Akron Irish: Serendipities
By Lisa O’Rourke
“Shallow men believe in luck or in circumstance. Strong men believe in cause and effect.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Do you think the universe fights for souls to be together?
Some things are too strange and strong to be coincidences.”
― Emery Allen
Above are the two most popular quotes that I found on serendipity. The first quote, Emerson’s, was a full third more popular than the second one. Of course, who is going to go up against Emerson, especially if you are found the loser of that argument and the consequence is that you are judged a simpleton?
That quote is also chock full of Anglo-Saxon logical pragmatism that is the pinnacle of reasonable thought in the US. The second quote is more poetic and embraces chance. I love Emerson, despite the fact that he is clearly not Irish and neither is his quote. The second quote resonates much more with an Irish soul.
Serendipity gave me a nod a few weeks ago. Instead of rapidly deleting Kent State’s monthly email request for donations, I opened it instead. I was shocked to see the obituary of a person who I had met by the same happenstance that made me open that email, Dr. Claire Culloten.
It was the mid 90s and I used to read The Irish Times online edition frequently, before the paywalls became the norm for online reading. A headline caught my eye one day.
It was about James Joyce and the discovery of FBI files on him. Hmm. This discovery was made by a literature professor in the US, who taught at Kent State! I couldn’t resist sending her an email of congratulations, which turned into an afternoon of laughs, coffee and some real surprises.
For some reason, the literature professor, Claire Culloten, wanted to meet and have a chat. I was delighted. At our meeting, I remember seeing one of her FBI sheets on James Joyce. She showed it to me in disbelief of how many names were still blacked out on the file.
She couldn’t figure it out considering the time frame for the activities was so long ago, the late teens and early twenties of the last century. She had requested the files on a whim.
Culloten was an Irish literature scholar and true Joycean. She had seen a colleague request files under the Freedom of Information act on another author and thought it would be interesting to see if there were any files available on Joyce. She was shocked when several months later, a thick packet of papers arrived in a Manila envelope. She was even more surprised by the number of remaining redactions contained in those documents.
Joyce was suspicious in the mind of the FBI bosses, because he was considered an intellectual and a communist. The inferences that Claire made from her study of the documents was that the FBI considered intellectuals dangerous. They were tied to labor movements and were therefore, communists. They sought to undermine them at the time to undermine any attempts to strengthen organized labor.
Joyce came to the attention of the FBI because he associated with people like the poet Ezra Pound, also believed to be a communist. This work was carried out in part by an aspiring young agent named J. Edgar Hoover, who always mistrusted artists and intellectuals.
Joyce raised suspicions further by associating with the Irish labor leader, Jim Larkin. Larkin was exiled from Ireland at the time, around 1920.
Big Jim Larkin seemed to frighten the powers that be everywhere that he went. He was a tireless advocate for worker’s rights. Claire became really intrigued when she saw the amount of black tape in the section where he and Joyce connected. She had to see the whole file.
It took her four years to get the almost 500-hundred-page file on Jim. It detailed a crazy plot idea, which Irish leaders were part of, to assassinate Larkin and send a look alike back to Ireland to live a much different life in his place.
From this research, Claire wrote, Joyce and the G-Men: J. Edgar Hoover and the Manipulation of Modernism. The book is available on Amazon.
Claire was funny and charming. During our conversation, I tried very hard to recruit her for the Irish language class. I firmly believe that you can’t really understand how the Irish use words and syntax without a working knowledge of the native tongue. Claire was immune to my evangelizing.
She quipped that she heard the first seven years of learning were the worst and she just didn’t have the time. We exchanged a few more emails and moved on, but I did not forget meeting her or her incredible story.
I really wanted to write something that had a more Christmas theme, but once I had seen the obituary, I had to write about Claire. Every contact that I had with her involved a strong element of chance, including my seeing that she was no longer amongst us.
One of the last things that she did was to petition the Irish government to save the house in Dublin that was featured in the Joyce story The Dead. As president of the Joyce society, she took her place amongst authors like Colm Toibin and Sally Rooney to save the house at 15 Usher Island from being turned into a hostel. The address is the one where the Christmas feast takes place and was also used in the film version of the story. Their effort failed but Claire made the Irish papers again.
While not maybe a Christmas classic, The Dead takes place at a Christmas feast, where a man realizes, through the chance choice of a song, that he does not really know his wife or maybe anyone at all. Maybe habit passes for real intimacy. Snow covers it all.
Maybe both of those initial quotes have an element of truth. Maybe the cause gets lost in the narrative of our lives and looks like chance when effect meets its conclusion. Maybe it is a romantic urge to believe in chance or fate or something bigger operating in our lives. But Christmas is the time of year to feel that way. This is a wonderful time of year to embrace chance meetings and give yourself the present of presence.
*Lisa O’Rourke is an educator from Akron. She has a BA in English and a Master’s in Reading/Elementary Education. Lisa is a student of everything Irish, primarily Gaeilge. She runs a Gaeilge study group at the AOH/Mark Heffernan Division. She is married to Dónal and has two sons, Danny and Liam. Lisa enjoys art, reading, music, and travel. She likes spending time with her dog, cats and fish. Lisa can be contacted at ol*****@ic****.com.
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