Books

The Tribe by Caitriona Perry: Absorbing interviews offer a forensic, rounded, and authoritative discussion about Irish-Americans in US

There’s a reason why American politics is referred to as though it were a top-rated TV drama. ‘The current season of America’, as it’s often known on Twitter, is as enthralling, compelling and unpredictable as it gets.

Every day is a cliffhanger; every week a twist in the plot. As RTÉ’s Washington correspondent, Caitríona Perry saw the antics unfold at close range; at one awkward point she even inadvertently became the story when she wandered into Donald Trump’s eyeline. Perry was canny enough to write about her experiences, as well as the people who elected Trump to office, in 2017’s In America: Tales From Trump Country. It was an absorbing read, and given its subject matter, how could it not?

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Much like its predecessor, The Tribe: The Inside Story of Irish Power and Influence in US Politics, sees Perry offer vivid dispatches from former strongholds of Irish-American politics: Queens in New York, Marshfield Hills in Massachusetts, and so on. Perry sets the scene, offering the reader a strong sense of place as she makes her way through some of the US’s biggest Irish-American communities. Blessedly, she makes a distinction between what it means to be Irish and what it means to be Irish-American, even if many others can barely tell the difference.

The book opens with Joe Crowley, a Democratic senator of 20 years’ standing, ruminating in a local Queens diner as he ponders the loss of his seat, and his defeat by rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

It’s a neat jumping-off point for the book’s central thesis: where Irish immigrants spawned some of American’s foremost political dynasties, like the Daleys in Chicago and the Kennedys in Massachusetts, the might of the Irish immigrants as a voting entity has faded down the years. Neighbourhoods that were once Irish immigrant ‘ghettos’ are now either gentrified, or home to an array of different ethnic groups. The Irish no longer vote as the immigrants they once were, for their own interests and issues; after successful assimilation, they are part of the ‘general voter’ population.

Read more: ‘I wrote the book while heavily pregnant… I would not recommend that’ – Caitriona Perry

And yet the anachronistic idea that the Irish are a powerful political voting bloc still exists. This is an idea, touched on in Perry’s debut, that she gets to fully flesh out here.

There is a long-standing belief that Irish-Americans tend to vote Democrat, yet Perry’s extensive research reveals that many of them are now more conservative than we might think.

The conceit of the Irish as a powerful political entity still holds firm, no doubt aided by a number of Irish names in the upper echelons of US politics: Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, former press secretary Sean Spicer, as well as Obama’s former speech writer, Cody Keenan; 22 of the 45 former presidents, Perry observes, have claimed Irish heritage.

In one of a dozen journalistic coups, and an arguable high point of the book, Perry interviews former president Bill Clinton about his ancestry (in the interview, he refers to a glass bottle of soil and dirt from an old farmhouse in Fermanagh, where his ancestors hailed from). Here, he talks about his part in the Good Friday Agreement – something he deems a career highpoint – as well as the role of Irish America in his own presidential elections.

Clinton is just one of several absorbing interviews: governor Martin O’Malley, Congressman Brendan Boyle, Joe Kennedy III and the aforementioned Mulvaney, Spicer and Keenan make up some of the interview subjects. Under Perry’s guidance, their inputs amount to a forensic, rounded and authoritative discussion about the Irish, and the Irish-Americans, in the US.

One thing is abundantly clear from the outset: Perry lives, breathes, eats and drinks American politics. The woman knows her stuff. Her enthusiasm and knowledge on the subject are writ on every page. She writes with authority, not to mention empathy. She gives voice to her subjects adding polemic or editorialising. She delivers a rounded discussion, and a clear-eyed and far-ranging investigation.

Read more: ‘On television you need a thick skin because you’re exposed’ – RTÉ’s Caitríona Perry talks returning to the newsroom

And yet. Perry is so fine and professional a reporter that the book occasionally suffers from the polished sheen of reportage. Though she is able to set the stage well for her encounters with the Irish-American glitterati, there is little room here for Perry’s own analysis. Many of these names may mean little to the average non-fiction reader in Ireland, and some chapters, for that reason, are likely to drag.

Perry’s commitment to journalistic rigour means that some passages of prose feel flat and drained of atmosphere.

Yet in the main, this is a mere quibble. There’s eating, drinking and chewing in what Perry serves up.

Perry is edging her way towards a more assured and conversational writing style.

In the near future, it’s very likely that a Caitríona Perry book will bring with it a sense of occasion: something that seizes, starts and blows open political discussions.

The Tribe may seem, on the surface, like the sort of book that will only tickle political nerds, but there’s certainly much more to it than just that.

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