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Radical on the Inside: Tom Hayden's Irish Rebellion | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Radical on the Inside: Tom Hayden's Irish Rebellion

With "Irish on the Inside: The Search for the Soul of Irish America" (Verso), Tom Hayden has penned a book on the Irish-American experience that has as much to do with Independence Day as St. Patrick's Day.

Hayden, the '60s student activist who came in from the cold to serve with distinction as a California legislator in the 1990s, offers a radical variation on the history of Ireland and the Irish-American experience that, in itself, makes for engaging reading. But in the book's broader discussion of a "colonization of the mind," which causes peoples to abandon their own true history to gain acceptance by the elites they once battled, the author unwittingly succeeds in unlocking a piece of the puzzle of why the America of today is far less radical than Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin intended it to be.

Trust Hayden, whose own radicalism has always been a rich mix of Irish republicanism and Midwest progressive populism, to write a book on Irish-American history that is actually an argument for a re-identification of "white" Americans with the liberation struggles of immigrants, people of color and other victims of class and race discrimination. Hayden does this by returning to his roots - in Ireland and in rural Wisconsin - where he unearths the seeds of his own radicalism.

It is a tribute to Hayden's organizing and storytelling skills that "Irish on the Inside" succeeds. With a great measure of Irish enthusiasm, Hayden sets out to do far more than any author could hope to accomplish in a relatively thin volume. He mixes the history of the Irish experience with inspired reflections on the specific experience of his own ancestors, such as Peter Hayden, who died with United Irish insurgents from County Wicklow in a 1798 uprising, and immigrant Emmet Owen Garity, who settled in the midwest. Hayden also stirs travelogue, investigative reporting, sociology, philosophy and poetry into a stew that satisfies hungers that readers will not have known they suffered.

Hunger is an apt metaphor, as "Irish on the Inside" explores the need of sustenance in all forms - physical, emotional and intellectual.

Hayden argues that the dark machinations of British colonialists that caused the Irish Famine of the 1840s and that dislocated millions of Irish to a still-young America was "the greatest upheaval of 19th century Europe." Hayden, whose great-grandparents arrived in Wisconsin as part of that immigration wave, argues even more convincingly that the experience of these immigrants - who were portrayed as wild, criminal and intellectually deficient, and who encountered "No Irish Need Apply" signs well into the 20th century - ought to make Irish-Americans sympathetic to the plight of new immigrants - descendants of slaves, gays and lesbians and others who continue to suffer discrimination.

Hayden highlights the examples where this was the case. He is proud to note that great-grandfather Emmet Garity's farm in the town of Sullivan, Wis., was a stop on the underground railroad that transported slaves to freedom. And he reviews with great relish the heroic deeds of the San Patricios, Irish immigrants to America who - like John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln - recognized the 1848 US invasion of Mexico as imperialist aggression. The San Patricios deserted the US cause to fight at the side of the Mexican Army. But, as Hayden illustrates, they were traitors only to the "colonialism of the mind" - not to their Irish roots, or to American revolutionary values.

Taking from his own experience, Hayden, a veteran of the 1960s civil rights movement in the American South, recalls how, upon visiting Northern Ireland in 1968, he was profoundly moved to hear Irish-Catholic civil rights marchers singing the songs of the African-American freedom struggle.

It was then, writes Hayden, that he began to overcome the suppression of his own Irish heritage by parents who were determined to fit themselves and their son into the white, middle-class models of mid-20th century America. "I saw marchers in Northern Ireland singing 'We Shall Overcome' and, in an epiphany, discovered I was Irish on the inside," he writes.

The great contribution that Hayden makes here comes in his exploration of the assimilation of the Irish in America. But the most powerful statement takes the form of a definition of what "Irish on the inside" ought to mean. His is a vision of Irish ethnicity not as an excuse to dye beer green but as an inspiration to struggle for justice at home and abroad. And it is no great leap to extend this vision to one of an Americanism that reaches beyond cheap shows of patriotism to embrace the revolutionary spirit that so appealed to immigrants "yearning to be free."

Hayden's book - which he finished on July 4, 2001, in Belfast - closes with a romantic rumination in which he imagines the restoration of an Irish consciousness:

"In my dream I am taking a handful of soil from Emmet Garity's grave in Sullivan Township, Wis., and my Nannie's grave in Oconomowoc, and my parents' graves too and I am packing up that soil of the dead to be taken back to Ireland ... In this dream Irish from all over are migrating home. They come in ones and twos and in groups. When they arrive, they leave their sod and stone in a field, which in time becomes a field of flowers, a graveyard, an oak grove, a mountain, a place to bury pain and grow our history until memory surpasses forgetting and the sod of the dead becomes the fertile soil of awakenings."

Tom Hayden's "Irish on the Inside" is the stuff of great awakenings - not merely for Irish-Americans but for the descendants of every immigrant who ever embraced the revolutionary ideals of justice and solidarity that embody the best of both Ireland and America.

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