It’s high time for a new and boldly authentic Irish-American voice in literature, and that voice belongs to Eamon Loingsigh (whose last name is pronounced “Lynch”).
Thanks to the maverick visionaries at Three Rooms Press, who since 1993 have defined themselves as “a fierce New York-based independent publisher inspired by Dada, Punk, and passion”-- this remarkable debut novel has seen the light of day.
The Irish. It’s their ethnic turf we’re on in this evocative historical novel. We’re steeped here in the rough, grim, dirty, dangerous, and always tense realm of what was once called “Irishtown.” The docks of Brooklyn figure heavily here, as do the streets—yes, the mean streets—of New York in the era of the First World War.
However, unlike the bulk of historical fiction that oftentimes makes exclusive use of an omniscient narrator with an all-encompassing point of view, Eamon Loingsigh has done something startling here. He has begun his novel in the first-person singular, and thus we’re engaged right away by a tone, a perspective, a mood, and a personal voice as compelling as that of Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises or Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye.
Here is Loingsigh’s crucial opening paragraph, in which his command of the material is on full display:“Down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass there once roamed a gang I fell in with. A long time ago it was, when I was young and running. It’s all I had, this life. Just as yours is yours. Don’t let yourself think mine is anything different, anything better. I won’t have it that way. It was just a life, and there you have it. But like so many born on the isle of Ireland, I am to die far from home. Though such a grief has since let me alone, as bitterness only cuts into the bone, I am at ease with it in my age. But to go ‘way with all these memories, well, I rush them out for you to breathe them in.”
And that intoxicating overture then concludes with this: “So here I am to send a story you true and fair. About blood. And honor. About the code of men, and about empathy too.”
It is through the voice of narrator William “Liam” Garrity that much of the tale is told, but various shifts to omniscient narrative are achieved. It’s a larger-than-life story that evokes the universal mythological cycle that was patented as “The Hero’s Adventure” by scholar Joseph Campbell.
The trans-Atlantic crossing of “Liam” Garrity (who hails from County Clare in Ireland) is meticulously recalled. And his endless trials, conflicts, confrontations and transgressions on American soil serve as the bulwark of the story.
To survive, as was the case with untold thousands of destitute Irish immigrants, it is imperative for “Liam” Garrity to join a gang. And thus ensues his mythic series of tests, his crossing of thresholds, his accommodating of violence and treachery, and most of all the sheer exuberance that defined the coming-of-age crucible for many young men (and women) in those anything-but-sentimental yesterdays.
Woven into the fabric of the main story (set in the 1914-1918 epoch) are flashbacks, allusions, references and asides that hark back to the debacle of the Great Famine in the 1800s. That was a historic calamity for the Irish that has yet to be understood as the genocide that it was, what with Great Britain’s governmental policies doing much to advance and, indeed, to worsen the evolution of the Famine, or, The Great Hunger (as the Irish sometimes define it).
But in Light of the Diddicoy, the pulse of the story remains always that of first-person narrator “Liam” Garrity, and while the flashbacks to earlier issues in Irish history are compelling, they never cause Loingsigh to digress too heavily.
Quite the other way, in fact. In this first volume of what promises to be a trilogy, it becomes clear that “Liam” Garrity is carrying the history of his people with him into the bars and alleys, the streets and the waterfront docks of Brooklyn, at the precise moment when America was emerging as a pivotal power upon the world’s stage.
Most compelling of all is that Eamon Loingsigh has made tremendous use of his gifted ear for dialect. The colloquial daily speech of that era’s “great unwashed” (with wildfire locutions, fractured grammar, animated slang, and pungent profanity), wafts up off his pages with zeal.
This novel’s evocation of the immigrant experience is akin to the textured, deeply researched, richly imagined re-creation of Italian-American immigrant life found in Mario Puzo’s The Fortunate Pilgrim.
Light of the Diddicoy is an important contribution to the realm of Irish-Americana.
(M. J. Moore is completing a biography of author Mario Puzo.)