of emigration is engrained in the popular Irish imagination: novels, songs, poetry, plays, films, folk memory – it’s firmly lodged in all. But it’s a story of such depth and resonance, I’m not sure any single approach can really portray it in the round. As a poet, my main interest is always going to be not so much a story, but how it’s to be told: the quite experimental approach in Hereafter allows me to come at its story from different angles and thereby, I hope, to cover more narrative ground.
The other unusual element of my book is, I think, its concentration on money and, in particular, on the money earned by young women such as Ellen – how they earned it, what they did with it, how it framed and defined them. We allow emigration to settle into being a sentimental story and we tend to overlook the fact that it was, first and foremost, a story of finance. This does a disservice to these young women and if Hereafter can correct that and remind people of how important the contribution made by them was to the economic confidence back home, I’ll be happy.
But what would make me even more happy is if the formal experiment at the heart of Hereafter helps to open up our idea of genre and press the idea of how it can be reimagined and possibly re-purposed into more imaginative and challenging formats. I don’t believe form should ever be a given: as a poet, I’m absolutely committed to the idea of form being something constantly evolving: a decision you make on the hoof, and constantly. If writing forgets that, or sets it aside, there’s a strong and present danger it’ll become stale and samey, and who wants that?
VG: In Race you write about Grace Kelly and Alfred Hitchcock being “Catholic Irish outsiders to elite WASP culture who learned to ‘pass.’’’ Your use of the word is intriguing: I’d associate it mostly with Black people “passing” as white (as in the Nella Larsen novel, Passing). Do you see a shared range of feelings about one’s race and ethnicity – from pride to enforced shame – between Irish and African American communities, historically? But perhaps that question would take a full book to answer!
MB: That kind of did take a book to answer! White Irish seventeenth-century deportees and indentured servants and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century (pre- and post-Famine) immigrant cohorts were initially racially marked: as “Redlegs,” “Scots-Irish,” and “black Irish.” They subsequently “whitened” not once, but multiple times in the Americas, from the slave-holding Caribbean to America’s frontiers and plantations, and on its eastern seaboard. I have attempted to widen the “Irish whitening” narrative by enfolding queer and multiracial authors and performers, as well as public figures from Andrew Jackson to Rihanna. It’s a complicated story that changes with context, location, and period, so Race is neither an “ethnic pride” celebration, nor does it suggest that the Irish were always on the wrong side of history when it came to dealing with Indigenous and African Americans: There were notable people of color who identified as Irish and, beginning in the seventeenth-century Caribbean, there were significant moments of alliance. (The young Grace Kelly, for instance, risked her nascent career to defend Josephine Baker’s mistreatment in an exclusive club.) The racial barrier against the Irish was “not legal, but social and cultural” (to quote Peter O’Neill), which, into Grace’s lifetime, barred the Irish from certain exclusive roles such as the presidency. This is why Grace’s globally-broadcast transformation to royalty in 1956 in an explicitly Catholic wedding ceremony impacted her ethnic cohort’s status so much and paved the way for “America’s royals,” the Kennedys.
MB: Did you have to overcome initial frustration regarding the seemingly “dead-end Ellens” before having an “aha!” moment that you could generate something fascinating from this multiplicity? Or is the process of finding something of value where others would find mere lack just what a poet routinely does?
VG: Not frustration, (though I’ll admit to a slight disappointment that my Ellen didn’t become deputy police commissioner of NYPD (as another Ellen did) but finding these other Ellens gave me a way to infer other possible storylines without having to hammer them home. My Ellen might have done better in life; she certainly could have done a whole lot worse – letting these other stories tell themselves, as I do, relieved me of the necessity of having to say as much. And the less outright judgment or opinion you have in your work, the more persuasive it’ll be, right?
MB: I was struck by the many characters (if that’s the right word) in Hereafter who never bothered to write to family once they’d left Ireland. Lip-service was paid to the tragic nature of emigration in official Ireland, but in drama by Martin McDonagh and Tom Murphy there’s bitterness regarding the economic inequalities and policy insufficiencies that forced departure. Does Hereafter represent emigration as potential liberation?
