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Irish-American Novelist Alice McDermott

On St. Patrick ’s Day, remembering and living with beloved Irish-American writer Alice McDermott.

Novelist and National Book Award-winning Alice McDermott. (Jamie Schoenberger / Epic Photography)

Novelist and National Book Award-winning Alice McDermott. (Jamie Schoenberger / Epic Photography)

In a nation of immigrants, Irish-Americans have a storied history – sometimes beautiful, sometimes not.  Fleeing famine, scrambling ashore.  Finding their way, like Chinese and Koreans, Poles and Portugese, Haitians and Italians and everybody else – but with bagpipes and Irish history.  Irish-American novelist Alice McDermott tells that story with exquisite nuance.  She is with us on this St. Patricks Day, when the culture continues to find its way.  To parade and not.  To agree and not, on gay rights and more.  This hour On Point:  the great Alice McDermott, on the path of Irish America.

– Tom Ashbrook


Alice McDermott, novelist, professor of humanities at Johns Hopkins University and author of “Someone,” “Charming Billy,” “A Bigamist’s Daughter,” “That Night,” “At Weddings and Wakes,” “Child of My Heart,” and “After This.”

Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst.

From Tom’s Reading List

Baltimore Magazine: Class Act – “What’s less known about McDermott is that she’s forged a stellar reputation as an educator. She has, since 1996, taught in the Writing Seminars at The Johns Hopkins University, where she conducts graduate and undergraduate fiction workshops. ‘It’s energizing,’ she says. ‘I enjoy looking at that first draft and thinking, ‘What have we got here? What’s on the page that we can make use of?’ I occasionally feel like I’m more invested in the stories than they are, but it’s always fun because they’re so talented.’”

New York Times: Survivor Among a Lifetime of Ghosts — “Ms. McDermott brings supreme ease and economy to summoning young Marie’s memories in detail (why did those shirts seem to suffer?) and staying within specific time periods in Marie’s life. It is only later that the book will revisit that soda bread and link it to a sense of loss. ”

USA Today: Alice McDermott, Donna Tartt among Critics Awards finalists — “Thirty finalists in six categories are honored, including several USA TODAY-reviewed books, including ‘Someone’ by Alice McDermott. The National Book Critics Circle Awards, founded in 1974 at the Algonquin Hotel and considered among the most prestigious in American letters, are the sole prizes bestowed by a jury of working critics and book-review editors. “

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  • kdcompost

    Most of the news seems to be less important and a distraction from the following:
    - – - – - -
    What’s wrong with this picture?

    What if the state of Florida had experienced unrest. And what if this had led to a replacement of the governor with a businessman who favored affiliation with Cuba, Russia and China. And what if the unelected replacement governor declared southern Florida independent and unfriendly to the United States, even calling out the Florida National Guard. Wouldn’t the US put troops on the Florida border and possibly in northern Florida? And wouldn’t it seem irrational for Russia and China to criticize the US for this military move? And wouldn’t it be provoking World War III for Russia and China to threaten to send troops into southern Florida?

    And what if Puerto Rico held a referendum vote to make it clear that they wanted to remain with the US, and not be pulled into the changes in Florida. Wouldn’t it be wrong for China and Russia and their allies to impose sanctions on the US? And wouldn’t it be criminal for Russia and China to threaten a military response?

    This is roughly the wrongheaded and illogical situation in Ukraine. And Western governments, including the US, are rushing forward with this dangerous approach. Meantime the Western media, including a lot of public radio, are buying into the propaganda of these foolish global moves.

    Consider the consequences. The US thinks it is so wealthy and powerful that nothing serious can come of this. But actually it’s the most indebted nation in the world. If the US imposes sanctions on Russia, it’s possible that Russia, and even China, could sell off their holdings of American bonds. This would cause an economic panic that could bankrupt the United States almost overnight – and it would cause economic chaos for the whole world.

    The illogical and dangerous rhetoric and actions by the US needs to stop now, before serious permanent damage is done.

  • georgepotts

    I bet that there are Russians flocking from Russia to the Crimea to forcible take land from Ukrainian nationals.

    • Jay

      Crimea has historically been part of Russia, Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to the Ukraine in 1954. You really should do your research before you make such ignorant and uninformed statements.

      • TalkTalkTalkType

        “Historically?” It depends how far back in history you want to go. Crimea was annexed by Russia under Catherine the Great in 1783. It had been nominally independent, but for centuries had been part of the Ottoman Empire. The Tatars, who have a deep, ancestral claim to Crimea, do not want to be part of Russia, Soviet- or Putin-style.

    • John Shannon

      Did you know this was a topic about Irish Americans etc.? Why do you post about Crimea on this topic?

  • rich4321

    Isn’t everyone Irish on St. Pat’s day?

