Having a particular interest in Irish-American texts I recently re-read Alice McDermott’s At Weddings and Wakes and Charming Billy. In particular I looked for representations of Irish-American Catholicism and found particularly interesting the more transportable aspects of Irish culture.
Contained within the texts, At Weddings and Wakes and Charming Billy, are iterative thematic elements expressed through events – characters and arguments both silent and vocal transpire. The presence of faith is ever-present within McDermott’s work, evident even from her novel title At Weddings and Wakes – both central religious, unifying and for Irish Catholics – social events. These cultural and religious events are even more important in the representation of Irish-American immigrants such as those in our novels who immigrated to Brooklyn. The Dailey’s for example, are a family whose world-view is shaped and indeed ruled by the more transportable aspects of Irish culture; faith, community and to a certain extent ‘keeping/showing face’.
The presence of unification is quite prevalent across McDermott’s work in her use of religious, locational and emotional challenges. This facilitates continuity for the reader and helps to develop key concepts in McDermott’s work such as Irish-American Catholicism. Both novels centre on faith, death and the testing of relationships, the relationship of Billy and Dennis for example. Elements of honour, truth and tradition prevail throughout these novels of diaspora in which ritual events mobilise communities, centred on Irish-American Catholicism. Representations of the faith by McDermott are influenced by her upbringing and therefore can be read as semi-autobiographical in parts. Representations are positive in that she represents a prosperous hybridity of Irish and American culture yet keeps faith as the constant that remains unchanged which holds true also for the characters McDermott portrays. A hybridity of her father’s generation views as well as her own, with reference to faith, is at play within the texts. The events of our character’s lives in At Weddings and Wakes conform to a very traditional Irish social context, both guarded and cultivated by Momma.
Irish-American Catholicism is strongly represented, achieved through a parish structure. “… the period between the two world wars was the golden age of the big-city parishes, which were an enormous source of strength to a catholic community that had not quite shed its outsider status.” (Lee, 592) Networking amongst Irish in America was facilitated by the parishes which were set up during the time the Irish migrated to the US. The Irish-American Catholicism facilitated conversation, interaction and began the community formation. This congregation around faith represents rural Ireland and the more traditional aspects of what it means to be Irish. Community, Identity and place are some of the things the Irish took with them when they migrated to new poly-ethnic places.
The representations of Irish-American Catholicism as positive is somewhat blurred by the father, Lucy’s husband. Early in the novel he remarks that the journey to Momma’s is like the journey to hell, thus likening the apartment to something demonic. The father is one character who goes against the grain of Irish-American traditional ways, evident from the tension we see between him and Momma. This is a strongly gendered element of McDermott’s writing, always representing the female characters as stuck and never moving forward, e.g. Aunt Veronica – the token alcoholic. McDermott represents the male characters as the movers, more modern and up to date with the times.
There are many symbolic metaphors and representations in At Weddings and Wakes as well as Charming Billy, mostly to do with the Irish-American Catholic faith. The apartment of Momma that the three Dailey children and their mother make their way to every week is representative of the church in that it is a place where everyone must go and meet regardless of whether or not they like to, their journey there is quite fragmented and disturbing to the children. The apartment seems to be a locational rut, a place where time stops and Momma’s word is law, likening the apartment to a prison more so than a happy place. Within this prison the children as well as the family members are bound by routine and tradition, bound by their adherence to Momma and ultimately to their faith. The one saviour and lifeline for the children and Lucy is the father, he is representative of their deliverance, always coming to free them, evident from the repeated use of the word ‘delivered’ within the text. The family never seems to extend beyond Momma’s reach or influence, exemplified on the Dailey family vacation and renting of their boat from a man who lived in momma’s neighbourhood, “He greeted their father, who seemed to have known him forever …” (AWW, 49). This supports the view that containment is gendered feminine and that breaking out is therefore masculine, the apartment and Momma are the containers of people and faith, while the father is the deliverer who comes to free those who have served their penance. One character in the novel transcends this gendered stereotype of Irish-American Catholicism and it is through her faith that she does so – the character of Aunt May. Entering into an order of nun’s allows May to get out of the prison that is the apartment and to reclaim, somewhat, her agency.
