Tim Pat Coogan’s “Wherever Green Is Worn”

ImageAfter completing Coogan’s ambitious book, the reader will have no doubt that if there were even one clover in the metaphorical haystack, the author would be able to find it, trace its history, and account for its significance.

Tim Pat Coogan’s account for the Irish diaspora is a sprawling work in many ways. At a daunting 746 pages, “Wherever Green Is Worn” is the sort of tome that should not be undertaken by the merely interested reader. One should possess both a sort of Irish obsession, and a certain familiarity with Irish history and politics in order to see it through to the end; otherwise, the numerous references to the economic system known as the “Celtic Tiger” or the frequent allusions to such Irish historical facets and names like the early IRA, Kitty O’Shea, etc. will instantaneously deter from further reading.

To ask simply how the Irish have made their global impact would be absurdly vague, yet this is precisely what Coogan chooses for his topic, traversing the globe from Africa to the Orient to the Caribbean in order to achieve his thesis.

What he finds is nothing short of striking: a substantiated and continually growing Irish missionary presence in Africa, an influence on the Japanese Navy and an IRA influence on the Yakuza gangsters, settlements in Australia that trace back to the continent’s aborigine days, in addition to the better-known Irish dynamics in their relations throughout Europe, particularly in France and Germany.

Despite the author’s obvious prejudice towards his native country, the case the he makes for the domination of the Irish people on world culture is convincing. Who could argue the prevalence of Irish culture in America when Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations draw a Mardi Gras equivalent? Who would dare say that the Irish didn’t possess the most forward-thinking literature of the 20th century when there are bestselling Japanese translations of “Finnegans Wake” and Bloomsday celebrations in Canada?

As fascinating as these subjects are, the book can be tedious when it examines Anglo-Irish or American-Irish relationships, treating the relations with admirable, albeit overly scintillating detail. The topic of Irish sport in London for example goes into much detail over the decline of hurling and camogie (women’s hurling) popularity because of the interest in rugby and football.

It would be a more entertaining dynamic had it not insisted on quoting budget numbers and anti-rugby player sentiments: “that ugly wanker isn’t worth £75,000 a year” (182). Doubtless these details will please some, but for the reader concerned with the heart of the matter they will come off as unnecessary.

Rendered with the writer’s wordy, ambling prose and aged sentiment, Coogan is likely to lose some of his younger readers along the way. To quote the writer on the youthful dancing known as ‘grinding’: “the basis [of ‘grinding’] would appear to consist of having the female partner stand in front of the male with her buttocks pressed firmly against his genitalia while bother dancers wave their hands in the air to the accompaniment of much pelvic undulation” (594).

But the extent to which Coogan has gone to trace not only a peoples’ culture but also peoples’ mentality is at all times impressive and noteworthy. Examining the Irish immigrant’s experience in Australia, he quotes Cross O’Brien to demonstrate how a “ ‘crippling colonial past’ ” and “’ the additional phenomenon of Irish phenomenon’ ” has created [a] sense in people…with being ‘perpetual’ immigrants” (459). In the following paragraph, Coogan surmises the problematic immigrant mentality in five bullet points: “Avoidance of overt conflict…Problems, for men in particular, with authority figures…Difficulties in acknowledging and expressing painful feelings…Difficulties with intimacy…Unresolved effects of separation.”

Who better to demonstrate the Irish chameleon quality than with the writer himself who acts as drinker, conversationalist, historian, entertainer, interviewer, and as this passage shows, therapist?

There are simply too many fascinating stories in this work to quote at length or even to mention and it is better left to the reader to decide for herself what she finds most engaging. For my part, the Irish influx into the Orient and Latin America (with the San Patricio Rebels of 1848—the topic chosen for the Chieftains’ 2010 album) were ranked most high.

“Wherever Green is Worn” is at a celebration of the Irish culture and people that doesn’t confine itself to only the good of the Irish influence or make excuses for some less-tan-illustrious historical moments with the figures of the IRA and former president Eamon de Valera. It is also a lament for still-existent anti-Irish prejudices notably found in Liverpool and elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

Coogan could very well have written a series about the Irish diaspora for all its influence but this hypothetical work would probably have secured only the most steadfast of readers. The text asserts that Ireland belongs to everyone and as such, a study of its culture and history should not be regarded by only the most serious of Hibernian scholars.

“This was something of a pioneering work,” (662) reflects the author in the Epilogue. The intent is to touch upon Irish influence; to settle the people of Erin in the annals of global significance, to “chart the contours of the Irish from their origins through fame, fortune and disaster as they rose to their present plateau of success.” One is left with little doubt that this work demonstrates such a success.

Coogan, Tim Pat, Wherever Green Is Worn, St. Martin’s Press & Palgrave, New York, 2000. 

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