VG: “Characters” is definitely the right word! Hereafter is not autobiography or autofiction, (or whatever the current buzzword version of that might be). Ellen is a devised character; so is the narrator – she is like me, but she’s not me: she’s written in a thrown voice, the way any poem is written in a thrown voice, and while that voice may be recognisable from other poems I’ve written, it’s not the same as my voice in life. She is not me.
In response to the bigger question here, neither do I want to prioritise the “pull factors.” I think it’s important to remember that women such as Ellen would have had a very hard job imagining what that “potential liberation” might have looked like. For them, they were heading out into the unknown and whoever was choosing to send them, I’ll hazard it was rarely the choice of the women themselves.
I’m very taken by your discussion in Race of “push factors” in Irish emigration – the “conservative and patriarchal tenor of Irish culture which made America an attractive alternative for women, the young, and the queer, as well as for the politically seditious” (p. 3). I think that’s a very helpful re-framing of the emigration experience, that idea of escape from as much as escape towards. It’s something that was very much in my mind when writing Hereafter, the fact that had she stayed in Ireland, Ellen would have had few and poor employment opportunities, and precious little chance to make anything of herself. America allowed her to become a different kind of Ellen, one who would never, I suspect, have actualized had she stayed in Ireland.
VG: What a great photo you have of Grace Kelly performing, very early in her career, in one of her uncle, George Kelly’s plays, looking not a bit like her later screen incarnation but, rather, quite frumpy and, judging by her stance in the photo, rather unsure of herself!
MB: That’s astute of you to notice! Yes, her posture in the 1949 photo was the first clue for me that the WASPy polished, straight-backed Grace of stardom was created partly to counter stereotypes of post-Famine Irish immigrant women that date back to the “Bridget” (Irish maid) stereotype that your Ellen contends with.
MB: For all her similar self-invention, Ellen in Hereafter would not divulge her secrets. Why?
VG: In a book that’s so much about what can’t be known and what has to be imaginatively projected, it would have been a misstep, I feel, to have a character who splurges the details of her life. Ellen’s reticence is philosophically consistent with the scheme of a book that is, as much as anything, about the reticence – or erasures – of the historical record. But also, any good story requires tension in the telling: there must be an invitation, and an invitation thwarted or refused. Something always has to cross the narrative arc, right? So, to have Ellen spill the beans whenever a question was put to her would have made the book less enjoyable for me to write and, therefore, less enjoyable to read. Her resistance is a deliberate narrative strategy, deployed to create dramatic energy between the book’s two central characters – Ellen and the narrator, so the book has more tussle and game.
VG: I really enjoyed your commentary on clothes and how they can be used as markers of identity. (I wish I’d thought to give Ellen gloves!) When I imagined Ellen, it was as a kind of Victorian matronly figure, clad in serviceable black, but I was also thinking of her as a young woman for whom one of the consolations of her new life in America must surely have been the availability of relatively cheap fashion. For someone from a small farm whose clothes would, likely, have been all homemade (at least up to the point where she was about to emigrate, when ‘shop’ clothes – boots and a coat, perhaps – would probably have been bought for her), it must have been exciting for her to have access to at least the possibility of ‘fancy’ clothes (and even the cheapest American clothes must have looked pretty fancy to her eyes). Again, that idea of re-fashioning identity arises. Up to the point where she bought her first American clothing items, whatever they were, Ellen must always have looked poor. Imagine the fun of looking at yourself in a mirror and seeing someone who looked not only like no girl back at home, but also nothing like your previous self! Did you encounter anything of this sense of excitement about image in your research for Race?
MB: Margaret Lynch-Brennan discusses the ridicule heaped upon “Bridget” for dressing “above her station,” and in an 1881 best-seller by William Faulkner’s grandfather, an unnamed Irish maid’s “inappropriately” refined clothing is ultimately revealed to have been stolen from her employer. Reading between such lines suggests that clothing was a source of joy, reinvention, and social empowerment to modest Irish immigrant women, which made it threatening to their “betters”!
