Novels of the Irish in America

Saint Patrick's Day will soon be upon us, and this seems like a good time to blog about the Irish American experience. All of these novels start with a tragedy, but where they go from there is as different as the authors who write the books.  

Alice McDermott is considered one of the best storytellers of the Irish in America and her latest, The Ninth Hour, does not disappoint. After Annie's husband commits suicide early in the last century, the Little Sisters of the Nursing Poor take in her and her soon-to-be-born daughter, Sally. This is mostly Sally's story, growing up in the convent laundry and finally realizing on a brutal train ride to Chicago that she doesn't have a vocation after all. Lyrical and deliberately paced, this moving story shows how individual actions reverberate through the generations.

Joyce Carol Oates writes as she often does on the destructive power of secrets in The Falls. After being widowed on her wedding night, Ariah soon meets and marries Dirk Barnaby. Their marriage produces three children, but is destroyed by Ariah's jealousy when Dirk gets involved with the first class action lawsuit. The Love Canal case utterly destroys Dirk, and his kids are left to solve the mystery of their early lives. Character-driven and compelling, this is one of the best from the prolific Oates.

Speaking of nuns and secrets, there's Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan. Siblings Nora and Theresa arrive in America from the Emerald Isle in the 1950s. Theresa eventually joins a cloister after several socially unforgivable missteps, while Nora pursues a more conventional life. When Nora's son Patrick dies after driving drunk, Nora reaches out to Theresa for the first time in decades and at the funeral, secrets come tumbling out. Another emotionally resonant novel that moves back and forth through time.

Eddie Joyce's Small Mercies is an ode to Staten Island and the families that live there. The Irish-Italian Amendolas are still mourning youngest son Bobby, killed in 9/11, ten years later. As his son's birthday approaches, Tina, Bobby's widow, and Gail, his mother, are especially close, but Tina has a new man and wants to bring him to the party. Other family members are in similarly fraught situations and the question becomes whether they can move on and still honor Bobby. This is a moving, character study of bereavement and resilience.

Got more tales of the Irish in America? Share them in the comments.