One Fourth of July, early in the twentieth century, young John Ford and his father stood in the main street of Portland, Maine, to watch the parade. The name in those days was not Ford but Feeney. “When the flag passes,” the father said, “take off your cap.” But the boy was not wearing one. “Then cross yourself, damn it!”
Like many of John Ford’s stories, this one may even be true. True or false, it tells us that John Feeney, an emigrant from Galway’s poverty-racked coast, held patriotic sentiments toward his new nation, and identified it, perhaps by a momentary slip, with his religion, which of course was Catholic. Some of his neighbors may have taken note of the slip. An intense dislike of the Irish, bred out of fear and detestation, was strong in New England and especially so in Maine. The fear was nourished by their violent and drunken ways and the detestation by their childish devotion to rosary beads, outlandish miracles, ritual, and superstition. Even their virtues—loyalty, courtesy, brute courage, a love of tradition and song—were those common among subordinate races. Dan Ford, the director’s grandson, sums up the consequence with but slight exaggeration:
The Yankees had their Protestant church, with its steeple pointing straight up to heaven; the Irish had their saloon, with its swinging doors leading straight down to hell. The Yankees lived in the east end and ran the lumber industry, the shipping, and the counting houses, while the Irish huddled together in slums near the docks. There was little contact between the two cultures.
There was some, though. John Ford emerged from the public high school in 1914 with the football nickname of Bull Feeney, and may have briefly attended the state university. He claimed that he left the campus when a Yankee student shouted “Shanty!” at him, but students rarely shout at people named “Bull.” He nurtured, though, a lifetime edge against Yankees and their strait-laced Puritan culture, as Eugene O’Neill did, and for similar reasons. He himself was to embody every single one of their anti-Irish stereotypes, as he well knew.
Joseph McBride, whose superb biography is rightly called Searching for John Ford, has visited the time-battered cabin which John Feeney left in 1872, less than two decades after the great famine which swept his section of coast, near Spiddal. Himself of Irish descent, McBride knew as if by instinct to begin in the local pub, An Crúiscín Lán, “a smoky, stiflingly hot place by the sea,” where assorted Feeneys and Currans guided him to the broken walls and hardened clay of what had once been the sort of dwelling that could be built in a day with the help of neighbors. Like the timber cabins which western pioneers threw together. It may well be the Irishness which McBride shares with Ford that gives his account a warmth and an understanding which are at once severe, witty, and admiring.
But there is more to …