Author explores meaning of Irish heritage in new book

| March 8, 2017 | 0 Comments

There are the “Irish” who emerge once a year to embrace St. Patrick’s Day festivities, and then there are the Irish who can trace their lineage to the Emerald Isle. James Rogers is one of the latter. Regrettably, though, he’s one generation shy of claiming Irish citizenship.

James Rogers

“You need one Irish-born grandparent; I have one Irish-born great-grandparent — not good enough,” said Rogers, director of the Center for Irish Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and editor of its quarterly journal, “New Hibernia Review.”

Rogers grew up in South St. Paul attending St. Augustine church and school, now merged with Holy Trinity. He graduated from the former Brady High School in West St. Paul, named for Archbishop William Brady, who served from 1956-1961. He married his Irish stepdancing instructor, and their three children attended St. Mark and Cretin-Derham Hall High School, both in St. Paul.

His recent book “Irish-American Autobiography: The Divided Hearts of Athletes, Priests, Pilgrims, and More” (The Catholic University of America Press, 2016) explores several autobiographies of Irish-American Catholics and how their stories differ in the cultural landscape while their ethnic heritage remains intact. The title’s athletes are boxers John L. Sullivan and James J. Corbett, and baseball player, manager and team owner Connie Mack. Rogers characterized the priests’ autobiographies as regimented, reflecting Catholic life in the 1950s; their piety overshadowing anything quintessentially Irish. Another chapter is dedicated to Frank McCourt’s 1996 Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir “Angela’s Ashes,” describing the “miserable Irish childhood,” Rogers said. And, he added, everyone loves “The Honeymooners” chapter detailing actor Jackie Gleason’s memoir of Brooklyn in the 1955-1956 television series.

“The Catholic Imagination,” a term Rogers attributes to sociologist, journalist and novelist Father Andrew Greeley, is prevalent in the book’s last chapters as it relates to ways Irish-Americans perceived the world.

“There’s something about familiarity with ideas, concepts, images, symbols [and] understanding life in sacramental terms,” Rogers said. “I believe strongly that autobiography and memoir is fundamentally a religious impulse — it’s a meaning-making exercise. For Irish-Americans, they don’t necessarily know what it means, but they know it means something.”

Rogers, 64, who attends St. Albert the Great in Minneapolis, describes his book as the first to have taken Irish-American memoir and autobiography as a specific body of literature. It sets out to disprove any notion that Irish identity has disappeared in the U.S. In this “age of memoir,” Rogers said, Irish-American memoirs and autobiographies have become attenuated, but people are still “fascinated with Ireland” and not just with the “green kitsch.” There is some kind of tug, he said, and people don’t dismiss it.

“This isn’t just ornamental; people give their kids unpronounceable, unspellable Gaelic names; they spend their hard-earned money on trips to Ireland; [and] some of them inflict pain on themselves getting tattoos of Celtic designs,” he said, laughing. “People are attached to this; it means something. And it’s meant something for a very long time.

“My sense of Irish identity in the United States is that the core is always going to be outsiderhood,” he continued. “It’s not necessarily being Catholic, and it’s certainly no longer being immigrant, but there’s always a sense of outsiderhood, and I think being Catholic had a lot to do with that. We’ve had exactly one Catholic president — and that was 57 years ago, [and] we haven’t had one since.”

One takeaway Rogers hopes for his readers is some sense of continuity and tradition. Heritage, he said, isn’t a “fixed commodity.” People are born into traditions.

“I think it’s important that we don’t see ourselves as having come out of nowhere, that we are an end product of a process that we didn’t set into motion and that we didn’t have a say about,” he said. “It’s real easy these days to look back and think about the bad old days … but there’s also a point at which rejecting that becomes rejecting yourself.”

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Category: Faith and Culture