Review essay of Redemption Falls by Dr. Sinead Moynihan  

‘War is Not a Map’: Irish America, Transnationalism and
Joseph O’Connor’s Redemption Falls
Sinéad Moynihan
University of Nottingham

This article first appeared in Comparative American Studies 6.4 (2008): 358-373.

Abstract: This essay argues for a transnational reading of Irish novelist Joseph O’Connor’s Redemption Falls (2007). I contend that O’Connor’s revisiting of the period of the American Civil War and its aftermath begs all sorts of questions regarding Ireland and Irish America’s historical and contemporary transnational intercessions and responsibilities. As Ireland underwent a period of unparalleled economic prosperity beginning in the mid-1990s, which most commentators attribute to successive Irish governments’ commitment to globalisation, it began to face new and pressing challenges in relation to its involvement with the rest of the world, particularly with regard to its stance on neutrality and recent immigrants to Ireland. I conclude that Redemption Falls reveals the complexity of Irish and Irish Americans’ relationship to notions of whiteness and (racial) innocence and challenges readers to consider how Ireland will conduct its future relations with the global community both within and beyond its borders.

Keywords: American Civil War; Ireland; Irish America; Redemption Falls (2007); Joseph O’Connor; Young Irelanders; Thomas Francis Meagher; Transnationalism; race; slavery

On 30 April 2008, after delivering an address entitled ‘Ireland and America – Our Two Republics’ to the Joint Meeting of the United States Congress, former Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, presented the Congressional Friends of Ireland with a sword used by the Young Irelander, Thomas Francis Meagher. Meagher, known as ‘Meagher of the Sword’ participated in the ill-fated Irish uprising against Britain in 1848 and, having had his sentence to hanging commuted, was transported to Van Diemen’s Land. After escaping in 1852 and settling in the United States, he subsequently became Brigadier-General of the 69th Regiment of the New York Militia during the American Civil War. Donated by the city of Waterford, Meagher’s birthplace, the gift represents a token of what Ahern calls ‘the enduring bonds of friendship and esteem between our two peoples and between our two republics’ (‘Ireland and America’, 2008). However, the sword, as a weapon that belonged to an Irish nationalist and American Civil War general, also brings to mind the interconnected roles of Ireland and America in both national and international conflicts. After all, according to Ahern, the Friends of Ireland in the United States Congress were founded in 1981 ‘to seek a peaceful settlement in Northern Ireland.’ In his Address, Ahern observes that the great challenges of the twenty-first century ‘are truly global’ and that ‘[i]n Ireland today, we are looking out from our own shores more than ever before – no longer with thoughts of exile, but to be part of the world.’ In this article, I examine a timely fictional intervention in such debates, Joseph O’Connor’s 2007 novel, Redemption Falls.

Like Ahern, though more self-consciously, O’Connor draws upon the figure of Thomas Francis Meagher. However, he does so in order to interrogate Irish, American and Irish-American involvement in conflicts that, while seemingly domestic, reverberated and continue to reverberate on a global stage. The sequel to Star of the Sea (2002), charting a Famine-era transatlantic crossing, Redemption Falls is set entirely in the United States. The novel follows the last years in the life of Irish-born former Union General James C. O’Keeffe who is appointed Acting Governor of the Mountain Territory (likely Montana) after the Civil War. Also known as Con O’Keeffe or ‘O’Keeffe of the Blade’, ‘elements of [his] curriculum vitae have echoes in that of Thomas F. Meagher’, as O’Connor acknowledges.# While living in the Mountain Territory town of Redemption Falls, O’Keeffe takes in a displaced, apparently mute Confederate drummer boy called Jeddo Mooney, against the wishes of O’Keeffe’s progressively estranged wife, aspiring poet Lucia-Cruz McLelland. The novel opens in January 1865 with Jeddo’s sister, eighteen-year-old Eliza Duane Mooney – the daughter of Mary Duane from Star of the Sea – setting off from her home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to search for her lost brother. Two years later, in a bloody dénouement, a series of misunderstandings between Eliza’s people (led by the man she marries on her travels, the bandit Johnny Thunders) and O’Keeffe’s posse results in the deaths of twenty-nine people, including Eliza and O’Keeffe, whose body is never recovered. While Star of the Sea ends on Easter Saturday, 1916, Redemption Falls concludes on Christmas Eve, 1937 with rumblings of Fascism’s rise in Spain and elsewhere in Europe. As Jeremiah McLelland, the Professor of Folklore whose scrapbooks comprise the material combined in the novel, notes, ‘a small brotherhood of Americans [. . .] had gone the previous winter to fight Fascism in Europe. Some Irish were among them; others would join them, at Jarama, at Zaragoza, at Madrid and Valencia’ (RF 452). From Irish involvement in the American Civil War to Irish and American involvement in the Spanish Civil War to the global conflict of World War II that, in 1937, we know is fast approaching, Redemption Falls challenges readers to consider both Irish and American implication in their own and ‘other people’s’ wars. 2

