A Comics Great Tackles the Irish Immigrant Experience

The saint that started it all: St. Patrick.
The saint that started it all:
St. Patrick.

Ah, St. Patrick’s Day. I know what you’re thinking. Another column evoking all the dusty symbols of this commercialized holiday. But, as we’re confronted with leprechauns, green Google Doodles and ersatz Irish pubs pouring gallons of green beer, it’s a chance to think about the real Ireland and its millions of stories. I’ve got a very special one for you to consider this time.

But it’s March 17th. Let’s start with the historical St. Patrick and how this day came to be associated with Ireland. The worthy saint’s history is a patchwork of myth and murky history from the 5th century, but he’s the undisputed patron saint of Ireland. Patron saint and green beer notwithstanding, it’s often said that to experience Irish culture in any form is to fall in love with it. Like most, my main experience with everything Irish was confined to television, films, and the peculiar, projected version of Ireland that people in this country experience—mixed with muddled images of poorly explained Irish politics (called euphemistically “the troubles”) that made so many headlines in the ’80s and ’90s.

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The Great Famine of 1845-1852 caused a great wave of immigration and decimated the population of Ireland.
The Great Famine of 1845-1852 caused a great wave of immigration and decimated the population of Ireland.
(Click to enlarge.)

My first trip to Dublin and Belfast was eye opening (as have been all the subsequent journeys there). It brought the fragmentary images of Ireland that I’d seen prior into focus, clarified them. Some things I saw in the true Ireland were more or less accurate (fewer shamrocks, more harps), others unexpected. I find stereotypes of all sorts fascinating, and the Irish are certainly stereotyped in all sorts of ways. What little Americans known about Ireland is trapped, in some ways, in ideas about the “old country” that immigrants of a hundred years ago brought over with them. For me, experiencing modern Ireland was a bit like meeting a good friend’s sibling: a resemblance there, but really, a whole different being. Not unexpectedly, I did fall completely in love with Ireland and I suspect it will be a lifelong passion.

The full history of the island of Éire and of the Irish people is fascinating. The region had a thriving Neolithic and Iron Age culture, settled by Celts coming from the European mainland. Some variation of this Celtic/Gaelic culture persisted until the early 17th century, surviving two waves of invasions (the Normans in the late 12th century and the Vikings in the 9th century). By 1607, the island was fully under English control, ending the predominance of the old Gaelic social order and starting a long history of tension between English and Irish cultures and sovereignty.

Fast-forwarding to the last few centuries, one of the most important (and poignant) events is the Great Famine that struck Ireland in the late 19th century. During this tragic period, almost a million people died and there was a massive wave of Irish emigration out of Ireland, a drop in population of 20-25%.

The cover of Gone to Amerikay (click to enlarge).
The cover of Gone to Amerikay (click to enlarge).

It’s this period that forms the start of a graphic novel about the experience of Irish immigrants coming to New York City. The book, Gone to Amerikay, was written by Derek McCulloch and illustrated by Colleen Doran; it was published in 2012. It’s also colored by the incomparable José Villarrubia. I’ve admired Doran for a long time. I proposed her as an ideal choice for an imagined graphic novel adaptation of a Gore Vidal book in this very column a few years ago, and wrote about her groundbreaking work in A Distant Soil, an epic story she started producing when she was just 12 years old.

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Doran is also famous for her collaboration with Neil Gaiman on Sandman (another topic I’ve covered in this column), for which she illustrated parts of “Dream Country” and “A Game of You.” One of Gaiman’s most beloved characters, an ancient witch named Thessaly, is based on Doran and her personality. This is just one testament to what an interesting figure Doran is in the comics scene. She’s notable for being one of the best known women artist-creators working in comics; she often comments on how women are treated in the comics field and in fandom. The collaboration in Gone to Amerikay, though, shows depth and texture to her artistry in a whole new way.

The character Ciara O'Dwyer.
The character Ciara O’Dwyer.

The book is woven through with a mystery that spans the different generations of Irish immigrants. The three parts of the story take place in 1870, 1960 and 2010, revolving around characters that are related by the events in each time period. The part of the story in the 19th century concerns a poor woman in New York’s Five Points slum; the 1960 portion is set in the growing counterculture of Greenwich Village. It features a supernatural element, a deus ex machina, that helps connect the three time periods. (I’ve attempted this same structure in one of my books, and I can attest to how satisfying and fun it is two write, though naturally I must give Doran and McCulloch credit for executing it better.)

This is not traditional comics fare to be sure, and Doran has a following both in indie and mainstream comics eagerly watching her work. “I think this’ll get a lot of people who don’t normally read comics,” Doran has said about Gone to Amerikay. “We just get in there and do the best job we can and hope people appreciate it for what it is.” I’d say that’s a fair assessment. I’m always sensitive to such statements, because they can be interpreted as further condemning comics as being non-literary. But while the story of Gone to Amerikay is challenging to the reader, it isn’t taxing to read nor would it be alienating to those unfamiliar with the illustrated medium. McCulloch echoes Doran’s sentiments: “I don’t really think about audience ahead of time very much, probably not as much as I should,” he said. “I write the things I want to write, and I hope that if I can sell it to a publisher, I hope that means they think they can sell it to someone else.”

An image from the second of the story's three time periods, Greenwich Village of the 1960s.
An image from the second of the story’s three time periods, Greenwich Village of the 1960s.
(Click to enlarge.)

Another thing the story does extraordinarily well is to convey the mesmerizing quality of Irish folk music, often upbeat in sound and tempo but filled with tales of desperate longing or tragic events. I abhor sound effects in my own work, so I appreciated the challenge of rendering music in a soundless medium. Doran shows the reactions of listeners and musicians to help identify when music is happening, a clever and seamless device.

I highly recommend picking up this book if you’re interested in any of its themes: it’s about Ireland, yes, but there is a way in which it addresses the immigrant experience that’s completely original and very compelling.