Stephanie Merritt, The Guardian: Home thoughts from Detroit

Review of: Booking Passage: We Irish and Americans

In 1890, after the famine, Thomas Lynch’s great-grandfather left the family smallholding in Moveen, Co Clare, in the west of Ireland, for a better life in America. In 1970, Lynch, then 21 years old, returned there to visit his last remaining relatives, from whom he inherited the cottage. Over the past 30 years his life has been divided between the suburb of Detroit, where he runs the family undertaking business, and this corner of rural Ireland, where the Lynch cottage has become a gathering place for poets and writers.

Lynch is the author of three volumes of poetry and two of essays, in which he used his practical experience of mortality and mourning to reflect on the human condition, our rituals, rubrics and relationship with death. This volume was intended to be something lighter, an idiosyncratic account of 30 years’ travelling between Michigan and Clare, peppered with personal anecdotes and broader meditations on the Irish character and the way it has translated over the years to those who call themselves Irish-American. ‘I wanted something chatty and jaunty, like a good night’s talk,’ he writes, ‘something that would offset the losses on poetry.’

But then 11 September happened, and the subsequent wars and defensive affirmation of ethnic and tribal identity, and the book he had planned no longer seemed possible. ‘Just as our sense of safety here was forever shaken, so too was the sense that ethnicity is always and only quaint and benign.’

Instead, this is a curious and engaging series of pieces which retain a personal and historical flavour but look outwards, using the Irish experience of colonisation and oppression in the south and conflict in the north as paradigms for the present pains of other countries.

Lynch’s intentions are unimpeachable in this regard, but while he is excellent on Irish history and the immigrant experience, this desire to extrapolate to the world’s problems does give him a tendency to slip into sentimentality and end up sounding like the Irishman at the bar who won’t leave at closing time.

Summarising a litany of inter-racial and colonial conflicts over the centuries, he concludes: ‘When we cut each other, each of us bleeds. The truth of my humanity is that I am none other than my species mates around the globe. We hunger, thirst, sleep and long for peace.’ Ah, is that so, now? In fact, the most personal pieces, about the long and well-documented history of the Lynch family in Moveen, are the most fascinating.

‘Inheritance – A Correspondence With Sile de Valera’ is a series of letters between the author and the Irish politician, in which he attempts to right a 30-year-old wrong involving the appropriation of his cousin Nora’s land.

‘Death Comes For the Young Curate – A Pilgrim’s Story’ is a beautifully meandering account of the death of his great-uncle, Father Thomas Lynch, who died at 31 serving in his first parish in New Mexico, and how the impact of that death rippled out directly to affect the generations that followed, including the course of the author’s own life.

Along the way, he takes in the recent history of the Catholic church in Ireland and America and its history of abuses, from the Magdalene Laundries to the slew of child-molestation cases of the past few years, and uses these instances of pain inflicted to meditate on the gulf between private faith and dogmatic religious systems.

Perhaps the most intriguing of all the pieces, and the most personal, is ‘On Some Verses by Irish and Other Poets’, a history of his poetic awakening and how poetry (through Yeats and Heaney) both led him back to Ireland and has always shaped his view of the country of his fathers.

This last section unites the ideas expressed with great humour and compassion throughout the book: a fierce love of language, of humanity and its flaws, its great capacity for kindness and loyalty as well as division and, above all, a passion for the memories and the country that formed him.