In a recent special issue of Comparative American Studies devoted to ‘Writing the Civil War: Transnational Dimensions’, Coleman Hutchison argues that Loreta Velazquez’s 1876 narrative The Woman in Battle ‘offers a series of emergent fields and methodologies – New World, New South, Comparative American, Transnational American, and Hemispheric American Studies – an uncommon opportunity to re-map the American Civil War along new axes’ (Hutchison, 2007: 435). Here, I contend that O’Connor’s revisiting of this turbulent period begs all sorts of questions regarding Ireland and Irish America’s historical and contemporary transnational intercessions and responsibilities. As Ireland underwent a period of unparalleled economic prosperity beginning in the mid-1990s, which most commentators attribute to successive Irish governments’ commitment to globalisation, it began to face new and pressing challenges in relation to its involvement with the rest of the world.# These concerns relate, in particular, to its increasingly troubled relationship with the European Union and the admission of what Steve Garner refers to as ‘other people’s diasporas’ and Ahern (and many others) term ‘the New Irish’ – ‘the many people from beyond our shores who are now making new lives in Ireland’ (Garner, 2004: 158; ‘Ireland and America’, 2008). In May 2004, Ireland held the Presidency of the European Union when ten new member states were welcomed into the fold. However, the people of Ireland had, by referendum, initially rejected the Treaty of Nice designed to facilitate EU enlargement, and only voted in favour of it when they returned to the polls in October 2002. In June 2008, the Irish electorate again said ‘No’ to an EU initiative, this time the Treaty of Lisbon. In both cases – Nice and Lisbon – opponents of the treaties suggested that Irish military neutrality would be surrendered if a ‘Yes’ vote was carried.

On the surface, Ireland’s contemporary international affairs may appear to be more concerned with Europe than America. However, if the rejection of the Nice and Lisbon treaties was, in part, motivated by the perception of compromised neutrality, Ireland’s professed neutrality has been tested to its limits by its ‘special relationship’ with the United States and implication in the conflict that has dominated the international landscape throughout the period spanning these referenda, the Global War On Terror. Since 2001, the Irish government has permitted US military aircraft to refuel at Shannon airport. A contentious decision from the beginning, the March 2008 report by Amnesty International claiming that a C.I.A. aircraft that refuelled at Shannon was transporting an ‘extraordinary rendition’ prisoner has precipitated an escalation of the controversy and renewed claims of Irish complicity with US violations of international law. Indeed, given the extraordinarily evocative power of ‘America’ in the Irish imagination, it is hardly surprising that O’Connor historicizes Irish participation in the American Civil War in order to reflect on contemporary Ireland’s role in ‘a global system of immigration, foreign intervention, transnational capital [. . .] and competing nationalisms’ (Hutchison, 2007: 425). After all, in a 2000 speech that has since become famous, then Deputy Prime Minister Mary Harney commented that if Ireland is ‘geographically’ closer to Berlin, ‘[s]piritually we are probably a lot closer to Boston’ (‘Remarks’, 2000).


At the crossroads of Ireland and America
The resonances of Redemption Falls in contemporary America have been suitably recognized by the novel’s reviewers. According to Padraig Kenny of the Sunday Tribune, ‘It’s hard not to read the chaotic opening chapters with their cinematic vision of a shattered country now trying to find its feet as something which recalls the current post-war chaos in Iraq’ (Kenny, 2007: 7). Equally evocative is O’Connor’s nod to the controversial photographs of Iraqi prisoners-of-war in Abu Ghraib that emerged in April 2004. McLelland has in his possession a daguerreotype of Jeddo Mooney, who, imprisoned for eighteen months after the bloodbath at Fort Stornaway, is ‘stripped and hooded and [. . .] kneeling in a latrine’ (RF 446). In Redemption Falls, O’Connor also provides a commentary on contemporary conflicts and disasters on US territory itself. Brian Lynch observes that he was inclined to think the novel was ‘all too bloodthirsty and unlikely, but then news came through of the slaughter at Virginia Tech, and it occurred to me that O’Connor, not for the first time, has his finger on the pulse of the age’ (Lynch, 2007: 18). It is likely, moreover, that O’Connor, who opens the novel in Louisiana, is more than a little interested in Hurricane Katrina, the disaster that devastated that state and others in August 2004, lending a post-apocalyptic air to the landscape comparable with that O’Connor describes in the aftermath of the Civil War. O’Connor writes that ‘[t]he rain don’t quit for four long days and the levee is fixing to break’ (RF 8) and subsequently of ‘[t]he hurricanes billowing out of the Gulf’ (RF 163). 4

More surprising is that reviewers fail to notice the relevance of the novel in contemporary Ireland. John Spain of the Irish Independent asks O’Connor whether, after completion of his Irish American trilogy, he might ‘find time to sit down and write a big sweeping novel about Ireland, perhaps from Independence to the Celtic Tiger’ (Spain, 2007a: 11). In a subsequent article criticising contemporary Irish writers such as Anne Enright and Claire Keegan for what he perceives as their lack of engagement with Celtic Tiger Ireland, Spain posits that ‘in the other big book of the year, Redemption Falls, Joseph O’Connor was writing about post-Civil War America rather than contemporary Ireland’ (Spain, 2007b: 13). Meanwhile, Ruadhán Mac Cormaic of the Irish Times, who was appointed that newspaper’s first ever Migration Correspondent in September 2007, claims that ‘[m]igrants are invisible’ in contemporary Irish fiction and that ‘it would take an ambitious author to try a grand social panoramic sweep in the mode of Dickens or Tom Wolfe. Joe O'Connor has just written such a novel, but it’s set not in Dublin but in the 1860s after the civil war in America’ (Mac Cormaic, 2007: 15).

