Irish Catholic Writers and the Invention of the American South

By Dowd, Christopher | The Journal of Southern History, November 2014 | Go to article overview

Irish Catholic Writers and the Invention of the American South


Dowd, Christopher, The Journal of Southern History


Irish Catholic Writers and the Invention of the American South. By Bryan Giemza. Southern Literary Studies. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013. Pp. [xiv], 361. $49.95, ISBN 978-0-8071-5090-0.)

In this much-needed study of Irish Catholic writers in the South, Bryan Giemza notes, "The Irish are not new to the South; taking an interest in them is new" (p. 280). His book traces how the intersection of Irish identity, Catholicism, and southern nationalism resulted in a unique strain of southern literary production that shaped understandings of the South in profound and substantial ways. Giemza's study nicely challenges the long-held assumptions in two fields, by refuting southern historical perspectives that view Irish Catholics as alien interlopers whose influence on southern identity was minor, and by highlighting the minimal attention that Irish studies often affords writers from the South. In both cases, the problem is authenticity. For many, Irish Catholics in the South have been an anomaly, not authentic southerners. Similarly, southern writers of Irish heritage often have not seemed Irish enough, especially in comparison with Irish writers from the North who wrote about more explicitly Irish topics. By stepping away from conversations about ethnic, regional, and cultural purity, Giemza offers insights about the Catholic Irish in this region that seem long overdue.

One of the most insightful chapters in the book focuses on Flannery O'Connor, who is known to Irish American scholars primarily as a writer who did not think her Irish heritage to be significant to her work. Giemza notes that Charles Fanning excluded her from his foundational study of Irish American writing because '"she [chose] not to consider Irish ethnic themes'" (p. 25). Yet Giemza rightly argues against a narrow definition of Irish American identity, stating, "One could as well object to the term African American because little of Africa remains" (p. 25). What follows is a detailed study of what made O'Connor Irish in America, or more specifically, Irish in the American South. …

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