Of mice and Derrymen: John Steinbeck’s Irish heritage

Frank McNally digs deep into the author’s Irish ancestral connections

John Steinbeck: The writer’s maternal grandfather had indeed been a Samuel Hamilton, who left Ireland in the dark year of 1847, and later married Elizabeth Fagan, also from the old country. Photograph:  Keystone/Getty Images

John Steinbeck: The writer’s maternal grandfather had indeed been a Samuel Hamilton, who left Ireland in the dark year of 1847, and later married Elizabeth Fagan, also from the old country. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

 

John Steinbeck, who died 50 years ago today, was by his own account “half Irish”, although – also by his own account – that may have been a conservative estimate. “The rest of my blood has been watered down with German and Massachusetts English,” he wrote after a visit to his ancestral Derry in 1952: “But Irish blood doesn’t water down very well; the strain must be very strong.”

The influence features most obviously in the novel East of Eden, published the same year he visited Ireland, and later turned into a film starring James Dean. It starts with Samuel and Liza Hamilton, emigrants from the north of Ireland, who raise nine children on bad farmland in the Salinas Valley of California, where much of Steinbeck’s work is set.

The writer’s maternal grandfather had indeed been a Samuel Hamilton, who left Ireland in the dark year of 1847, and later married Elizabeth Fagan, also from the old country. The farmland may have been autobiographical too. But as fictionalised, at least, Samuel never looked back: “He was a busy man. He had no time for nostalgia. The Salinas Valley was the world.”

Whereas Steinbeck was certainly interested in Ireland, which affected him in unexpected ways. Among his early editors was a dog named Toby, a “very serious” Irish Setter “who doesn’t care for jokes”. Left alone with the manuscript of what became Of Mice and Men once, Toby shredded half the pages, reducing them to “confetti”.

It was the only copy, and the destroyed portion accounted for two months’ work. But the at-first furious author in time came to suspect the dog had been a good critic. The second draft proved to be Steinbeck’s breakthrough, quickly followed by The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Together they turned him into a literary superstar.

Dustbowl

Steinbeck’s “Dustbowl Trilogy”, thereby completed, had begun a few years earlier with In Dubious Battle, the story of a fruit-pickers’ strike. When publishers worried about its “communist ideology”, he replied that his research came mostly from “Irish and Italian communists whose training was in the field not in the drawing room”. They didn’t believe in ideologies, he said: “They do what they can under the circumstances”.

Steinbeck himself didn’t claim to be communist, or even socialist. But the politics and success of The Grapes of Wrath, in particular, earned him undying enmity from such people as J Edgar Hoover. He also merited inclusion, alongside George Bernard Shaw and Sean O’Casey, on the list of literary Fifth Columnists and fellow travellers of the Soviet Union that George Orwell compiled in the late 1940s.

Until then, Steinbeck’s travels had never persuaded him back to Ireland. Although he had landed in airports here during the war, something always stopped him disembarking. But in 1952, he went to Belfast, then Derry, and from Derry made the short trip to Mulkeeragh, from where the Hamiltons originated.

Derry visit

The journey took him past Camman Wood, one-time haunt of highwaymen preying on the stagecoach to Coleraine. It also brought him through the villages of Greysteel and Ballykelly, now indelibly linked to atrocities of the Troubles. Back then, however, staying in a “bleak” hotel in “dour, cold” Derry, Steinbeck was appalled by the lack of illegality all around him, specifically the inability of a porter to find him a bottle of whiskey on a Sunday, despite all financial inducement.

At Mulkeeragh, at least, he did find what he was looking for: the final resting place of his relations. They were indeed all resting by then: the last – a “Miss Elizabeth” – had expired two years before. Decades earlier, she had been in the habit of writing letters to America, in a “thin, elegant hand” and using English of “an exquisite quality, reminiscent of the eighteenth-century writers”.

Then the letters stopped. And after her only brother died (of blood poisoning, from a neglected scratch by a rusty nail), Miss Elizabeth was said to have become “strange”.

A feature of this strangeness, in Steinbeck’s account, was that she became a hardline unionist. Her last act was to order all her possessions sold and the proceeds, as he put it, “turned over to the party that resisted the joining of Ulster to Eire.”

It seems nobody corrected the great writer on his political nomenclature before, back home, he wrote up the trip for Collier’s Weekly.

In any case, Steinbeck went on to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. So it is at least arguable that when Seamus Heaney earned the same honour three decades later, he was not quite the first Derryman to win.

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