In Dublin's fair cities

SWEET LIBERTY: Travels In Irish America by Joseph O'Connor, Picador pounds 15.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
American sentimentality about Ireland is a commonplace: think of Sharon Stone, gushing about Dylan Thomas as her favourite Irish poet in Vanity Fair, or, not so amusingly, the stuffing of Sinn Fein collection boxes by bourgeois Bostonians with rather less time for every other kind of political violence. That some Irishmen happily paint a rose-tinted America, too - and have done over three centuries of transatlantic migration - might be a scarcer observation. Evidence for it is just as easy to find, though: Dublin bar bands may strain through soul covers and claim kinship with oppressed black America, but on the streets of San Francisco or Chicago Irish-American policemen have long been called racist.

The opening third of this book has plenty to irritate the sceptical English reader. Its author is an acclaimed young novelist who persuaded his publisher to pay for yet another book about driving across America, this time for no better reason than to visit the nine towns called Dublin to be found there. O'Connor starts with a predictable childhood memoir about watching Starsky and Hutch, hanging a map of America on his bedroom wall and dreaming of cheerleaders. He is saying "darn it" even before his plane lands at Boston.

Once through customs, he walks out wide-eyed with wonder: the taxis are so big, the motels are so soulless, you can't get anywhere without a car. Half the world, you imagine, knows these things merely from watching television, but O'Connor gives half a page to each. Obviousness dogs his research, too: initial visits to Irish bars invariably see O'Connor's small doubts about "sham and shamrock" in the diaspora - few of the drinkers seem to have heard of the original Dublin - blotted out by woozy bonhomie, as he makes friends, sings old rebel songs, and stumbles out into the freezing East Coast night.

The sense that little is being learnt here extends to the writing, which chatters away amiably without suggesting much effort. "I had done some reading on the Irish in Maryland, and very interesting it was too," O'Connor lets his readers know at one point, as if settling slowly into a pub anecdote. The fireside history lesson that follows is instructive - he points out that there were already 44,000 Irish immigrants in America in 1790, half a century before the potato famine - but is tossed away in a few lines to make room for yards of unremarkable reportage. Most of the Dublins are small, empty towns with little apparent connection to Ireland; O'Connor talks to waitresses and drives on little the wiser.

Then, thankfully, he wakes up. Dragging himself out of his New York hotel room, he goes to mass. The priest gives a steadily more emotive sermon about the struggle against the imperialist British. For once, O'Connor is ready with the right question afterwards: "I asked whether he detected any irony in the fact that you could not say mass in a New York church for men who made love to other men, but you could quite openly for men who had killed other men." The priest can't answer; all of a sudden, O'Connor realises the diaspora is not one happily settled family.

Leaving New York, he discovers a less merry history. The American Dublins deliberately erased their Irish roots to counter prejudice in the 18th and 19th centuries. Elderly ladies in local museums show him early settlers' letters, as many despairing of America's harshness as celebrating its bounty. In Dublin, Ohio, O'Connor challenges the owner of a gift shop for selling "leprechauns and fairies". The owner is unbowed: "I never saw the phoney Irish thing anywhere in the world till I went to Galway last summer ... Even the nuns were wearing Aran."

Maybe O'Connor should have written about that.