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A Lace Curtain-Call

Golden Clan By John Corry Houghton Mifflin; 203 pages; $8.95

By Francis J. Connolly

EASTER WEEK, 1916, brought a revolution to Ireland and a genuine thrill to "Irish America." As Dublin's incurable romantics proclaimed their Irish Republic, Brooklyn's irrepressible Irishmen set the tone for a generation of immigrants by cheering on the show. It was a time when Irish-Americans were only slightly more respectable than grave robbers, but no one seemed to care: more green-and-gold Irish Republican flags draped the Brooklyn waterfront, and news of the Easter Rebellion even eclipsed the Dodgers' daily dispatches from Ebbets Field. All around the country Irish communities staged a week-long ethnic festival to celebrate the lost glory they hoped their homeland was about to regain. And when the British army's decidedly unromantic artillery turned the amateur revolutionaries into professional corpses, it was the Irish in America who cried the loudest. Black bunting swathed the Brooklyn waterfront in mourning as the Irish embraced their new martyrs with a vengeance. An anguished cry went up that resounded all the way down to Washington, where Woodrow Wilson--a wise man who knew where his next vote was coming from, and that it often spoke with a brogue--got on the horn to London. By a miracle, the British government freed the surviving insurrectionists. The revolution continued in Ireland, and the Irish in America again broke out their proud green flags.

But the flags don't fly very often these days. Except for St. Patrick's Day, when the Ancient Order of Hibernians rolls a couple of veterans of the Rebellion out of mothballs and everyone cheers at the tattered signs that read "England Get Out of Ireland," the glamor and the electricity have long since gone out of being Irish. Oh, there are still a pack of third-generation, boring middle-class accountant-types who think the best tribute to ethnic purity is to sneak money overseas so the IRA can continue its "glorious struggle." But blowing up orphanages and hospitals somehow doesn't have the romantic appeal of the Easter Rebellion, so for the most part the Irish in America don't think much about the homeland. Instead they've bothered themselves with making money, becoming "respectable," moving from the shanties to the lace-curtain homes and beyond--green flags now take a back seat to greenbacks. But along with all the forgotten bombast and romance, the quaint but discarded jingoism and superstition, something very real vanished. Somehow, growing up Irish-American became just like growing up American. The melting pot claimed another victim.

JOHN CORRY'S Golden Clan, the family chronicle of one of America's wealthiest Irish dynasties, testifies eloquently to the pot's victory. Corry's book is an anecdotal biography of the Murray and McDonnell families, a legendary New York clan that once boasted enough money to buy an army and enough children to make the purchase unnecessary. Like any success story, the book starts with the meteoric rise of the family's patriarch, Thomas E. Murray, a founder of Con Ed, from the depths of shanty Irish poverty to the top of the corporate utility world, a $9 million fortune, and more lace curtains than he ever could have imagined. And the story stays sweet for a while. Corry shows the first triumphant flush of Irish-Catholic society, as Murray's innumerable children factored their father's millions into a family treasury that surpassed even the Kennedys', and then built a towering wall around their neat little world of well-monied Catholicism to keep out all the heathen WASPs they had learned both to envy and despise. But then it all turned sour. With a resigned air, Corry tells the sad story of how Murray's grandchildren finally broke the cozy circle, choosing to marry Fords and Vanderbilts and even a Greek shipping magnate whose name old Tom Murray would never have been able to pronounce, and drifting away from that distinctive brand of Irish Catholicism the good sisters of the Academy of Somebody's Sacred Heart had worked so hard to impress upon them. In the end, the family could claim its place in American society only by surrendering the little society it had tried to create for itself, by trading in the lace curtains and rosaries for the jet planes and yachts of a faster-moving, less romanticized America.