    • Dee Dee B

      Isn’t everyone Black on Black History month?

  • TVPC58

    Speaking of Irish stereotyping, North Carolina law enforcement has a program, only for today, St. Patrick’s Day, to target drunk drivers. I don’t know if they see the irony of this. Next question is will St. Patty’s Day be declared a public health hazard?!

  • Mandala8

    I would suggest that drinking is not consoling – it’s numbing, suppressing of those authentic, yet uncomfortable feelings. True authenticity would be finding ways to be present with those emotions – experience them fully – so they can move through vs getting stuffed – i.e. held in the body creating havoc, exacerbating drinking.

  • GarretWoodward

    Growing up in a proud Irish family, in a vastly Irish community in Upstate New York, my love for the culture and people of Ireland reaches deep into my soul. In 2005, I spent a semester in Ireland, where I lived with a handful of other students in an old hunting lodge. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. The first weekend I was there, in the unparalleled beauty, I was at Inch Beach on the Dingle Peninsula in the Ring of Kerry, Ireland. We pulled up to the beach, where I immediately stripped down and jumped into the ocean. It was a euphoric experience. Can’t believe it has been almost nine years since I was there. Miss it dearly, and all of the incredible folks I crossed paths with while wandering the country.

    A sidenote: my full name is Garret Kavanagh Woodward, where I’m named after the first ancestor of mine to come over to the United States from Ireland (via Canada). His name was Garret Kavanagh, and I wear that name proudly. His wife was Kathleen Muldowney, which is my sister’s name.

  • TVPC58

    Thanks for having Ms. McDermott on the show today. I believe that one of most influential aspects of the Irish is their (our) use of language, particularly satire, to explain human nature.

  • rich4321

    Listening to some of the callers, I also have a funny story to tell. I am the first generation Chinese American moved to Boston 30 some years ago. Somehow I am always drawn to Irish culture-music and literature. I am probably the only Chinese guy in Boston who can speak fluent Gaelic, my Irish friends and the people I meet from Ireland are always shocked because most of them cannot speak Gaelic.
    When I went to meet my Irish girlfriend’s mom in Dublin, here is a Chinese guy speakIng Gaelic. Her mom was completely surprised and laughed to her stomach!! Haha :)

  • Perry

    Having moved to the Boston area ~20 years ago, I soon became familiar with the term FBI being used by the Boston area Irish-Americans. “FBI” stands for “Foreign Born Irish” (Irish born in Ireland) and the feeling by these Irish-Americans that they were somehow “more Irish” than those who had actually been born in Ireland. Has anyone seen this in New York or Philly or anywhere else in the US?

    • rich4321

      Haha, that’s funny! :)

  • OHreader

    I am enjoying the conversation with Alice McDermott today. A note on the Boston Irish community in which I was raised: I don’t know what happened to us. We forgot our heritage – our poetic use of language in storytelling and song. Education and literature were absent in our lives. It was alcoholism and DUIs that defined us and at younger and younger ages. And it wasn’t a stigma. Reporting to AAA classes and not taking them seriously was a proud rite of passage in my community. We do not know Alice McDermott, James Joyce, The Commitments, Frank McCourt, et al.

  • agreaney

    I listened to this while driving home from the airport here in Boston last night. As a native-born Irish expat and author living in the U.S., I would agree with many of the broad-brush statements that attempt to define Irish America — in so far that any national subgroup can be neatly defined. Of course, for every generalization, there is a corresponding set of exceptions. I would disagree, however, with the statement that Irish Americans place a high value on authenticity and, by extension, are quick to scorn contrivance or pretension. I’ve gone to my share of black-tie Irish American events, about which there is or was little that could be called authentic. Also, as another listener commented here, there is a well-researched and recurring reluctance among Irish-American (and Irish) families to actually speak about or address the big, inter-generational issues. This is inauthentic. It’s the lie of omission, and often, I feel that the backslapping Irish “humor” is a cover up, a diversionary tactic for same.

  • Dee Dee B

    In light of the aggregious historial RACISM and Gay shaming displayed by south bostons Irish, this ” feel good pro- irish ” segment was offensive ..

  • Dee Dee B

    really? you actually posted that racist offensive garbage? You personify the most egregious trait among the irish:. that they are hateful racists . FYI when they Irish arrived here thrown out of their own country as thugs and criminals.. they were called n-word by the brits.. irish need not apply- no irish allowed etc.. then when freed blacks arrived from the south .. the irish turned on them savagely murdering them killing innocent black children in an orphanage..to the present day in south boston ..
    the irish have the stigma of being the most hypocrite racist of all whites because they sit up in church patting themselves on the back how ” god fearing they are” then crawl on their barstool hurling the n-word around..

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