In fact, only a very cursory analysis of the novel is required in order to acknowledge the resonances of Redemption Falls in contemporary multicultural Ireland. As I argue in relation to Star of the Sea, ‘the appearance of the novel in 2002 is significant because it depicts the defining era of Irish emigration history – the Great Famine, specifically ‘Black ‘47’ – at the precise moment when immigration into Ireland was at its peak’ (Moynihan, 2008: 42). O’Connor describes Star as the story of ‘four or five characters who are trying to live with love and dignity in a world where there is war and terrorism and racism and an enormous movement of refugees – in other words, a world very like the one we live in now’ (Lynch, 2005: 3). Redemption Falls resumes the story of the Irish in the United States from the 1850s on as they come to participate in military and civic life. On 28 June 2007, just two months after the novel was published, the midlands town of Portlaoise elected Ireland’s first black mayor, Rotimi Adebari, a Nigerian who arrived seven years before as an asylum seeker and who was eventually granted residence because of his Irish-born child (Mac Cormaic, 2008: 10). In response to cases such as Adebari’s, a referendum was held in June 2004 – and passed by 79% of the electorate – to rescind the automatic right to citizenship to those born on Irish soil, ensuring that those born in Ireland to non-Irish parents must prove their parents’ connection to the country through residency during the previous five years. If, according to Moynagh Sullivan, the 2004 referendum

[. . .] took as its iconographic and anecdotal bogey woman the spectre of a pregnant black woman, who threatened to swallow up, devour and incorporate the economy if she was allowed to claim Irish citizenship by way of her child,

Redemption Falls has, at its centre, a racially ambiguous child, the son of an immigrant mother, a citizen whose mother was a non-citizen (Sullivan, 2007: 194).

In an address delivered in Dublin to mark Africa Day in May 2008, Adebari called upon fellow Africans to ask themselves how ‘we, the diaspora’ can ‘put our exile to use’ just like ‘the Irish, who emigrated to the US, Britain and Canada, left and then lent their expertise to Ireland’ (Mac Cormaic, 2008: 11). Historically, the input of the Irish diaspora has taken the form of contribution to or participation in revolutionary Irish nationalism. In the period O’Connor examines, America formed the transatlantic ‘other half’ to post-Famine Irish nationalism. After all, in 1858, two Irish nationalist organizations were founded: the Fenian brotherhood (FB) by John O’Mahony in the United States, and the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) by James Stephens in Ireland (Hanagan, 2002: 57). As Michael Hanagan demonstrates, one of the reasons for America’s centrality to transnational Irish nationalism was that unlike Canada, New Zealand, Australia and so on, the United States was the only destination to which the Irish flocked during the Famine era that was independent of Britain. Irish American nationalists thus ‘readily appealed to the United States’s revolutionary republican tradition to legitimate their own goals’. Equally, Irish nationalism flourished in the United States because it happened to coincide with ‘a critical period of U.S. state formation, the period of the Civil War and its immediate and stormy aftermath’. Seeking soldiers during the war and voters during Reconstruction, the American Civil War ‘made American political leaders acutely receptive to Irish Catholic opinion’ (Hanagan, 2002: 61). The growth and consolidation of Irish nationalism is thus inextricable from the American Civil War.

A novel of the American Civil War by an Irish writer, O’Connor’s Redemption Falls effectively responds to Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s claim that understanding the multiple meanings of America and American culture ‘requires looking beyond the nation’s borders, and understanding how the nation is seen from vantage points beyond its borders’ (Fishkin, 2005: 20). A novel of Irish involvement in what Arminta Wallace terms ‘someone else’s civil war’, Redemption Falls also provokes crucial questions about Irish nationalist history (Wallace, 2007: 11). Redemption Falls thus exists at the intersection of increasingly transnationalized American Studies and Irish Studies. Notwithstanding the author’s country of origin, then, Redemption Falls must be read in terms of both established and emerging strands of transnational enquiry. It could, for example, be usefully interpreted under the rubric of ‘the Global South’, the title of a new journal from the University of Mississippi and published by Indiana University Press. In its inaugural issue (Winter 2007), editor Alfred J. López delineates the ‘global South’ as

a signifier of oppositional subaltern cultures ranging from Africa, Central and Latin America, much of Asia, and even those “Souths” within a larger perceived North, such as the U.S. South, the Caribbean, and Mediterranean Europe (López, 2007: v).

In Redemption Falls, O’Connor is concerned with several Souths in addition to the American South: implicitly, the contested space of Southern (versus Northern) Ireland, Australia (the Great Southland) and Latin and Central America. At the conclusion of the novel, Jeremiah McLelland reveals that a man closely resembling O’Keeffe was reported to be living in Nicaragua. Redemption Falls thus confirms Sharon Monteith’s assertion in the same issue that ‘“the” [American] South is no longer a unitary phenomenon but a participant in a metageography of interrelated multiple Souths’ (Monteith, 2007: 67). 5

Equally, Redemption Falls could benefit from a more traditional comparative literature approach. O’Connor’s indebtedness to nineteenth-century British writers in both Star of the Sea and Redemption Falls has been duly identified by reviewers (Lynch, 2007: 18; Kiberd, 2007: 12; Mathews, 2005: 62). O’Connor also professes his admiration for Joyce, Beckett, Oscar Wilde and Brian Moore. But, he says, ‘the writers I've liked best have nearly all been American’ (Estévez-Saá, 2005: 167). E.L. Doctorow’s 2005 novel, The March, which dramatizes Sherman’s March to the Sea through Georgia and the Carolinas in late 1864, bears striking similarities to Redemption Falls. Both feature troubled Union Generals who find in a drummer boy of ambiguous racial and gender identity a surrogate for their dead or absent sons. Although Declan Kiberd finds Redemption Falls ‘worthy of comparison with [Toni] Morrison’s [. . .] Beloved’ (2007: 12), O’Keeffe’s attempt to rename the Mountain Territory as ‘New Ireland’ and to establish it as a settlement for former Irish veterans of both the Union and the Confederate armies (RF 96) is in fact more reminiscent of the post-Civil War, all-black community of Ruby in Morrison’s Paradise (1998).