Of course, anyone who looks at Corry's book as a kind of Hibernian Roots is bound for a disappointment. The Murrays and McDonnells were simply not typical Irish-American families--none of Tom Murray's descendants would even look at a blue collar unless it buttoned down and didn't clash with a neatly striped tie. Up in the rarefied atmosphere of the really big money, strange things can happen, even to a family bent on preserving its heritage; and sometimes the Irish rich acted more rich than Irish. Such conditions could never produce a conventional saga of Irish Catholicism in America. And not surprisingly, Corry has not written anything of the kind.

Instead, Golden Clan is a rambling account of how the Irish rich managed to muddle through America with a rosary in one hand and a bank book in the other. Penetrating sociological insight may not be Corry's forte--anyone looking for a portrayal of the rise and fall of the Irish-American ethic would be better off reading Edwin O'Connor's brilliant The Last Hurrah. Yet like many another Irishman, Corry has a real gift for story-telling. Within the contours of his historical narrative lurk all the denizens of the fantasy-world that became the home of the Irish aristocracy: the friendly politicians eager to hobnob with the new barons of industry, the neighboring WASP lords eager to secure a feudal alliance with the pillars of Catholicism and--always--the family priests, eager to anchor all that money and prestige to the firm rock of the Church. It's the stuff of which grand anecdotes are made, and Corry makes the most of his material. At the drop of a shilleleagh, he can spin off a neat character sketch that will leave all who have ever seen a Barry Fitzgerald movie shaking their heads in recognition. Perhaps the most striking is his portrait of Tom Murray, the staunch champion of Catholicism who insisted that each daughter and her beau say an entire rosary before embarking on an evening's date:

If, God forbid, Catherine, Anna, Julia or Marie slipped out of the house without saying it Thomas Murray would follow them out onto the sidewalk. Sometimes he would catch up to them when they were already in an automobile, and he would lean through a window. "I believe in one God," he would say, and Catherine, Anna, Julia or Marie would say it, too.

BUT ALL THESE PRAYERS didn't help much, for the future refused to pan out the way old Tom Murray planned. To be sure, his children married well, made money, and had lots of children of their own, even by the most fecund Celtic standards. (Al Smith, a fine Irish buddy of the clan whose only flaw was his persistent habit of losing the presidency, would not even swim in the family's well-populated swimming pool: "I might swallow a baby," he explained.) But the legions of fine children did not see things the same way their parents had, and as they grew older the family learned all the nasty details of the world that the wall of Irish Catholicism had always been able to keep out. Divorce and bankruptcy plagued old Tom Murray's grandchildren, and they no longer looked to the Church for comfort. Staring outward at a world of Wall Street maneuvering and St. Tropez vacations and Hollywood glamor, they abandoned the neat self-centered universe their parents had created for them. But in the process they abandoned that odd combination of unbounded energy, unshakeable vanity and unquestioning faith that had held the Irish together for so many generations. In becoming Americans, Tom Murray's grandchildren changed into something their parents could not understand or approve.

THE IRISH are a fair people," Samuel Johnson once said; "They never speak well of one another." To the extent that Corry's book ends with the tragedy of the clan's Americanization, its assimilation into a new, and somehow less vital society, perhaps the criticism is valid. For Corry, as another Irishman, can never really condone the family's fall from a state of Gaelic grace, and his book carries with it the insistently remonstrative tone of the well-bred but confidently self-righteous priests and nuns who people it. But still, Corry recognizes that he can't speak ill of his subjects, for the cozy world of Irish-American society they abandoned has slowly ceased to exist. The green flags no longer dot the Brooklyn waterfront; Italians and Poles live there now, and the children of those proud Irish immigrants have long since moved away to a place where everyone is just American. "Irish America" is dead, and Corry knows it; so rather than trying to resurrect the victim he is content to hold a nice Irish wake, full of funny stories and bittersweet memories and a lot of healthy reminiscences about the dear departed. As anyone who has ever attended an Irish wake knows, there's no better way to brace yourself for a funeral than to mix your tears with a few good laughs. In that vein, Corry's book is about the best tribute to a vanished way of life that any Irishman could wish.

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