The extended family is very important to immigrants, as evident from the Dailey’s. Expanding networks of families within the diaspora’s what keeps them alive, quasi tribal in its execution. This leads to a key issue in the unifying social context of faith amongst the Irish in America and indeed the world-view of what transpired in the early twentieth century which is chain-migration. “Chain migration can be defined as that movement in which prospective migrants learn of opportunities, and have initial accommodation and employment arranged by means of family or previous migrants” (MacDonald, 82).
Chain migration is very much present in Charming Billy through the activities of Dennis’ step father Daniel who encourages family members to come over to America, this emanates from a very communal culture of faith and family, represented by McDermott as a positive in the overall world-view of Irish-American Catholicism. Billy also highlights the ease of chain migration though in his situation not everything goes to plan yet if Eva was honest in her intentions then Billy’s help and money would have been the conduit through which she would have become one of the many Irish-American immigrants. Dennis resents this chain migration that Daniel forces upon the family, often putting themselves out to keep up with the tradition. Sheila’s viewpoint is that this activity deprives them of an emotional life in their marriage. Daniel’s gregarious nature is inverted in his marriage to Sheila such that it drives out emotion and pushes them apart, rather than bringing them together. It is through such relationships that McDermott critiques and investigates emotional dysfunction within the Irish-American Catholic family, highlighting its dysfunctions and showing that being good to relatives and friends under the religious obligatory umbrella can be quite detrimental to closer relations rendering oneself emotionally unavailable to the respective partner. One of the prevailing faith-centred themes of Charming Billy is the theme of romance, both failed and successful, and that deceit which goes with it, medieval in its origins. McDermott investigates Irish-American ideals and romanticism coupling them with the multiplicity of Catholicism and alcoholism, paralleled in both texts studied. Billy’s romantic view of Eva is bound up in Catholicism, not only is he actively engaged in his faith Billy is intrigued by the protestant church and with the synagogue. Billy is uplifted by these faiths, a key motive for Billy in life is to pursue and partake in faith. It is only after the death of Clare that we see loss of faith, Dennis’ loss of faith and of love only to regain it later when he reveals the truth regarding Eva to Billy. “It’s hard to be a liar and a believer yourself, at the same time” (CB, 42). Charming Billy is a book about storytelling of stories and events, overall an anthology. Fundamentally our main character, the one who shapes our opinion and guides the reader is not in fact Billy or Dennis but rather the narrator, Dennis’ daughter. It is our narrators’ representation and view which the perceptions of Irish-American Catholicism within the text to the reader. It is her story which fundamentally encircles all others.
Throughout both texts we see that faith has a unifying social effect and the catholic world-view of such a religion is quite criticised by the younger generations opposed in the older generations which have little or no objections to a faith which can be so overbearing at times, highlighting conformity, yet it could be reason winning out – the necessary lie.
What unifies the Irish-American immigrants in our texts is Catholicism, fostering the community, encouraging expansion and urban sprawl in relation under the guise of faith and religious conforms, exemplified in Daniel. “Ties of family and community, although stretched tight by so many burdens, nonetheless bound together many poor and not-so-poor immigrants”. (Bayor 27) The socially unifying context and effect of faith within an Irish-American geographical area such as Long Island or Brooklyn has a progressive, expansive, effect in the macrocosm yet within the microcosm we see the cracks appear. Daniel, through his incessant need to bring everyone from home to America, removes the agency of Sheila, his faith in her. This removal of agency is mirrored in Dennis and his deception of Billy regarding Eva, he removes Billy’s agency just as his mother’s was removed by Daniel – without thought. Removing the agency regresses the characters to pre-emigration when nothing was a choice and life was a struggle within enforced boundaries, this is where the wrong is committed.
- MacDonald, John. S., Chain Migration Ethnic Neighbourhood Formation and Social Network. The Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly, Vol. 42, Jan 1964. Web. 14 Jan. 2012.
- McDermott, Alice. At Weddings and Wakes. London: Penguin, 1992. Print.
- McDermott, Alice. Charming Billy. London: Penguin, 1998. Print.
- Bayor, Ronald H., Meagher, Timothy J. The New York Irish. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Print.
- Fanning, Charles. New Perspectives on the Irish Diaspora. Southern Illinois University, 2000. Print.
- Lee, J. J., Casey, Marion R.. Making the Irish American – History and heritage of the Irish in the United States. New York: New York University Press, 2006. Print.