Mount Alvernia High School, Newton, Massachusetts

Colm  Toibin

Stefana  Carter 
Italian and Irish Immigration in Brooklyn

Colm Toibin's Characters' Journey Towards Self-Discovery

Searching for an independent identity requires time, determination, and courage. Colm Tóibín, an award-winning Irish author, depicts characters traveling through uncharted territory, both physically and emotionally, to establish new independent identities. Ironically, their feelings of disconnect and isolation that emerge along the journey which would seem to be a hindrance, serve as epiphanies that ultimately contribute to their triumph. In his novel, Brooklyn, Tóibín describes one such journey taken by his character, Eilis Lacy. Lacy immigrates to Brooklyn from her small town in Ireland, and finds love with an Italian-American man and his boisterous Italian family, who become her surrogate family. Later in the novel, when she hears news of her sister’s death and returns to Ireland for the funeral, Lacy realizes she now feels disconnected from the place she once called home. Initially, Lacy is a sheltered and timid girl, but by leaving Ireland, she is forced to become an independent young woman. Like Toibin’s other protagonists, Lacy discovers who she truly is by leaving behind the familiar, conquering her feelings of isolation, and embracing her independence.

Forging one’s independent identity ensures one’s survival in foreign environments. Twentieth-century Italian and Irish immigrants in Brooklyn assembled their new identities as Americans, while keeping the traditions and spirit of their home country alive. The first generation of Italian and Irish immigrants established ethnic communities which provided a sense of security and familiarity. In these homogeneous ethnic communities the immigrants followed the traditions of their homelands. By mid-century, Italian and Irish immigrants to Brooklyn had forged a new identity, ultimately influenced by the social activities, and new multi-ethnic communities, and inspired by the American Dream. Italian and Irish immigrants’ social activities both directly and indirectly contributed to the Americanization of the immigrants. Coney Island and shared religious festivals lifted the immigrants from the confines of their ethnic neighborhoods, facilitating the assimilation of American culture with Italian and Irish cultures. Italian and Irish immigrants worked hard in Brooklyn in order to prosper and reach their American Dreams to provide opportunities for future generations, who would also establish their own independent identities.

Major Works Consulted:

Kasson. F. John. Amusing the Million; Coney Island at the Turn of the Century. New York: Hill Wang, 1978.
Manbeck, B. John, ed. The Neighborhoods of Brooklyn. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998.
Tóibín, Colm. Brooklyn. New York: Scribner, 2009.
--- The Master. New York: Scribner, 2004.

Major Works Consulted:

Photo Credit: Tóibín, Colm. Brooklyn. New York: Scribner, 2009.