McElroy wants to banish one-dimensional Irish stereotypes

February 27, 2000
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Jim McElroy of the UC Davis English department, a native of Belfast, invites community members to join his Irish Studies Colloquium, now in its third year.

McElroy has arranged to have experts in all things Irish, from music to literature and from history to women's studies, as his guests.

McElroy is not what you would call a professional Irishman. He came to UC Davis seven years ago to teach technical writing and although he studied Anglo-Irish literature at the other UCD (University College, Dublin), he wasn't in a frenzy to teach Irish. The desire developed over time. Fortunately, with the desire came funding.

He also is working on a book to be published by UC Press called "Irish Literature and Culture," a big book with 25 contributors that is providing, he says, a new look at Irish studies.

"It's quite hip to be Irish in this country," he said. "Forty million Americans claim to have some level or degree of Irishness in them," he added. "Out of that, there is a groundswell of interest in things Irish like 'Riverdance' and Frank McCourt's 'Angela's Ashes.' "

But McElroy also suggests that the time has come to abandon old stereotypes of what it means to be Irish, stereotypes that rightly or wrongly McCourt has helped to promote with the wild success of his autobiographical book.

"I think the problem with McCourt, or one of the problems, is if you are an indigenous Irish person you are fed up with the notion of the stage Irish family, that is, the old boy who drinks a lot, the mother who puts up with a lot and the children who suffer a great deal and that's essentially McCourt's take on life," said McElroy. "That really doesn't allow for a wider sense of what it means to be an Irish person and the complexity of Irishness."

In fact, an "Angela's Ashes" book-burning is scheduled for March 11 in Long Island, organized by disgruntled Irishmen who don't like the way their country is portrayed in the book or movie of the same name. (This reaction is reminiscent of the knee-jerk Italian-American objections to "The Godfather" and African-American objections to "Roots." The uproars dissipate with time.)

McElroy says he doesn't dispute the veracity of McCourt's personal experiences but asks, "Is there anything else to talk about?"

"McCourt is seen as capitalizing on the image we seem to expect in the States, a kind of rags to riches story," he added. "The Irish are upset with the image being replayed of what it means to be a suffering Irish family and I think there could have been other things explored as well."

Now a younger generation of Irish writers is commanding attention and this generation has not experienced McCourt's level of poverty, nor his low national self-image.

"They have a different sense of what it means to be Irish," McElroy said. But he warns that there still remains a lag between the reality of the new Ireland and the average American's image of a green, rural land populated by amiable drunks.

His forthcoming "Irish Literature and Culture" is designed to demystify Irishness with sections on the diaspora, Irish feminism, Irish African-Americans, and gay and lesbian literature in Ireland.

"Being an Irish writer is more than just being male of a certain type," said McElroy.

But going back to a male of a certain type, I had to ask McElroy about James Joyce's "Ulysses," the novel that topped the list of the 100 best books of the century when all those end-of-century lists were being compiled. My question to McElroy was: Why? Why did "Ulysses" top the charts?

"It's significant because it breaks down all the barriers of what it was to write a novel at that point in time," he said. "That's the simple answer. The more complex answer would take several seminars."

Those who might like to study the history of Irish fiction up to the end of the 20th century will be interested in the newly published "Penguin Book of Irish Fiction" (Viking, 2000, $40), a huge volume (1,100 pages) covering three centuries of stories.

And those who are interested in McElroy's Irish Studies Colloquium should add themselves to his mailing list (just phone (530) 752-4925). The next speaker in the colloquium will be Kevin Roddy, March 16, on "Nature and Medieval Ireland" at 8 p.m. in 396 Voorhies Hall on the UC Davis campus.

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