Streetwise Dublin woman breathes new life into the emigrant's well-worn tale
MARY BURKEreviews I Used To Be IrishBy Angeline Kearns Blain AA Farmar 277pp, €14.99
IN 1957, a penniless 18-year-old Irishtown woman with the quintessential Dublin name of Angeline Kearns flew to America to marry a GI she had first encountered at a city bus-stop.
Initially happy to escape a class-conscious and priest-ridden Ireland that would deny an underclass girl any opportunities, Kearns Blain’s memoir, I Used To Be Irish, opens by detailing how after she settles in sober New England she begins to miss the rambunctious life of the tenements.
Seeming to have a nervous breakdown due to the pressures of maintaining the appearance of perfect American domesticity, Kearns Blain later discovers that her illness is more likely to have been caused by a repressed childhood trauma. The memory she eventually unearths suggests that I Used To Be Irish participates in the catatonically repeated narrative of reams of recent Irish writing, that of the institutional abuse of the powerless in mid-20th century Ireland. Kearns Blain’s memoir about poverty, hunger and America’s pitfalls and opportunities is unmistakably shaped both by the post-McCourt Irish memoir and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the groundbreaking study into the hidden disenchantment of America’s post-war wives that ignited second-wave feminism.
Kearns Blain’s unease with the American Dream eventually blossoms into political activism and a return to education.
What makes the memoir a standout, however, is its uncovering of the relatively unexamined experience of the urban, working-class Irish woman emigrant. “Most of the hand-wringing about young people leaving the country related to the departure of young men,” the memoir slyly notes, and the attention to the under-explored details of women’s lives in the mid-century makes for absorbing reading: the young Angeline sleeps in a bed with her large family, where her baby brother whimpers continually because their mother is too undernourished to generate sufficient breast milk, she had never heard of sanitary towels until her arrival in the US, is queried as to her sexual history in a highly insulting manner by the Irish-American priest who eventually officiates at her wedding, smokes heavily while pregnant due to not knowing any better, and is traumatised by America’s overly technological birthing practices.
I Used To Be Irishexposes both the gender and class fault-lines not traditionally attended to in accounts of emigration: Kearns Blain’s overtures to a fellow Dublin woman emigrant marooned alongside her in a backwater town are spurned when the Loreto College graduate in question discovers that Angeline left school at 14 to scavenge dumps. The memoir upends the popular image of the Irish emigrant, that of the raw country boy pining for rural simplicity in a debauched foreign land: Kearns Blain is a streetwise Dubliner who knows enough about American popular culture to initially act the pure Irish colleen to beguile her GI, a teetotaller Puritan who later winces each time Angeline lets slip some obscene Dublin colloquialism or orders a shot of whiskey.
Overall, the effect of reading Kearns Blain’s memoir recalls that of the peculiarly Irish experience of casually striking up a conversation with a stranger in a pub who unexpectedly delivers a long, intense, occasionally hilarious and utterly gripping life story that seesaws between clear-eyed objectivity and disconcerting bitterness. What could be considered the book’s only major flaws – a long-windedness and a certain unevenness of tone that suggests it could have benefited from more ruthless editing – actually add to this rather pleasing effect.
Kearns Blain may have left Ireland long ago, but she still tells it like an Irish(town) woman.
Mary Burke teaches Anglo-Irish literature at the University of Connecticut. Her study, “ Tinkers”: Synge and the Cultural History of the Irish Traveller, will be published by Oxford University Press in July.