I glimpsed the joy of Grace Kelly’s splendor for ordinary Irish women who identified with a bride of Irish immigrant roots. Prior to Grace’s very public transformation to Princess of Monaco in 1956, the wedding outfit of modest Irish women was a formal day dress or suit, and the white dress and veil was only worn by elite brides, as Catriona Clear has written. The transition to white happened so quickly in Ireland after Grace’s ascent that by 1957 the color of wedding dresses goes unmentioned in newspaper accounts. My book considers the business and practice of beauty and fashion in relation to race and ethnicity – the racially insecure Fitzgerald’s seminal fetish for tanning is particularly fascinating – so I name Grace’s globally televised ceremony a “white wedding in multiple registers” (p. 160) in reference to its impact on her ethnic cohort’s status. The white gown trend ostensibly signaled sexual purity, but in the racialized American context it also signaled privileged whiteness, since, as Carol Wallace notes, such a garment traditionally required the attentions of “a laundress, seamstress, and ladies’ maid” to remain “pristine.” Altogether, it’s no accident that Scarlett O’Hara wears a froufrou white gown in the opening antebellum scene of the film adaptation of Gone with the Wind.
MB: Race includes those traditionally excluded from surveys of Irish America (the Irish of color, the queer, women, Ulster Prestyterians/Scots-Irish, and so on), so I loved the Hereafter line: “I am no statistician, no historian. I seek other ways to tell the story” (p. 121). Would you call your book an inner history of emigration that tries to account for things absent from the data and things for which data cannot account? Can we gender this as a woman poet’s attempt to account for what is missing from traditional male historiography?
VG: I’d be loath to make any such a claim, to be honest: it feels too big for the book. I’m also conscious that the work of several male historians was germane to Hereafter, providing an historical framework and, sometimes, crucial specific detail. But in a wider sense, we know that the story of women’s lives has traditionally received less attention than that of their male counterparts, certainly until modern times. That unequal attention has created gaps in the record and gaps in our subsequent understanding. And whenever a creative artist perceives a gap then certainly that’s exactly where she’ll jump. I’d say my book is, as much as anything, about the frustrations of trying to uncover a character who, for reasons of gender, class and nationality, is difficult to find. I want the book to think about those reasons and to engage with them, and also not to be end-stopped by them, but to creatively explore ways of rebutting or refusing them.
MB: Race suggests that the identities of married women of Irish descent had the potential to be particularly effaced, given that culture’s certainty regarding the ethno-religious allegiances conveyed by surnames (p. 43). At the lovely close of Hereafter, the inheritances of blue eyes (p. 29) and first names (“my daughter’s middle name is Ellen” p. 174) allows the dead foremother to return. Before you conjured up Ellen, was the vista of all the anonymous, nameless, and misnamed foremothers stretching back into history a lonely one? Or is that to assume that Irish women might have wanted what Irish men have traditionally had: a more easily traced presence in the record because they will always bear their father’s surname?
VG: The poet’s job is to particularize, to find in a panorama a telling detail that, by reducing scale, hopes to intensify impact. If I’ve written her well, Ellen will be not just a credible voice in her own right but will stand as a kind of representative of all those women whose stories will never be told.
VG: What you write in Race about names acquired through marriage occluding ethno-religious identity (p.30) is fascinating. It’s an issue additionally complicated by the Irish (perhaps peculiarly Irish?) way of finding new spellings / versions of surnames. For example, my Ellen married John Grady, but later added an “O,” becoming O’Grady, perhaps to loosen her association with a bad husband, perhaps to render herself a little harder to track down (by him?), perhaps for the fun of it, because she could. Similarly with age: Ellen was constantly lying about her age on official documents – census records, passenger manifests etc. I wonder if the extraordinary task of self-invention involved in moving to another continent didn’t also give young Irish women a taste for the practice of “making themselves up”?