In the remainder of this article, however, I wish to focus on the notion of the Civil War as ‘transnational property’, a phenomenon that has only recently begun to be identified and theorized (Kaufman, 2006: 128). In his introduction to the Comparative American Studies special issue, Peter Rawlings claims that while ‘Transnational, transatlantic, global, or post-national approaches to the history and culture of the United States of America and the American continent as a whole have proliferated since at least the 1980s’, the ‘“bloody conflict” of the Civil War continues to be read largely in “provincial terms”’ (Rawlings, 2007: 363). In Kaufman’s 2006 study, The Civil War in American Culture, he devotes a chapter to explorations of the American Civil War’s transnational reach and finds that ‘progressively antagonistic relations between the Irish and African-Americans before and during the Civil War’ are ‘central to the war’s transnational dimension’ (Kaufman, 2006: 135). Drawing on Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White – a work with which O’Connor is familiar (Spain, 2007a: 11) – Kaufman focuses on Daniel O’Connell’s involvement with the cause of abolition, representations of the New York City Draft Riots of 1863 and Steve Earle’s song, ‘Dixieland’, which Kaufman describes as ‘a significant attempt to depict an alternative history of the Irish in Civil War America – an attempt to wrest that history from Bill the Butcher, the rioters of New York and Margaret Mitchell’s Irish slaveholder, Gerald O’Hara’ (Kaufman, 2006: 139).

Smoked Irish?

Like Kaufman, O’Connor sees encounters and interactions between Irish and African Americans as key to the legacy of the American Civil War and recognizes both the Draft Riots and Mitchell’s novel as important to cultural re-imaginings of this period. Reflecting on the material contained in his scrapbooks in 1937, Jeremiah McLelland notes that the New York riot, ‘one of the most shameful atrocities in the history of Irish-America’, does not feature ‘in Irish balladry’ (RF 444). In his Introduction to Ireland in Exile: Irish Writers Abroad, O’Connor notes that Ireland’s ‘emigrant culture has traditionally been described in songs rather than novels, plays or poems’ and announces his suspicion that ‘all those sententiously vile ballads about dear little shamrocks, grey-haired macushlas and shagging shillelaghs were written by people who had never been out of Leitrim, never mind Ireland, in their lives’ (O’Connor, 1993: 16). In Redemption Falls, however, O’Connor registers his scepticism of any one form of narrative – be it ‘bookstory’ or ‘ballad’ (RF 6) – which will not admit alternative, conflicting versions. It is for this reason that he incorporates so many different narrative forms – ‘transcriptions of recorded interviews, historical documents, letters, poster-bills, even paintings’ – in the ‘bookstory’ that is Redemption Falls (Wallace, 2007: 11). For O’Connor, narrative must reflect the ‘nation’ as a porous, unstable entity.

O’Connor also self-consciously engages with Mitchell’s notorious tale of an Irish-American Southern family in the period 1861 to 1875. In fact, in his review of the novel, Brian Lynch writes that Redemption Falls is ‘Gone With the Wind rewritten by a Dublin-born apprentice to Charles Dickens’ (Lynch, 2007: 18). Through Elizabeth Longstreet, the former slave who keeps house for O’Keeffe and his wife, O’Connor systematically deconstructs the mythology of Gone With the Wind. In Mitchell’s novel, Gerald O’Hara’s ‘natural aptitude for cards and amber liquor [. . .] brought [him] two of his three most prized possessions, his valet and his plantation’ (Mitchell, 1988: 46). Pork, the valet whom O’Hara wins at cards, admires his master so much that he even attempts an Irish brogue (Mitchell, 1988: 48). Reversing Mitchell’s insistence on the benevolence of O’Hara and the contentment of Pork, O’Connor reveals the inhumanity of Southern slaveholders, bartering in human flesh and carelessly separating entire families. Elizabeth recounts how ‘my mastuh lost my father playin cards in Marianna. My father got took away for his debt. Some say he ended in Texarkana but no way to know it. Missippi. Georgia. Any place’ (RF 45). That this is an allusion to Gone with the Wind is confirmed when Elizabeth continues: ‘Mastuh a Irishman. O’Hora his name … Wolf got more nature than O’Hora … Do ever thing but kill you … Cause he paid for you, see. You a dollar to O’Hora. You was livestock’ (RF 45).

However, O’Connor’s vision of Irish involvement in the American Civil War is far more expansive than his reference to the Draft Riots and his brief, but clever, reworking of Mitchell’s novel. If, for Will Kaufman, Earle’s song represents an ‘alternative history’, O’Connor’s novel offers more substantial and wide-ranging ‘alternative histories.’ With the first two installments of his Irish American trilogy, then, O’Connor confronts the Grand Narrative of Irish emigration to the United States. According to Kevin O’Neill, ‘the Famine provides Irish Americans with a ‘charter myth’ – a creation story that both explains our presence in the new land and connects us to the old via a powerful sense of grievance’, while ‘the Civil War provided an opportunity to transform both their role in American society and their self-image in positive ways’ (O’Neill, 2001: 118, 122). 6 In a 2007 interview, O’Connor observes:

The real story of Irish America is not the Statue of Liberty myth. It’s the fact that Irish people were assimilated into all aspects of American life – both the progressive and the reactionary, the anti-slavery side and the absolutely racist side. So we like to pretend that our story in America is a lot simpler than it is. And one of the things I’ve tried to do in Redemption Falls is reflect that it’s a lot more complicated (O’Connor, 2007a).

The novel’s opening sentence, which situates Eliza Duane Mooney hurrying out from Baton Rouge ‘through the criminal districts of the town, then the black section, then the Irish’, immediately signals O’Connor’s interest in the relative places of Irish and African Americans within the socio-racial hierarchy of 1860s America and provokes readers to consider whether such physical proximity always or ever translated into solidarity (RF 3). For some characters, this is emphatically not the case. For instance, Jeddo Mooney recounts how an Irish Confederate soldier told him:

Pat nothin but a coolieman prayin the beads. Nothin but a slave in a scapular. When they trenched that canal down the hell of New Orleans, it was Irish they put to the gullies. Wouldn’t put no slave in. Cause a slave cost him money. But a Irish cost him nothin but pennies a day. (RF 53).

