Eugene O’Neill and the Great Silence

I’ve long thought it impossible to understand the urban Irish-Catholic experience in America—its machine-driven politics and guilt-ridden religion, its preference for the civil service over private enterprise, its inbred skepticism about human nature (what William Kennedy calls its “cynical humanism”), its role in the labor movement, its slang-rich language—without weighing the impact of an Gorta Mór: the Great Hunger.

I spent ten years researching and writing a novel, Banished Children of Eve, whose central premise was the enduring presence of the famine. Over the years, there’s been no shortage of critics (there’ll never be a shortage of them, I’m afraid) who’ve accused me of wanting to have it both ways—i.e., maintaining the famine profoundly affected generations of Irish Americans, while claiming direct memory of the famine was almost nonexistent.

The more I’ve thought about that criticism, the more I’ve disagreed. I don’t believe it’s oversimplifying to say that you can’t understand American history or the American character without understanding the American Revolution and, above all, the Civil War. They shaped the institutions that continue to help shape all of us, no matter what conscious memory has been passed down or when our ancestors arrived.

The Irish-Catholic community in America is far older than the famine. But it was the famine and its consequences that forever changed and defined that community. Irish Catholics poured into the cities of the eastern seaboard, taking on a presence they had never had before. In a single decade, a deeply rural people became an urban people. The task in front of these immigrants was stark and immediate: getting on with the business of physical survival and adjusting to an overwhelming Protestant, fast-developing capitalist society that, while begrudgingly welcoming their brawn, regarded their presence as disruptive and menacing.

Though the famine fired the revolutionary plots and plans of the Fenians, the memory was more generic than specific, more a matter of resisting British rule in Ireland than recording the particulars of what had happened. Even if they had the luxury of sitting back to put down their memories, the famine immigrants had little to gain in keeping alive a painful litany of personal defeats, humiliations, tragedies and betrayals. In the words of James Tyrone, the stand-in for Eugene O’Neill’s father, James O’Neill, in Long Day’s Journey into Night, “There was no damned romance in our poverty.”

Amnesia is more than anesthesia. It’s a way of pushing the next generation forward, removing past stigmas, wiping the slate clean for those to come. The famine remained at the heart of Irish America for generations, baked into the political, economic and religious institutions that sustained it. But in its particulars, in what individuals and families endured, it was subsumed by a great silence.

The best exploration of that silence I’ve ever read was by Irish journalist, critic and historian, Fintan O’Toole. Entitled “What Haunted Eugene O’Neill,” it appeared in the November 8th, 2007 issue of the New York Review of Books. O’Toole begins with a quote from a 1917 memoir published in Theater Magazine by James O’Neill, Eugene’s progenitor as well as a highly successful actor whose talents eventually fossilized in his oft-repeated role as the Count of Monte Cristo in the eponymous melodrama.

James O’Neill reminisced that “it was in Kilkenny—smiling Kilkenny…where I was born one opal-tinted day in October 1847.” Writing two decades earlier in a collection of biographies entitled Famous American Actors of Today, he had described his youth in the third person: “It was in Kilkenny that he first saw the light. Beneath the shadows of its gray cathedral and its immemorial round tower and among its monastic ruins, his careless childhood was spent. He played in the mossy moat of strongbow’s ancient castle…”