MB: I found that the fluidity of a woman’s name/identity could cut both ways. American author Kate Chopin (née O’Flaherty; 1850-1904) is lost to the Irish-American canon because of the French surname she acquired through marriage. The daughter of a Galway-born businessman, Chopin’s Irish ancestry is more immediate than many male writers of distant Irish ancestry readily designated “Irish American” because they possess a recognizably Gaelic Irish surname. As Irish-American feminist Jane O’Reilly notes of her decision to revert to her Irish maiden name after divorce: “We [women] are the people who lose our names when we marry, the also-rans of recorded history, the unidentified half of ‘mankind.’ We travel incognita in our own culture.”
Conversely, the ability to shake off one’s birth name upon marriage could allow for escape from an oppressive heritage, an opportunity traditionally not available to men. Both Poe and James, two writers of Ulster Presbyterian ancestry whose work negotiates settler-colonial/patriarchal legacies of violence and coercion, wrote gothic stories of men terrorized by dead male ancestors/doppelgangers of the exact same name. An even more troubling history of naming I consider is that some Black and mixed-race people in the Americas with Irish surnames acquired those names because their ancestors had been enslaved by Irish families (p. 92).
VG: Women like my Ellen had little means to devise their own origin myths, other than tweaking age and name. For Ellen in particular, access to her Irish family was crucial after she became a single parent and needed to deploy the family support network back home, to have her children raised. It’s a complex and curious business this touting or secreting of Irish heritage, depending on where one is on the social ladder, and what one’s aspirations are. (Interesting too, as an aside, to recall the responses to Biden’s visit in April, how there were complaints that ‘his’ Ireland [remote cousins, Knock Shrine, etc] was a throwback to pre-modern times, and not quite the diverse and inclusive version of ourselves we now wish to peddle.) It almost seems as if there are as many “Irelands” as there are members of the Irish diaspora. For your subjects in Race, success means something quite different to what it would have for Ellen. Was a shared heritage, perhaps, the only connecting thread and, if so, would it have worked as a connection that overrode most differences, do you think; or would it have proved the most fragile of threads in many (most?) social circumstances?
MB: My reading in Irish-American histography and literature suggests if the Irish shared denomination, class, and language/dialect, then there was the possibility of connection. However, differences potentially led to the kind of distinctions I see made in, for instance, Margaret Mitchell’s novel, Gone With the Wind (1936), which audits every Irishness created by America’s ethno-racial hierarchy and Ireland’s own colonialism, sectarianism, and linguistic shift: “wild” Irish-speaking Union Army recruits; the “shiftless,” over-fecund “poor white” Slatterys; “hillbilly” caretaker, Archie, implicitly of hard-scrabble Scots-Irish stock; “lace curtain Irish” businessman Frank Kennedy; Will Benteen, the small farmer of possible British Isles indentured convict descent; the Ulster Presbyterian “Orange” (pro-British) planter McIntoshes; “Shanty Irish on the make” laborer Johnnie Gallegher; former “Irish Bridget” carpetbagger Mrs. Flaherty; elite Rhett Butler, carrier of the name of a powerful Hiberno-Norman dynasty. Mitchell attempts to – somewhat anachronistically – assert landed Catholic Irish whiteness and elite status in the South and to slough off the Irish castes that are less desirable for reasons of “off-white” status (the Slatterys) or politics and/or denomination (the McIntoshes and Mrs. Flaherty). Altogether, I think that Mitchell’s cast of Irish characters represent actual intra-Irish social, ethno-racial, political, and denominational tensions quite well.
VG: In the various social strata of Gone with the Wind, Ellen would probably be perceived as closest to the Slatterys, both assigned to “off-white” status. Your book is wonderfully insightful about such strata, and the different ways of being Irish in America. What’s probably true about Ellen and her cohort was that they were likely Irish in America in something of the same way they would have been Irish in Ireland (religion, accent, values, allegiances etc). I’m not sure the same applies the higher up the social ladder you go. Would you agree?