Similarly, Patrick Vinson, one of O’Keeffe’s lawmen in the Mountain Territory, claims that:

Ain't a darkey of this country hungry this mornin, forty acres an a mule to ever last one of these majesties, they are laughin at us, laughin, an why wouldn they laugh itself, for the Irishman as fought like the gawms for the so-call union got a fresh air sandwich for his pains an his trouble and a empty pocket for to put it in. (108).

At the conclusion of Star of the Sea, the journalist Grantley Dixon writes:

No doubt some [of Star’s survivors] were among the 80,000 native Irishmen who would fight for the Union in the Civil War. And others were among the 20,000 of their countrymen who would take up arms for the cause of the Confederacy; for the legal right of a freedom-loving white man to regard a black man as a commodity. (O’Connor, 2002: 387)

As O’Connor demonstrates in Redemption Falls, however, even those who fought on the Union side were not necessarily motivated by opposition to slavery. O’Keeffe’s attitudes towards the impending war and towards African Americans are profoundly ambivalent. According to Kieran Quinlan, several of the Young Irelanders in the US had southern sympathies, ‘the general opinion [being] that supporting the South seemed to be the right thing to do because its struggle for self-determinacy was very much like Ireland’s’ (Quinlan, 2005: 79). Consistent with the historical figure of Meagher, O’Connor writes O’Keeffe as a man who loves the ‘sultry, stately cities’ of Savannah and Charleston (RF 152). When the south secedes, however, O’Keeffe chooses to stand with the Union states (RF 153).# O’Keeffe’s views of African Americans are also deeply conflicted. Though his beloved nursemaid in Wexford, Beatrice, was a former African slave, ‘he permitted himself to be attended by her stolen siblings in America [. . .] and at no time raised his oratory in support of their emancipation’ (RF 153). In fact, in a passage deeply reminiscent of fellow US-exiled Young Irelander John Mitchel’s racist diatribes in his Citizen newspapers of the 1850s, O’Keeffe describes southern slaves as ‘well-cared-for and fed, merrier in Mississippi than in the Paganlands of Ethiop’ (RF 153). In the Southern Citizen in 1857, Mitchel wrote:

I consider Negro slavery here the best state of existence for the Negro and the best for his master; and I consider that taking Negroes out of their brutal slavery in Africa and promoting them to a human and reasonable slavery here is good (qtd. in Rolston and Shannon, 2002: 8). 8

On the other hand, O’Keeffe writes to his son in Australia, who has been subjected to racist taunts on account of his mixed racial identity, assuring him that ‘[a]ny person that uses the term ‘half-breed’ about his fellow human being requires our prayers and our pity’ (RF 411). He further claims that ‘[t]he bravest heroes in this country are of African ancestry, indeed are, in my estimation, the future of this Republic’ (RF 412).

O’Connor’s reference to ‘this Republic’ could equally pertain to contemporary Ireland as to nineteenth-century America. In other words, one of the most pressing challenges in Irish Studies today, given that fourteen percent of the population of the Republic of Ireland is now foreign-born, is the construction (or invention) of an Irish tradition of anti-racism (Garner, 2004: 214). On the other hand, Diane Negra is concerned about ‘the cultural reservoir of associations between Irishness and innocence’ in the US in the contemporary moment (Negra, 2006: 363). If building an anti-racist tradition means appealing endlessly to supposed affinities between Irish and African Americans, white Irish and Irish Americans run the risk of ‘recalling their oppression while continuing to enjoy the benefits of white privilege, thus appropriating the suffering of people of color for their own psychic ease’ (Eagan, 2006: 43). This double bind – the desire to acknowledge instances of Irish-African American solidarity without the self-congratulation and self-absolution from charges of racism that such proclamations may encourage – has resulted in the ‘mixed strategies of self-criticism and historical retrieval’ that Michael Malouf has identified in recent attempts to build a tradition of Irish anti-racism (Malouf, 2006: 321). In Redemption Falls, O’Connor reveals Irish and Irish American attitudes towards African Americans and slavery to be multifarious and ambivalent across and even within the individual psyches of his diverse cast of characters. O’Connor’s novel is thus capacious enough to do justice to ‘the complex and ambivalent legacy of encounters between Irish people and people of colour both inside and outside Ireland’ (Rolston and Shannon, 2002: 6).

‘The Prison of National Tribal Vanity’

Ultimately, however, O’Connor’s interest in Irish involvement in the Civil War also exceeds his concern with race and slavery. If the Civil War was a conflict which began with the Confederate states’ assertion of their right to independence from Federal intervention in their affairs, O’Connor constantly foregrounds the tensions between nation and transnation, the characters’ suspicion that, although they are fighting for ‘nation’ – the preservation of the United States of America or Irish independence from Britain – ‘nation’ as a coherent concept is always threatening to collapse. In the first issue of The Global South, Diane Roberts asks:

Where is the South? Nobody’s sure. Is it the eleven states of the old Confederacy? Does Texas count? Does Florida? It was the third state to secede after South Carolina and Alabama. Why does the boundary surveyed by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon in the 1760s still have such symbolic importance? What about Missouri, Maryland and Kentucky, slave states that didn’t secede? (Roberts, 2007: 127).

