Growing up in Ireland during the 1950s and 1960s, the old people fed us kids a lot of old bunk about America. Caught up in the euphoria of the brief Kennedy presidency, it looked certain that America was where the Irish had succeeded best of all. It amazed me, from watching television, to behold how America was so clean and new, how deeply it contrasted with our ramshackle island of dismal shops, broken-down castles, wired clergy, mad leather-wielding teachers, and grown-ups obsessed with De Valera and Collins. I looked out through lace curtains at puddles formed from rain that fell without reprise.
I’d have swopped Ireland for America in a flash, and helped “The Fugitive” find “The One-Armed Man.” In common with my friends, I was addicted to American movies and television, impressed by the cleanliness of American justice and thought that much could be learned about the law from John Wayne movies. Unlike Ireland, things were not allowed to fester long in America before being rooted out. Occasionally, I would see buses of American tourists in transit through our town: they were being moved along from the sights of Dublin to the Waterford Crystal factory. It amazed me that people wanted to visit Ireland. There was nothing here.
But childhood and euphoria passed. One day, I walked into the kitchen to find all the grown-ups crying—JFK was dead. His assassination was quickly followed by his brother’s and by Dr. Martin Luther King’s. Pitched battles were fought on America’s streets and the Troubles resumed in Northern Ireland. I was becoming old enough to give voice to what I had long suspected—that in our culture myth was often presented as history and illusion as fact.
One day in my late teens, in a library overlooking a Dublin lake, I fell upon Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. Looking back, I can say that reading this play at that point in my life made a lasting impression on me. First, was the delight that here was a great work I had found without the benefit of a teacher, and, second, the realization that I was at the beginning of an engagement with American writing. But, most important to me was O’Neill’s dark and searing vision and the complex, nuanced, and dysfunctional America he presented. Not all of the Irish had made it to the top in America, I learned; however, in no way did this make them less interesting.
The Iceman Cometh was a difficult read; however, I stuck with it because it enthralled and terrified me. Set in Harry Hope’s “Raines-Law hotel…a cheap-ginmill of the five-cent whiskey,” and written is a superb American vernacular, it is a work of great beauty and hard truths. Simultaneously and magically, O’Neill celebrates the lives of the down and out and deluded while at the same time holding up society’s pieties to ridicule.