MB: The fictional Gerald O’Hara in GWTW is an immigrant who rises from impoverished and historically dispossessed Catholic Irish roots and sees his planter role as some kind of righting of ancient wrongs in Ireland: he justifies his “ruthless singleness of purpose” in acquiring plantation and human chattel as the hunger “of an Irishman who has been a tenant on the lands his people once had owned.” His ascent up the social ladder to Southern aristocrat is quick due to the antebellum context, in which whites above the “trash” cut-off are often gentry by default. For instance, in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! – another novel about an Irish-associated planter Race examines – Rosa, a storekeeper’s daughter, calls herselfa “gentlewoman.” In other words, Gerald would have shared religion, accent, and (Irish) political allegiances with your Ellen, but the racial context into which he inserts himself allows him to become a “gentleman” in short order.
MB: Do you push toward the issue of elite Irish exploiting poor Irish in the scene in which Ellen notes that her Irish (?) employer lorded (ladyied?) over her (p.37)?
VG: That sonnet on p. 37 ends by mentioning “The Last Rose of Summer” and “She is Far from the Land” – two popular “parlor” songs of the time. My intention was not to imply that the “Lady of the House” is herself Irish, but to portray a chasm between the fact of Ellen’s presence as hard-working servant in the house and the sentimental version of Irish emigration that was peddled in songs of the period. There’s irony between those two depictions of the emigrant experience, yes? And irony is a useful tool when telling a story because it suggests a little more than it says to readers, who must then fill in the gaps for themselves.
MB: For much of Hereafter, there was a delicate withholding of direct accusation regarding how those who’d stayed behind in Ellen’s immediate family ultimately benefited by the departure of “surplus” population through emigration, though the quotations from historians on this topic (p. 20; 24) suggests that it bubbled under. Did the potential to hurt thefeelings of living descendants of Ellen shape this outsourcing of critique to historians?
VG: Not really. It was more a case of not needing or wanting to chase down that particular narrative loose end. I don’t know what happened to those relatives of Ellen’s who stayed home. The tenancy of the farm was surrendered in 1921, and no O’Haras now live in Glenavoo [County Sligo]. To find descendants of Ellen’s brothers who stayed home would have taken huge time, and I didn’t really see that time investment paying off within the book. That suited me: during the writing of Hereafter, I always had one eye fixed on the personal and one on the impersonal aspects of the story. Making the story about “Ellen’s immediate family” would have upset that balance, I think.
VG: You write about Grace Kelly’s playwright uncle, George Kelly (1887-1974), having “destroyed any personal documents that could be of use to future biographers.” That chimed with my search for documents that could pin down the facts of Ellen’s life with authority, and so often failing to find what I’d hoped for. Was your research for this book a Herculean task?
MB: Since George had so many famous relatives – not even counting Grace – and left many traces in the theatre world, his biography is covered by theatre histories and the many works about the Kellys as individuals and as a family. However, I had a hard time with the eighteenth-century Irish Catholic paternal ancestors in Maryland of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Critics had followed the dead-end he’d deliberately created by overemphasizing his one distant “Anglo” ancestral line on his father’s side (the Keys; see photo). I had to combine findings from the 1790 and 1850 census with help from Maryland librarians, Fitzgerald tour guides, and obscure hyperlocal history publications (bought at great cost online!) to piece his Irish paternal ancestry together. My search for the Fitzgerald patrilineal line turned up details of the presence of other families of that name (or its variants) in the author’s ancestral Montgomery County, MD in the colonial period, some of whom were enslavers. This bolstered Race’s repeated emphasis on broader Irish culpability in slavery and on the invisibility of pre-Famine Catholic immigrants in the popular idea of Irish America. To that end, I enjoyed your listing of all the Ellen O’Gradys/ Ellen O’Haras you came across (p. 21; 133-38). As with the many Montgomery County Fitzgerald families I found, I think that some truth regarding the complexity and diversity of Irish immigrant experience emerges from such aggregation.
VG: Had George Kelly been one of your initial starting points for Race in the early stages, or was he a marvellously illustrative discovery you made along the way?