Roberts implicitly invokes the Civil War as a reference point for the problem of defining ‘the American South.’ However, the Civil War era and its aftermath also presented problems in terms of delineating the rest of the United States. After all, the immediate concern of Redemption Falls is not with the Civil War years per se, but with western expansion, with the frontier, with newly-organized Montana Territory acquired by the United States during the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Moreover, the town of Redemption Falls is situated on the border with Canada. The novel thus emphasizes the arbitrariness of the United States’ self-definition – to the south, to the west and to the north.

One of the ways in which O’Connor explores the conflict between nation and transnation is by highlighting the extent to which the ‘nation’ cannot contain apparently domestic conflicts. In fact, O’Connor claims that Ireland had always conceived of itself as ‘greater than its borders’ until it became a ‘disconnected island [. . .] in the early years of its semi-independence’ (O’Connor, 1993: 17). When Star of the Sea first embarks upon its voyage in November 1847, it encounters another famous ship, The Duchess of Kent, which is carrying the remains of Daniel O’Connell ‘from his death-place in Genoa in August of that year, to be laid to rest in his motherland’ (xv). According to P.J. Mathews,

If O’Connell represented a non-violent democratic tradition within Irish nationalism that strand was eclipsed by more revolutionary tendencies as the nineteenth century progressed. [. . .]. Significantly, the novel’s epilogue is dated ‘Easter Saturday, 1916’ (Mathews, 2005: 259).

Redemption Falls could be interpreted as filling in the gap suggested by the shift from the main action of Star (set in 1847) to its epilogue (set in 1916), a meditation on the ‘more revolutionary tendencies’ of the Young Irelanders and, indeed, the Fenians that succeeded O’Connell. I read the episode differently, the encounter between the two ships representing, for me, a reminder to readers ‘of the short-lived coalition between the leaders of the Irish national struggle and prominent American abolitionists’ (Moynihan, 2008: 55). In fact, the two analyses are complementary, as Frederick Douglass recognized at the time:

It was not long after my seeing Mr. O’Connell that his health broke down, and his career ended in death. I felt that a great champion of freedom had fallen, and that the cause of the American slave, not less than the cause of his country, had met with a great loss. All the more was this felt when I saw the kind of men who came to the front when the voice of O’Connell’s was no longer heard in Ireland. He was succeeded by the Duffys, Mitchells [sic], Meaghers, and others, - men who loved liberty for themselves and for their country, but were utterly destitute of sympathy with the cause of liberty in countries other than their own (Gates, 1994: 683).

Coleman Hutchison shows that at any number of moments ‘the American Civil War threatened to become an international conflict, one into which Mexico, Germany, France, Britain, and others might well have been drawn’ (Hutchison, 2007: 435). In Redemption Falls, O’Keeffe drifts between the Irish national conflict, the American Civil War, and back to the Irish national conflict. In a (final) letter to his mother in 1862, one of O’Keeffe’s soldiers writes:

general okeef says when this war is over we wll get in boats & go over to ireland & put out the englishmen which som of the boys reckons a mighty plan but i think i will have my belly ful of sogerin by then & will go no more to it (RF 101-102).

Indeed, as Kieran Quinlan notes, some moves were made by the Fenians in the aftermath of the American Civil War to ‘use the military experience gained by Irishmen in both the Union and Confederate armies, as well as by those in Britain’s army, to free their homeland from British rule’ (Quinlan: 2005: 98). 9

Equally, O’Connor effectively rejuvenates the by-now familiar metaphor of the Civil War as a broken marriage in order to contest the boundaries of ‘nation.’# According to David Blight, the ‘popular literary ritual of intersectional marriage’ became common in the three decades following the Civil War (Blight, 2002: 125). It is not unreasonable, therefore, for O’Connor to present the years leading up to the Civil War as ‘[a]n unwieldy marriage’ edging toward ‘a brutal divorce’ (RF 152). By the end of the war, as O’Keeffe sees it, ‘the shamed continent has been stripped of its name, disowned by the warring parents’ (RF 10). Alongside the rift between the states, the marriage between O’Keeffe and Lucia is rapidly deteriorating. As she writes to her sister in 1866, ‘Con and I have not lived as husband and wife for nine years, since even before the War, since he started traveling away from me’ (RF 265). In a subsequent letter to O’Keeffe, she writes, ‘If you wish to fight a war, I will give you one’ (RF 310).

If the O’Keeffes’ marital problems ostensibly reflect the discord within the nation, a closer look at the marriage metaphor reveals that their problems have distinctly transnational dimensions. Both Lucia and O’Keeffe are transnational subjects: O’Keeffe was born in Ireland, imprisoned in Australia and now lives in the United States. Though we never learn her precise national and/or ethnic origin, Lucia is the child of an Anglo American father, Peter McLelland, and a Latin American mother. When Lucia claims that her husband is ‘traveling away’ from her, she is referring to both physical and psychic removal. He travels to Panama, Nicaragua, Cuba, Mexico ‘where he claims to have associates’ (RF 268). One of the recurring issues in their relationship is O’Keeffe’s past life in Australia and his marriage to an Aboriginal woman there, of which Lucia is only privy to some of the details. In her attempt at a literary rendering of O’Keeffe’s time in Australia, she puns upon the physical space of ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ and ‘Demonland’, the psychic space that O’Keeffe occupies, as she perceives it (RF 86). Consistent with her claim that O’Keeffe is ‘traveling away’ from her, marriage is configured as a country, ‘the Republic of Matrimony’: ‘As with many an exciting destination, once finally reached, you wonder was it worth setting out’ (RF 149).

