By Eamon Lynch
WHEREVER GREEN IS WORN, by Tim Pat Coogan. Palgrave, for St. Martin’s Press. 746 pp. $35.
“I can imagine nothing less desirable than an Irish Club,” George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1948 after being invited to join just such an institution in London. “Irish people should . . . avoid each other like the plague. If they flock together like geese, they might as well have never left Ireland.”
It’s as well for Tim Pat Coogan that most emigrants paid even less heed to Shaw’s dictum than to his literature. Coogan is probably Ireland’s most widely read historian and his latest book, “Wherever Green Is Worn,” is a door-stopping travelogue of Irish expatriate outposts around the globe.
A contemporary history of the Irish diaspora is a daunting project, even for the author of richly detailed biographies of Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera and two seminal works on Northern Ireland, “The Troubles” and “The IRA.” Rather than dwell on the various circumstances that saw Ireland’s population drop by a quarter between 1841 and 1861 (a trend that continued in lesser numbers until the 1990s), “Wherever Green Is Worn” focuses on how emigrants both impacted and were assimilated into disparate cultures abroad.
Whatever success Coogan attains here might have something to do with a reporting style that is pleasingly simple: Arrive with a little historical knowledge, then set about finding anecdotal evidence of Irish influence — though admittedly this isn’t difficult when you are touring hostelries from Sarajevo to San Francisco.
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Most emigration historians have concentrated on England, the U.S. and Australia, and while Coogan too follows this well-traveled path, he does make some interesting diversions around Europe. For example, he reminds us that French-Irish connections extend beyond the military (revolutionary influences on the United Irishmen) to the literary, noting that Joyce, Beckett, Yeats and Wilde lived or died there. He also revisits that appallingly obsequious visit de Valera made to the German ambassador to offer condolences on the death of Hitler and Ireland’s shabby attitude to Jewish refugees during World War II.
The essay on the Irish in Britain features some telling anecdotes but relies too heavily on Coogan’s fellow journalists, whose experiences working in the court of Westminster differ greatly from those of a bricklayer in Kilburn. One promising section casts light on AIDS among young emigrants in London, the “sexual exiles” mostly from rural areas whose experience is too often ignored.
Yet no sooner has the author found his stride than he is off to another cocktail party to gather anecdotes that are significantly less interesting. Still, he makes a valid distinction between anti-Irish discrimination in Britain and elsewhere. “In a situation in which at times bombs go off, and coffins travel back and forth across the Irish Sea, unpleasant side effects will develop in the host community,” he notes wryly.
The Northern conflict is one of two recurring specters in the book, the other being the Catholic church. Rather than wax lyrical about the Mother Church holding her flock together in strange lands, Coogan points out how Irish fealty to church teachings on family planning helped spawn the dire conditions that drove so many to the docks.
Since “Wherever Green Is Worn” aims at such a large target, it’s inevitable that many stories suffer from lack of depth, making the whole enterprise feel like a series of glancing blows rather than a heavyweight knockout. Some topics — the Irish who fought in the Spanish Civil War and the emigrant vote campaign, to name but two — perhaps warrant as much ink as is lavished on Rep. Peter King. King may be a charming fellow, but he is hardly a key figure in the diaspora.
The chapter on Irish America is both the longest and the weakest, with the exception of an entertaining interlude with the robbers and barons of South Boston. Otherwise, Coogan mostly covers well-plowed terrain from Mother Jones to Bill Flynn but breaks no new ground. There is simply too much space wasted on slavering social climbers who dash up Fifth Avenue on St. Patrick’s Day to be first in line to kiss the cardinal’s ring. Nor does praising the encyclopedic knowledge of Yeats displayed by the son of Bobby Kennedy constitute getting down and dirty with the Irish experience in the U.S.
The entire America section is a little too centered on New York and Boston and could use some real acknowledgement that the Irish ventured to lesser-know precincts, even if the author himself didn’t. At least Coogan does toss brickbats at Irish America’s more unsavory characters (if only the dead ones) who are often excised from celebratory accounts of the rollicking Irish, notably Sen. Joe McCarthy.
Coogan, a former editor of the much-missed Irish Press, is somewhat more engaging when he veers off the beaten path, as in describing how petty politics disrupt the yeoman work of aid workers in Africa. This is a welcome respite from the usual nonsense about heroic missionaries, though there is some of that too. There are some lighter moments, like when he hops into a cab in Auckland and demands to be taken to “the Dog’s Bollocks” (it’s a bar); or this breathless revelation: “I have heard it rumored that wanted IRA men have found a safe haven in Cuba during the recent North of Ireland troubles.” If nothing else, this nugget should provide a good opening salvo for British journalist and arch Gerry Adams hounder Peter Hitchens, should he ever shadow Adams to Havana.
Irish emigration was historically powered by a frail economy, the recent upsurge in which has stemmed the tide of departures. But the good times have had a seedy underbelly and to his credit Coogan takes a swipe at the festering sore of racism toward immigrants and refugees in Ireland.
“On one level this could be explained as part of the growing pains of multiculturalism everywhere,” he writes. “But on the other one has to acknowledge a shocking attitude of historical ingratitude on the part of a nation that once scattered its children to the charity of the world. One thinks of those “No Irish Need Apply” signs and winces.”
There are some sections of “Wherever Green Is Worn” that carry a whiff of blarney with a passport, but ultimately Coogan’s sure-footedness and thirst for the subject make it a worthwhile investment.