MB: I started with Grace as an agent of the transformation of Irish status in the mid-century and was looking for literary sources on the aspirational 1920s Irish Catholic Philadelphia of her birth (to add to the historiography on the Irish in Philadelphia from the eighteenth-century Ulster Presbyterian Irish/Scots-Irish onwards that I’d surveyed). Luckily, the work of a Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist of middle-class Philadelphia of that period, Grace’s beloved paternal uncle, Goerge Kelly, turned out to be a good source for this inner social history. I was able to read his work as specific to his own Famine Irish family as well as his broader ethnic community, even if – or precisely because! – Kelly was loath to use the word “Irish” in his dramas, even though his maid characters used Irish idioms. Race discusses what I call the “closeted Irishness” (p. 37-39; 144-47) of both the Scots-Irish Henry James and George Kelly as reticence regarding sexuality entwines with reticence regarding Irish roots for both.
VG: When researching my book, I came across the Russell Brothers vaudeville act, The Irish Servant Girls, a hugely popular act that Jennifer Mooney has written about (2010). It was wonderful to read your examination of George Kelly’s plays, about which I’d known nothing at all, and to encounter a more sophisticated role for the Irish domestic servant in American drama. Alice James’s (Henry’s sister) comments on her servants (which chime with those of Louisa May Alcott, recently brought to light), show a familiar side of the story, but this empowering of the Irish servant, Mrs Harold, on stage (at least insofar as she becomes a character foil to Mrs. Craig) by a gay man of Irish descent is fascinating (p.149). As is the character of George Kelly himself, and his use of an Irish maid character played across different dramas by the same actress. Obviously, this character was one he felt was extremely useful and strategic to his drama.
MB: As the son of a Famine-era-born Mayo grandfather who himself led a modest life in his youth, George Kelly identified on some level with the servant rather than the householder, as implied by his choice of William Weagly as a life partner; Weagly was a New York hotel bellhop when they met. For Kelly, the Irish maid would have evoked a complex response encompassing both resentment of WASP stereotypes and ethnic memory. Lynch-Brennan connects jokes mocking “Bridget” to wider anti-Catholic bigotry of the sort the young Alice James internalized. The fixed title of “Bridget” conveyed the interchangeability of one Irish maid with the next and echoes the dehumanizing strategy of calling all Black Pullman train porters “George” (p. 148). As such, the bitter cultural in-joke of actor Mary Gildea’s repeated Irish maid roles in various Kelly plays becomes apparent.
MB: Your family was extraordinarily mobile, given the period. Did it help you to connect with Ellen, since to come and go across the Atlantic as she and hers do seems very contemporary?
VG: My mother’s line is, of course, only one half of my family story. My father’s family were farmers in the Irish midlands. Until my parents’ honeymoon in London in 1947, I don’t think my father had ever been abroad. That’s two sides of the Irish experience, really: one side plied the Atlantic like it was a boreen between their house and a neighbor’s; the other stayed home, worked the land and lived local, more or less tidy, lives. Families on the western seaboard, in particular, were in the habit of crossing over and back. During the Famine era, when someone emigrated, they rarely returned home but once steamships made transatlantic travel quicker and easier, people did tend to visit more often. When I was younger, I too did a lot of the “over-and-back” but now, like most rational people, I try to limit such trips to something a little more environmentally reasonable. The contemporary now seems to me to be veering much closer to my father’s experience than my mother’s, necessarily.
MB: I was so struck by the fact that you seemed to reclaim New York as a site of family as much as Sligo and that New York was a space in which you could almost reach out and touch Ellen. Your ancestry is as much New York as it is Sligo, but did you ever imagine yourself as being a New Yorker by inheritance?