O’Connor’s interest in the tensions between nation and transnation is reflected in the characters’ extreme suspicion of maps. In Imagined Communities, a work that paved the way for subsequent theories of transnationalism, Benedict Anderson argues that three institutions in particular – census, map and museum – ‘profoundly shaped the way in which the colonial state imagined its dominion – the nature of the human beings it ruled, the geography of its domain, and the legitimacy of its ancestry’ (Anderson, 1991: 163-164). Mapping, in an Irish context, has thus historically been associated with British imperial might. The Ordnance Survey Office, established in Dublin in 1824 to map Ireland for land taxation purposes, came ‘to be linked in popular memory with the loss of the Irish language and the defeat of the culture’ (Connolly, 2003: 29). For Catherine Nash, this ‘mapping of the Irish landscape did not function merely to ease colonial administration, but fixed the “other” and neutralized the threat of difference by the apparent stability of the map’s coherence’ (Nash, 1994: 234). It is significant that Redemption Falls’s cartographer, Allen Winterton, leaves the United States to work on the Great Trigonometric Survey of India, testifying to Britain’s insistence on mapping its colonies (RF 59). However, as Claire Connolly observes, even in an Irish colonial context, the role of mapping is less unequivocal than it may first seem. The same detailed maps produced by the Ordnance Survey office were also a tool used by nationalist groups – that of Daniel O’Connell and his successors – ‘for democratic organization’ (Connolly, 2003: 29). Maps may be the instrument of an oppressive colonial administration, but they are also useful in bolstering the emerging postcolonial nation-state. In one of the earliest articulations of Irish transnationalism, Fintan O’Toole contends that a map:

is a convenient fiction, a more or less confident representation of the shape a place might take if only you could see it. While the place itself persists, the map, the visual and ideological convention that allows us to call that place ‘Ireland’ has been slipping away. Its co-ordinates, its longitudes and latitudes, refuse to hold their shape (O’Toole, 1994: 16).

O’Toole further argues that

any accurate map of [modern Ireland] must be a map, not of an island, but of a shoreline seen from the water, a set of contours shaped, not by geography, but by voyages. The shape of the island is the shape of all the journeys around it that a history of emigration has set in motion. (O’Toole, 1994: 17-18)

O’Connor’s two most recent novels appear to confirm O’Toole’s observations, the ship the overarching symbol in Star of the Sea, the map the omnipresent ‘fiction’ in Redemption Falls. O’Keeffe finds, in his post as Acting Governor of the Mountain Territory, that ‘[t]he maps are all wrong: immense regions uncharted. What maps we possess are copies of older ones, so that they replicate the old faults, &, invariably, multiply them’ (RF 68). For O’Keeffe, maps tell you ‘nothing’; compasses are ‘untrue’ (RF 21). Meanwhile, Lucia, describing her husband’s ‘Demonland’, echoes O’Keeffe when she writes that ‘[t]he world has corners that can never be imagined. Maps tell you little worth knowing’ (RF 84). War and maps are complicit in their dehumanisation of individuals: ‘Marker moved on a map and ten thousand die, and the map won’t remember they ever existed’ (RF 56). In his confrontation with Winterton, O’Keeffe shouts: ‘Men do not fall in war, sir. They die! Do you mind me? War is not a map. It is real’ (RF 299). It is significant, of course, that Winterton is revealed to be untrustworthy and duplicitous, a fortune-hunter and a bigamist. Winterton has a profound faith in maps, claiming that they do not instigate difficulties, ‘they solve them, or at least make solutions the clearer’ (RF 341). In Redemption Falls, cartography ultimately emerges as ‘a euphemism for conquest and thievery; how the burglar inventoried his pickings’ (RF 342).

At the end of the novel, O’Connor draws together the transnational, trans-historical aspects of the American Civil War, confirming Will Kaufman’s contention that, ‘as a cultural event, [it] has transcended time just as it has transcended national boundaries’ (Kaufman, 2006: 129). McLelland describes the annual Fourth of July gathering of surviving veterans of O’Keeffe’s brigade:

They process down the Broadway to Battery Park, a tortuous walk in a Manhattan July. [. . .]. Past those vertebrate turrets that are the glory of our architects – and of all of us, for they speak of indomitable New York. [. . .]. By the walls of the Battery, a silent prayer is offered. [. . .]. A wreath of lilies is blessed and thrown into the harbor, from where so many of their hungry forefathers first set foot on America. (RF 452)

Although ostensibly a description of a specific geographical location in 1937, O’Connor draws in diverse national contexts, conflicts and historical moments. July Fourth marks the declaration of American independence from Britain in 1776, and conjures the spectre of the subsequent Revolutionary War. In 2002, the Irish Hunger Memorial, located at Battery Park in the shadow of the decimated Twin Towers, was dedicated. American Independence from Britain, the Great Famine, Irish-American migration, Irish participation in the American Civil War, the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers at Manhattan’s southern tip on September 11, 2001, subsequent US intervention in the Middle East and the War on Terror thus converge upon this site as O’Connor configures it. In her analysis of American constructions of Irishness post-September 11, Diane Negra discusses precisely this site, arguing that it:

invites us to perceive the sense of injustice many Americans associate with the famine as equally applicable to Ground Zero. In this respect, the famine cottage [of the Irish Hunger Memorial] functions as U.S. constructions of Irishness so often do, as a flattering prism for American national identity. (Negra, 2006: 366)

Although O’Connor has himself described the Irish Famine as ‘Ground Zero [. . .] the absolute disaster zone of Victorian Europe’ (O’Connor, 2007b), Redemption Falls ultimately reveals the complexity of Irish and Irish Americans’ relationship to notions of whiteness and (racial) innocence and challenges readers to consider how Ireland will conduct its future relations with the global community both within and beyond its borders.


I wish to express my gratitude to the Leverhulme Trust for awarding me the fellowship which has made this research possible.



