Shaping Culture: The impact of Irish-American Writers

On Saturday, Dec. 3 author Eileen Sullivan will present a talk on changes in the culture of American Catholicism emerging from the works of nineteenth-century writers who created a distinctive—and influential—Irish-American literature. Examining characters and themes in novels published in 1830s to the 1870s, Professor Sullivan will shed new light on how, for example, Irish immigration transformed America’s Catholic population and its institutions. This special program will take place at 2 p.m. in the McCloskey meeting room in the Parish House for the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, 263 Mulberry Street, Manhattan. A reception will follow. Suggested donation: $5.

In the 1830s and 1840s, most Catholic fiction was written by American-born converts from Protestant denominations. But after 1850, most was written by Irish immigrants or their children. These new authors created characters and plots that mirrored immigrants’ lives. And these post-1850 novelists portrayed Catholics as a community of people bound by shared ethnicity, ritual, and loyalty to their priests rather than by shared theological or moral beliefs. Their novels focused on poor and working-class characters; reasons why the Irish left their homeland, how they fared in the American job market, and where they stood on issues like slavery, abolition, and women’s rights. In developing plots, these later novelists took positions on capitalism and on race and gender, providing the first alternative to the reigning domestic ideal of women. Far more conscious of American anti-Catholicism than the earlier Catholic novelists, they stressed the dangers of assimilation and the importance of separate institutions supporting a separate Irish-American culture.

Eileen P. Sullivan is lecturer in political science at Rutgers University. She is the daughter of Daniel J. Sullivan and Helena O’Shea O’Sullivan. Her recent book, The Shamrock and the Cross: Irish American Novelists Shape American Catholicism, was published by the University of Notre Dame Press. Her articles and book chapters have appeared in the American Journal of Irish Studies, the Journal of the History of Ideas, Political Theory, and Handbook of Public Policy Analysis.