Irish awakenings

Tom Hayden thinks you’re clueless. He believes you probably don’t even know your own stories, especially if you are Irish American and well educated.

But don’t take it too hard. In his new book, Irish on the Inside: In Search of the Soul of Irish America, Hayden confesses that he spent his own youth in an equally clueless state. Well known over the years for his leadership in anti-war, civil rights and environmental movements, Hayden’s latest book explores why he was raised without a notion of his own Irish Catholic roots in an assimilated America that forced immigrants to deny their own history so as to blend with the dominant culture.

The book is an intellectual, soulful description of a man on a journey of self-discovery. It’s also a political treatise—from a man who served in the California state Legislature for 18 years—on the “troubles” in Ireland from the perspective of an American leftist. Hayden uses every tool at his disposal in the writing of Irish on the Inside, and the result is equal parts travelogue, cultural history, poetry, diatribe and straight-out, honest-to-god reporting.

Irish on the Inside comes in three parts. In the first, Hayden retells much of what we already know about his life—especially those of us who read his Reunion: A Memoir—but with special regard to ethnic identity. Hayden describes his own parents’ desperate determination, in rural Wisconsin, to fit into a standard white, middle-class model of an American family.

Hayden discovers that his own great-grandparents came to America as part of that wave of immigration caused by the famine of the 1840s. The early generation of immigrants were portrayed as criminals, wild and stupid. “No Irish Need Apply” was a sign of the times. Still, because these immigrants had white skin and the right to vote they were able to slowly climb in rank and net worth.

But the author’s true awakening came while visiting Northern Ireland in 1968. Hayden writes of being deeply moved to hear Irish Catholic civil rights marchers sing the same songs he’d been singing as a civil rights activist in America. “I saw marchers in Northern Ireland singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ and, in an epiphany, discovered I was Irish on the inside.”

Hayden shows demonstrable pride in his own ancestors, particularly his namesake Thomas Emmet Hayden IV, an Irish rebel and nationalist who immigrated to this country and, ultimately, climbed to the post of attorney general. A close friend of Thomas Paine, this ancestral Thomas Hayden sounds awfully familiar.

In Part II, Hayden takes us to Ireland. The fearless fellow bypasses tourist magnets like Dublin and heads straight to the dangerous North, seeking out resistance leaders from the IRA and Sinn Fein. Among other things, we learn that Belfast is where Hayden believes true Irish consciousness is rooted, where the ancient conflict between Irish nationalism and British colonialism is most evident.

In the final Part III, “Recovering the Irish Soul,” Hayden makes his call to action. He challenges Irish Americans to eschew the green beer on St. Patrick’s Day and instead embrace their historic connection to the downtrodden, to immigrants and people of color who face discrimination every day in America. Frank McCourt, noted Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angela’s Ashes, has praise for Hayden’s book. “He throws down the gauntlet,” writes McCourt. “It’s history or amnesia, take your choice.”

Hayden has always chosen history. He closes the book with a characteristic sense of urgency and a fitting dateline, July 4, 2001. Signing off the final chapter from Belfast, not Santa Monica, Hayden has clearly become a citizen of both worlds.