1 - O’Connor (2007d: 458). Future references to Redemption Falls will appear in the text preceded by the initials RF. Like Meagher, O’Keeffe participated in the 1848 rebellion, had his sentence to be hanged commuted, was transported to Van Diemen’s Land, escaped to the United States, becomes a Civil War general and subsequently governor of newly-organized western territory.

2 - The link O’Connor suggests between the American Civil War and the Spanish Civil War is unpacked by Will Kaufman in his study, The Civil War in American Culture. Abraham Lincoln was the name of one of the batallions in which American volunteers fought against Franco’s army in Spain. According to Kaufman, ‘[t]he political complexities of the Spanish Civil War were precisely what enabled both American interventionists and non-interventionists to draw on Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War for their symbolic ammunition’ (2006: 141-142).

3 - In 1988, according to The Economist, Ireland was the ‘poorest of the rich’ countries; by 1997, it was ‘The Celtic Tiger: Europe’s Shining Light. See Gibbons (2005: 555) and O’Hearn (2000: 67). There are indications, however, that this period of prosperity is coming to an end, as Ireland is hit by the effects of an economic downturn some claim is a global recession. On 28 June 2008, an Irish Times feature, entitled ‘Back to the Future?’, articulated the fear of a return to the ‘bad old days’ of the mid- to late-1980s, when the higher tax rate was 65%, national debt was 120% of GDP, unemployment reached a high of 17% and emigration to Britain and the United States soared. The accompanying photograph showed prospective Irish emigrants queuing for work visas as the US Embassy in Dublin in 1987 (McGee: 1).

4 - In a diary published in the Sunday Independent during a Redemption Falls promotional tour in the US in November 2007, O’Connor describes his bittersweet emotions on visiting the ‘beautiful, indefatigable town’ of New Orleans for the first time since Hurricane Katrina. He writes that ‘Many people couldn't bear to come back after the waters receded. And everyone with whom I discuss it, no matter their politics, says the same thing about the government. “They abandoned us. They didn't care. We're just an inconvenience”’ (O’Connor, 2007c).

5 - Though Monteith claims that the September 2006 symposium ‘The South in Europe and Europe in the South: Transatlantic Exchanges’ is ‘less common an academic enterprise than might be supposed’ (2007: 70-71), it has recently been joined by ‘Understanding the South, Understanding Modern America’, a series of meetings co-organized by the Universities of Manchester and Florida beginning in May 2008. A comparable project is ‘American Tropics’ at the University of Essex, which takes as its focus ‘an extended Caribbean [. . .]: an area including the southern USA, the Caribbean littoral of Central America, the Caribbean islands, and northern South America’.

6 - Another aspect of the Grand Narrative that O’Connor unsettles is the overwhelming preoccupation with the urban centres – particularly those of the Eastern Seaboard – in Irish American historiography. While it is true that 72% of the Famine Irish settled in seven urbanised states (Arthur, 1991: 145), the 3.1 million Irish that emigrated to the US between 1856 and 1921 were more widely dispersed geographically. David Emmons’s book (1989) focuses on the Irish copper-mining community of Butte, Montana – not unlike that of O’Connor’s fictional town of Redemption Falls – which, by 1900, comprised 26% of Butte’s population.

7 - Citing the following passage from Meagher’s writings, Quinlan argues that the Federal government’s sympathy for the Irish nationalist cause and the prediction that Britain would support the Confederacy likely swayed Meagher in his decision to fight for the Union:

The identification of the Irish people at home with the Orangemen and Tories of England in their avowed sympathy and active connivance with the rebels…will not be forgotten by the jealous exclusionists [the Know Nothings] of this country when the war is over…when they remember how, even in the very season when the Loyal States were pouring their grain and gold into Ireland to relieve the starving poor [during the crop failures from 1860 to 1863], the public opinion of Ireland…went forth to condemn the action of the national government, and approve the infidelity and usurpation of its enemies (Quinlan, 2005: 79-80).

8 - If Meagher inspires the fictional character of O’Keeffe, it is likely that Mitchel appears in Redemption Falls in the guise of John Fintan Duggan, a fellow Van Diemen’s Land escapee who ends up supporting the Confederacy and loses two sons in the war (RF: 241).

9 - Quinlan continues, ‘Although some of them entertained the quite fantastic hope the Irish-born Union general Phil Sheridan might lead them on such a campaign, the only outcome of all their plotting were several abortive raids into British Canada’ (2005: 98).

10 - In fact, this is not the first time O’Connor has drawn connections between war and marital breakdown. If, as I argue elsewhere, Sweet Liberty is a key precursor to Star of the Sea, O’Connor’s second novel, Desperadoes (1994) – more than even Star of the Sea – is the most important antecedent to Redemption Falls (Moynihan, 2008: 46). Desperadoes is set in 1985 in Nicaragua, where counter-revolutionaries (Contras), with the support of the US government, are attempting to overthrow the socialist Sandanista government through guerrilla warfare. Estranged husband and wife, Eleanor and Frank Little, travel from Dublin to Nicaragua to identify their dead son, Johnny, and to bring his body back to Ireland to be buried. Like in Redemption Falls, then, Irish subjects find themselves caught up in ‘someone else’s civil war’, and like in Redemption Falls, the ‘war at home’ – flashbacks of Littles’ marital breakdown – are juxtaposed against their contemporary predicament in war-torn Nicaragua.




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Notes on Contributor
Sinéad Moynihan is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the School of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham, where she teaches courses in Irish-American culture and Transnational Literatures. Moynihan’s essays have appeared in the Irish Journal of American Studies, Symbiosis: A Journal of Anglo-American Literary Relations and Engaging Tradition, Making It New: Essays on Teaching Recent African American Literature (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008). She is currently working on a book project entitled: “Other People’s Diasporas”: Negotiating Race in Contemporary Irish and Irish-American Culture.



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