VG: I find I want to resist the categorizations here. As is fitting for a story that involves so much crossing of water, I think of these terms as inherently fluid. Do I think of myself as being of New York ancestry? Partly. Partly not. Maybe truer to say that before writing this book, I always felt I had unfinished business there: for decades I had the nagging feeling that there was a story with loose ends needing to be tied up. Before my Cullman year I lived for a year near Philadelphia (while co-holding, with Conor O’Callaghan, my then husband, the Heimbold Chair in Irish studies at Villanova University), and for two years in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where we also taught. That to-and-fro of feeling at once welcome and also strange was at the heart of many of the poems I wrote during both periods. And that exact to-and-fro is a very useful position for a poet to occupy. On one hand you need to be able to stand close to experience, (so as to be able to feel anything); on the other hand, distance is a helpful tool in terms of formulating a description of that feeling. Being a stranger in an unstrange land, as it were, gives you both familiarity and objectivity. I certainly couldn’t have written Hereafter without living in New York, and not just because of the wonderful research resources made available to me at the Cullman Center. It was something more esoteric than that – the slight rhyme, however diluted, of my own experience with Ellen’s was definitely an enabler. But equally, I have to wonder if I’d have written Hereafter if I actually lived in New York (and not just for nine months). Probably not. The fleeting relationship with place is often more useful than the entirely earthed one. Ellen was a creature of the coming and going and, for better or worse, so am I.
VG: You’ve unearthed quite a few Irish ancestors of well-known people. For example, I’d never heard that Alfred Hitchcock’s maternal grandfather was a Whelan born in Ireland in 1838. Or about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s colonial-era Irish immigrant ancestors. Or that Jacqueline Bouvier-Kennedy’s mother’s line was Irish. Good to be reminded about Henry James too – I enjoyed your spin on “closeted Irishness” (p.38) in Colm Tóibín’s The Master (2004). And Mariah Carey! It’s so interesting that while some embrace their Irish roots, others (like Fitzgerald) seem determined to subvert it. Your telling of the making of Grace Kelly is fascinating in this regard too; her being effectively silenced and groomed in order to suppress the possibility of her giving away her origins as anything other than blue-blooded princess-in-waiting.
MB: Grace Kelly was of Famine Irish origin and the ascent to royalty was by no means expected, and the massive weight of a century of negative stereotype about people of her ethnic cohort was precisely why the studios seemed to feel the need to package her as a WASP “lady.” In terms of “silence”: Yes, Grace rarely spoke to reporters, becoming the very antithesis of the very old stereotype of Irish garrulousness that goes right back to Shakespeare, and this played a huge role in the creation of her slightly icy but elegant persona (p. 151). Nevertheless, I think she colluded in the silence rather than being a victim of it, as she was very bright, strategic, and far from passive: she collaborated with Howell Conant on publicity photographs that broke the mould of studio publicity shots in their arch “naturalness,” and as a relative unknown she had insisted upon favorable terms before signing with MGM (p. 153).
MB: Was the lack of value of daughters on farms in nineteenth-century Ireland a blessing in disguise? Were they forced to be independent and to take off alone to an unknown country in which they had a shot at success?
VG: Hard to see it quite in those terms, though. I agree it had advantages – for the families, the nation and national economy, and (perhaps in the long run) for the young women themselves – but it must also have been terrifying for them. Exciting too, I daresay, but definitely terrifying. And traumatic. Many families still feel, I believe, the after-effects of that trauma still. Being forced to be independent is a complicated business: since the usual run of the human condition requires (at least in my experience) that we chafe against anything we’re forced to do or be, there’s a sense that this “independence” was a strange mutation, a dependent independence, as it were, dictated by external factors, and therefore likely to be resisted and refused, as much as embraced and activated. It depends, I suppose, on where you choose to look at the timeline: concentrate on the leaving, you’ll see a tragic loneliness. Focus on the end-story, you might decide the pain was worth it. The job of the storyteller is to allow for both in good measure, but I don’t have it in me to suppress the loneliness in order to preference the success, not least because it would dilute the story, possibly fatally.
MB: “I hadn’t thought of this as a famine story, but of course it is” (p. 7). Did the silence regarding the Famine and the loss of the Irish language conjoin in your imagining of Ellen and her (your) family? Famine was an inarticulable memory for many who’d survived it in part because, as Kevin Whelan has written, “The language – Irish – in which the experience of the Famine was actually lived by the bulk of its victims was itself one of its casualties.” Ellen speaks to you in “folk sonnet” (p. 11) in Hiberno-English dialect (“It wasn’t hunger that drove me”), but don’t you imagine Ellen as an Irish speaker originally? If so, what was lost when she lost her mother tongue?
