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.