Drawing on literary, historical and cultural studies perspectives, Sinéad Moynihan’s Ireland, Migration and Return Migration examines the phenomenon of the “Returned Yank” in the cultural imagination. Taking as its point of departure The Quiet Man (1952), it provides a cultural history that charts the ways in which the Returned Yank indexes a set of recurring anxieties in Ireland from 1952 to the present. We spoke to Sinéad Moynihan to find out more about the book.
Firstly, could you tell us a bit about Ireland, Migration and Return Migration and what drew you to focus your research in this area?
My interest in the “Returned Yank” arises out of both scholarly and personal attachments. My previous book, “Other People’s Diasporas”: Negotiating Race in Contemporary Irish and Irish-American Culture (Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2013) was interested in how unprecedented in-migration was negotiated in Ireland during the Celtic Tiger years. A notable feature of this moment was the question of how many immigrants to Ireland were themselves Irish (i.e. returnees). Because the returnee is both an immigrant and of Irish descent, s/he came to occupy an interesting position in debates about immigration to Ireland during the Celtic Tiger years. In the book, I discussed the significance of the “Returned Yank” in relation to Des Bishop’s stand-up comedy, the film The Nephew (dir. Eugene Brady, 1998) and Ronan Noone’s play The Blowin of Baile Gall (2002). It was while writing that book that I realised a full-length cultural history of the “Returned Yank” figure had not yet been written.
From a personal point of view, my maternal grandmother was a “Returned Yank.” Unfortunately, I never met her but reading, in particular, Edna O’Brien’s work did make me wonder about the many Irish women migrants who returned to Ireland to marry and have children, and how different their lives might have been had they stayed in the U.S.
This is the first full-length study of the “Returned Yank” figure, and return migration is quite an under-examined aspect of Irish diaspora studies. Why do you think these areas have been somewhat overlooked?
I think there are a couple of answers to that question. First, is that actual return migration to Ireland from the U.S. was low compared with other countries. One historian estimates that, between 1899 and 1924, only 9 percent of Irish emigrants returned from the U.S. to live in their homeland, compared with 14 percent of Germans, 15 percent of Scandinavians, 33 percent of Poles, 45 percent of Italians, 53 percent of Greeks and 87 percent of Russians (Wyman 16). Irish census figures taken since 1922 show that the only periods during which there was demonstrable return migration (from anywhere, not just the U.S.) were the 1970s and the Celtic Tiger years. Nonetheless, there has been scholarly work – mostly from an historical and/or sociological point of view – that studies this phenomenon.
But I was interested in the fact that, despite these low rates of actual return, the “Returned Yank” looms large in the cultural imagination. I would guess that for most Irish people older than maybe 40, the term is still quite a meaningful one, conjuring up a whole set of associations that have been amplified and reinforced by representations of the “Returned Yank” in literature and on film, especially (perhaps) The Quiet Man (dir. John Ford, 1952). Some of those associations? His/her largesse; nostalgia for an Ireland now gone; a vocabulary peppered with Americanisms (panty hose; pocketbooks); or, when framed in more negative terms, what Philip O’Leary sums up as “flashy clothes, conspicuous wealth, ignorance, bombast, and a distressing accent.”
The Quiet Man and Angela’s Ashes are two of the most well-known “Returned Yank” narratives. Besides these two, which of the novels or films you focused on during this research would you highlight as key in studying this figure in the cultural imagination and why?
The answer here has to be Edna O’Brien’s work! Before beginning this research project several years ago, I had read little of O’Brien’s work. Inspired by my colleague, Dr. Ellen McWilliams’s brilliant work on the novel, I began with The Light of Evening (2006) and worked backwards from there. I soon realised that the Irish woman, who returns to Ireland after living for several years in the U.S., marries and bears children, is a recurring character in O’Brien’s work, from Maura Neary Brady in The Country Girls (1960) to Dilly Macready in The Light of Evening. More often than not, return to Ireland in O’Brien’s fiction is, for those women characters, the forerunner to the infinite disappointments, challenges and struggles of married life and motherhood in Ireland. Numerous O’Brien Returned Yank women remember with nostalgia the fashionable clothing they wore in America, the parties they attended and the glamour of their lives. O’Brien’s interest in Returned Yank women is at least partly autobiographical: her mother was a Returned Yank. In the O’Brien papers held at Emory University, I came across an unpublished typescript of A Novel of Lena and Michael (c.1997), which described how Lena worked as a shopgirl in New York when, on what she intended to be a brief return visit to Ireland, she was strongly encouraged by her family to marry a well-heeled local man. (Lena and Michael were O’Brien’s parents’ actual names). The typescript was accompanied by a handwritten note from O’Brien: “A Novel of Lena/Michael (never written) Never will. Dec. 1st 1997.”
Could you tell us the story behind the image by David Creedon Photography which you chose for the cover of Ireland, Migration and Return Migration? What was the reason for this image being chosen?
I first became aware of David Creedon’s work when I heard Dr. Tina O’Toole of the University of Limerick mention his book of photographs, Ghosts of the Faithful Departed (2011) in a paper she delivered at the American Conference for Irish Studies at UCD in 2014. Tina was particularly interested in what the “American dress” signifies and she showed a very evocative image of such a dress from Ghosts of the Faithful Departed. When I bought the book myself, I came across an image called “The Return,” featuring a trunk belonging to Mary Sullivan, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1930 and returned 19 years later. I thought it would be the perfect cover image for the book because the trunk looms large in depictions of the Returned Yank.
I particularly liked that it showed labels and stickers, as these minutiae are often invested with deep significance in Returned Yank narratives. “Lemonade,” for example, is a short story in which a young girl is preparing to move from the U.S. back to Ireland with her parents (much like Lavin did in real life). Prior to their departure, the family has their neighbours around for a few drinks to bid them farewell. One nosy neighbour, Ma Spiddal, is trying to find out whether the family will be sailing in steerage or in first class by “gently, but persuasively, pushing apart the two big steamer trunks” to pore over the labels attached to them. In The Country Boy, Returned Yank Eddie and his wife, Julia, pay a visit to Eddie’s home place in Co. Mayo, bringing with them a large trunk bedecked with a “stateroom” sticker and an expensive camera. By the end of the play, however, it is revealed that the trunk is empty and the camera rented: they felt the need to put on a façade of prosperity and success for their relatives back in Ireland.
What are you going to be working on next?
I’m at the very (very!) early stages of a new project, provisionally entitled: “The View From the Kitchen”: Domestic Workers in American Literature, 1942-1974. Some readers will recognise that the title is taken from a Maeve Brennan short story that appeared in the New Yorker in 1953. With a focus on depictions of African American and white ethnic domestic workers, the project explicitly builds on my expertise in African American and Irish American literatures.
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