VG: I’m sure Ellen was an Irish speaker who learned English in Primary School. That learning was two-pronged: firstly, it was required within the educational system as a strategy to suppress a language deemed undesirable in principle and seditious in practicality. Secondly, there was an appetite for English amongst Irish people as an important tool in the emigrant’s leaving bag. Being monolingually Irish was no help to anyone seeking work in New York, Boston or Adelaide. It’s a classic approach of colonial rule to make an indigenous language unlivable in, in any economically realistic way. But I had to have Ellen speak in English – though I’m sure she’d have been happy to use Irish now and then – for the simple reason that I don’t speak Irish well enough to be able to play inside it, or to find a way to find my own thinking there.
MB: The canon of Irish creative writing about the famine has been thin until recent decades. Did that make it easier or more difficult for you in imagining your way into it, which you do so well (p. 8; 12-13), or did you rely on historiography?
VG: For “The Long Shadow,” the section of the book about the aftermath of the famine, my research drew on historical sources and also on my own imaginative resources. I asked myself, how might the legacy of such a traumatic and significant experience express itself within a family dynamic? What are the stories and silences that surround it? What questions might the children not be allowed to ask? I also had to think about superstitions and unspoken protocols around the landscape, how people might remember, without articulating it overtly, sites of particular horror. And, of course, around all this, there would have to have been a wrap of shame and guilt of the kind common to all survivors of catastrophe. My question as a creative investigator had to be, How do these find expression, or not, afterwards? The line which finishes the sonnet on page 13, for example, is the kind of question I imagine being asked by children coming from a place of innocent curiosity, that will be met by a very complex silence (which is why it has to be the final line of the poem). The strangeness of the phrase (“Did any of us die?”) also appealed to me, with its pressure on that word “us” that makes it a resonant, quizzical phrase, that asks and says more than the actual words, in the way poetry likes words to do.
MB: Many of the records of Ellen relate to Church rites (p. 4-5). Do you have mixed feelings about that fact that an institution that oppressed Irish women is also where their records can be located? Do you imagine that Ellen would have found comfort in Mass in New York, or would she have slowly drifted from Catholicism as she aged? Historiography stresses that the post-Famine Irish got enmeshed in their urban emigrant neighbourhoods through Catholic and Irish organizations, but I don’t see these networks in your imagining of Ellen’s emigrant life. Does her gravestone or its location give any clue as to whether she attended church in old age?
VG: I don’t know if she’d have found comfort in it, exactly, but I’m confident Ellen’s religion was important to her. Certainly, her daughter was religious, and my mother too. At one point I did have a whole section in the book based on Colleen McDonnell’s work on the Catholic Ladies Fairs, which I imagine would have been an important venue for immigrant men and women to meet each other. I also had a section on the St Patrick’s Day parade. But they didn’t seem to earn their place in my telling of Ellen’s story, regardless of how significant an element they may have been in the lives of women such as her. I think perhaps because I have no religious belief myself, I found it impossible to project it onto a character of my creating. The only thing I considered in this regard was having Ellen upbraid me for my lack of religion, but even this felt inauthentic to me – too many trick mirrors, perhaps, for me to manipulate all at once!
MB: Your concluding implication that the Irish state was built on the unacknowledged remittances of countless thousands of Irish women emigrants (p. 141-57) who had been considered of little value at home is astonishing. Haven’t you just quietly upended the entire story Ireland tells itself as to how it achieved independence?
VG: I don’t want to claim as much: that’s not my job and, without more historical and economic research, I don’t think the argument is conclusive. What I’ve done, what I set out to do, was to offer a line of argument that might become the basis of further investigation, perhaps (though not by me!). Hereafter is a kind of invitation: now let’s see what (if anything) might come of it!