The Irish immigrant experience.
We Irish and Americans.
By Thomas Lynch. Norton.
296 pp. $24.95
“Bits & Pieces” and “Odds & Ends” are the titles of two of the essays in Booking Passage, a collection by Irish-American poet and undertaker Thomas Lynch. They also describe the nature of this book, which meanders in many directions as Lynch explores the geography of his life, spiritual terrain included.
The organizing principle here is Lynch’s relationship with Ireland and the Irish. The great-grandson of an earlier Thomas Lynch, who immigrated to Michigan in the 1890s, Lynch began investigating his Irish roots as a young man in the 1970s. His increasingly close relationship with a distant cousin led her, in 1992, to bequeath him the family homestead in Moveen, County Clare, where he now spends as much time as he can: “I count . . . thirty-some crossings in thirty-some years between my home in Michigan and my home in Moveen. I owe to both places my view of the world, my sense of myself, whatever I know about life and times.”
That knowledge is conveyed through an intimate voice and persuasive prose. The book starts out as a way for Lynch to “reconnect” his family with its Irish origins, through his “chronic, acute, and likely terminal” obsession with his Irish identity. And indeed, we are treated to a thoroughly researched account of Lynch family history. “Can the bigger picture be seen in the small?” he asks at one point, and, though no single Irish immigration size fits all stories, the Lynch saga is a convincing synecdoche.
Lynch’s book is especially strong where he passionately analyzes contemporary Ireland, with a sharp-eyed focus on the transformation of the Catholic Church’s place in Irish life. “Since 1970,” he writes, “everything here has changed. Ireland has gone from being the priest-ridden poor cousin of Western Europe to the roaring, secularized Celtic Tiger of the European Union.” “For the first time ever,” he adds, “the Irish have to contend with the perils of too much rather than too little.”
This process of secularization, he argues, has spelled doom for the church. Lynch expresses incisively the outrage of many Irish Catholics, in both Ireland and the United States, over the “self-inflicted” blows—the sex scandals above all—by which the church has lost its way. But what hits home most forcefully is an encounter with a priest who tells Lynch that his second marriage, performed in a courthouse, “has no standing in the eyes of God.” The priest, “giving out with the cant of a mind colonized by years of clericalism,” typifies a church that just doesn’t get it.
Lynch writes with perception and feeling about traditional Irish music (though, in his homage to the great concertina player Elizabeth Crotty, he erroneously suggests that she composed such classics as “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”), and, as might be expected, he is always interesting and authoritative on the subject of death. Perhaps the best line in the book comes from a neighbor who, instead of expressing grief at news of a friend’s death, proclaims, “Fair play to Patsy. . . . He’s that tough job behind him, so.”