At Home Abroad: Irish in America

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By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Tuesday, August 2, 2005

BOOKING PASSAGE

We Irish and Americans

By Thomas Lynch

Norton. 296 pp. $24.95

Thomas Lynch is just about as unusual as a writer could be. He is a well-respected poet who has published three volumes of verse and is a regular on the poetry-reading circuit in the United States (he lives in Michigan) and abroad. "Booking Passage" is his third work of nonfiction; one of his previous books, "The Undertaking: Life Studies From the Dismal Trade" (1997), was a finalist for the National Book Award. Writing, though, is not his main job. Think a moment about the title of "The Undertaking," and it'll come to you: Lynch is an undertaker. A few other distinguished writers have had unlikely day jobs -- Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive, William Carlos Williams a physician -- but Lynch takes the cake.

Or the casket. Since 1948 the Lynch family has been in the mortuary business. Lynch & Sons is a "family firm of funeral directors that operates six mortuaries in the suburbs of Detroit, serving now more than a thousand families a year." Lynch and two of his brothers are active in the business (which apparently is prosperous enough to allow him frequent trips abroad), their sisters "control the purse," and members of the next generation already have gone through mortuary school. As Lynch readily admits, in Michigan "a mortician who wrote poems was the social equivalent of a dentist who did karaoke: a painful case made more so by the dash of dullness," but there can be no question that what Lynch has learned about life and death in that day job deeply informs and enriches his writing.

His life is lived in two places: Milford, his home town in Michigan, "upstream on the Huron from smart Ann Arbor," and Moveen, the familial home place in Western Ireland's County Clare, to which he began going in February 1970 when he was 21 years old and to which he has since returned about three dozen times. Though he writes in both places, the two have different roles in his life:

"I was trying to organize a life balanced between the requisite and compelling work that paid the bills and the elective work of the imagination, between the rooted life in Milford and the life rooted in the magical language in Moveen, between a life organized around deaths and burials and a life that required what [the poet Seamus] Heaney called 'digging' -- and what I thought of as disinterment. And while the everyday enterprise of the local businessman, husband and father, and citizen-at-large in a small Midwestern place was one that suited me, the rich life of language, drawn from the idiomatic wellsprings of Moveen and its American cousins, informed by memory and imagination, was a constant preoccupation. Often these lives competed for time and attention. Time spent on one was subtracted from the other. Other times, each seemed bound to the other -- the aching humanity, beautiful and sad, that populated the funeral home, often spoke in private, primal tongues."

From the moment Lynch first saw Ireland, he was swept away by it, "as a whole-body, blood-borne, core-experience; an echo thumping in the cardiovascular pulse of things, in every vessel of the being and the being's parts, all the way down to the extremities, to the thumbs." Yes, Irish Americans can get that way about the Old Sod, and their prose accordingly reaches for the rhapsodic, but it seems to me that Lynch has earned his rhapsodies. He's no mere tourist but a man who's made a deep personal commitment to the land from which his forebears came and who has a sensitive, nuanced understanding of the place and its people.

Several years ago, as he began work on "Booking Passage," Lynch anticipated a "chatty" book, "a kind of travel memoir, something with a little something for everyone," but "September 11 changed all of that." After that dreadful day and its aftermath, "a book about the forty shades of green I'd encountered driving around the Ring of Kerry seemed . . . plastic, silly, curious, but idiotic. All I saw was forty shades of gray, and in each of them still forty more." So what we have now is a darker book, a meditation on place and identity, on Irish funerals ("Mighty at weddings, we are mightier still at wakes"), on the complex, ambiguous place in Ireland of the Catholic Church, on the Troubles and the violent sea and "the business of Irish poets, making their way from barony to barony, parish to parish, to bless and curse with powerful words." It is by no means a glum book -- indeed there is much in it to smile at -- but it works very hard to be honest, and it succeeds. Lynch writes:

"Maybe it is time we looked to Ireland again for some clues to the nature of our ethnic imbroglios, our jihads and holy wars, and to how we might learn to live peaceably in the world with our 'others.' Surely the Shiite and Sunni of Iraq have something to learn from the Catholics and Protestants of Belfast and from the citizens of the Republic of Ireland. For here is a nation with a history of invasion, occupation, oppression, tribal warfare, religious fervor, ethnic cleansing, sectarian violence, and the tyrannies of churchmen, statesmen, thugs and hoodlums. And yet it thrives on a shaky peace, religious convictions, rich cultural resources, and the hope of its citizens. It is a kind of miracle of civilization -- where the better angels of the species have bested the bad. Such things could be contagious."

Indeed Ireland has come through a great deal, deeply scathed by the Troubles but less troubled by them now. This is, Lynch correctly notes, in no small measure due to Bill Clinton, "the first, the only, U.S. president to take the Irish predicament to heart," whose appointment of George Mitchell, "a peace envoy disguised as an economic advisor," got Catholics and Protestants talking to each other and thus "opened the dialogue of cooperation if not conciliation." In some form or another the Troubles may always be with Ireland, yet as they have eased, the way has been opened to a startling economic boom and a radically altered role for the Catholic Church, the "disestablishment [of which] in the Irish Republic has made the peace process easier" for the reason that "as certainly as faith unites, religion just as certainly divides, and a united Ireland, if there is ever to be one, will only thrive in a post-denominational context."

That judgment will sit more comfortably with some readers than with others, but it seems to me both astute and correct. As Lynch says, "The parallel society of Catholicism that, of necessity, unified and identified the colonized faithful in Ireland and the ghettoized faithful in America through the eighteenth and nineteenth and early twentieth centuries could not survive the rapid secularization of the last half-century." Here as there, the church has been crippled within by sexual scandal and weakened without by a world to which much of its dogma and practices seems irrelevant. By way of anecdotal evidence, read Lynch's account of a chance encounter with one Fr. Peter, an exchange that left both men "hobbled with mistrust and mutual contempt."

In emphasizing these larger aspects of "Booking Passage," I have ignored the many affecting passages about Lynch's Irish family and the house his great-great-grandfather acquired as a wedding gift in 1853, so just leave it at this: Read "Booking Passage" for that, too. It's a lovely book.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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