Irish Eclectic

Irish-American Writers: One Not So Obvious at First Glance

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Irish EclecticOne truism of the virtual eradication of Ireland’s native tongue – a tragedy, given its beauty and eloquence – is that it gave the Irish another language to conquer.

Conquer English they did, whether in Ireland or in any land where fate compelled them to settle as they left their native land in the millions over the course of somewhat more than a century.

For many Americans, mention of the topic brings to mind some of the foremost Irish-American writers, such as playwright Eugene O’Neil or authors F. Scott Fitzgerald and Flannery O’Connor. 

But another writer can claim the same mantle, though most would scratch their heads at the thought of John Steinbeck as an Irish-American writer. California-born and raised, with a solidly German surname, few would think of Steinbeck in the same category. Yet to readers of his works, particularly “East of Eden,” the label is undeniable. 

A huge portion of ‘Eden’ acquaints us with unforgettable characters: Samuel Hamilton, Steinbeck’s Ireland-born grandfather; his wife Liza, the rock of the family; their American-born children, in particular their daughter Olive Hamilton, a teacher, who was Steinbeck’s mother.  Samuel, a Presbyterian farmer from Ballykelly, County Derry in the North of Ireland, left his hardscrabble homeland during the Great Famine of the 1840s for an equally hardscrabble existence in Monterey County, Calif. There he lived the life of a farmer, a blacksmith, a dreamer and an inventor whose genius at tinkering never translated into income.

Steinbeck himself was clear on the matter. As noted in a December 2018 Irish Times article, recounting his 1952 pilgrimage to his grandfather’s birthplace, Steinbeck was quoted: “I am half Irish, the rest of my blood being watered down with German and Massachusetts English. But Irish blood doesn’t water down very well; the strain must be very strong.” Few could disagree with that statement!

His mother’s Irish extraction attracted him much more than any of his other ethnic origins. From her roots, The Times noted, “came the stories, creativity and passion that inspired him to be a writer.”

And a prolific writer he was. Over his lifetime Steinbeck crafted 19 works of fiction, two plays and eight nonfiction works. While many say “East of Eden” is his masterpiece, his renown would stand equally strong based on such classics as “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Of Mice and Men” and “Tortilla Flat,” his first commercial success, published when he was 32. For “Grapes of Wrath,” he won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The movie, directed by John Ford, garnered several Academy Award nominations, including best actor for a young Henry Fonda.

Steinbeck was a champion of the downtrodden, the dispossessed, the down-on-their-luck masses. His characters are multifaceted, and reveal the eternal conflict men and women engage in between the forces of good and evil. 

For some of his more radical political views, he was often viewed as “left-leaning.” During much of his career he was targeted by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, surveillance he was well aware of and comically scoffed at. As a war correspondent in Europe during World War II, he actively participated in commando raids against Axis forces in Italy and once handled a Thompson submachine gun while capturing a number of German and Italian soldiers. He was wounded several times, and suffered what we call today post-traumatic stress disorder. Writing was his tonic.

In 1962, he received the Nobel Prize for literature, a bittersweet accomplishment given some of the resultant criticism of the choice, and Steinbeck’s own self-effacing view that there were any number of writers who merited the award more than he.

Married three times, and divorced twice, Steinbeck died in New York City on Dec. 20, 1968, at the age of 66. Many of his works remain staples of American public education, including “Of Mice and Men” and “The Grapes of Wrath.” He also, according to the American Library Association, is one of the 10 most frequently banned authors in the United States, a distinction he no doubt would relish today.

Pleasantville resident Brian McGowan was born and raised in the Bronx and is a second-, third- and fifth-generation Irish-American/Canadian, as his immigrant ancestors followed several paths to the New World. Reach him at or on Twitter (@Bmcgowan52M). He is the author of two books, “Thunder at Noon,” about the battle of Waterloo, and “Love, Son John,” about World War II. Both are available at

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