Irish vs. Irish American in The Commitments

Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments gave us an opportunity to explore and compare the different ways that Irish Americans and Irish gesture towards the black experience. As Prof. Kinyon mentioned in class, Joey could be taken to be an Irish American. After all, he has supposedly spent a good amount of time touring in America with different legendary soul singers. And, once one crosses the Atlantic, they are never the same again. 

While Joey’s gestures and connection seem to be the strongest at first, the initial illusion eventually fades and the audience realizes that his comparisons fall short in often very problematic ways. When he makes gestures toward the black experience and soul music, he is more concerned with giving himself power than making genuine connections and trying to establish a link between his Irish American identity and the black American identity. We are not sure whether Joey even put much time into trying to understand the music and black culture before he started playing soul music. He wants to be an authority and be in charge of the group and claiming to be the authority on the black experience allows him to do that.  His own privileged background is far from the suffering of African Americans, yet he still romanticizes the idea of being black. Joey hijacks black culture and tries to assimilate into the black identity, even stating that he wishes he was born black. In trying to make the line between Irish American and African American indistinguishable, Joey misunderstands the black experience. These inappropriate statements and connections between the two experiences lead to his inability to tap into the connection that the other band members have. 

The others in the band can be taken to represent the Irish. Unlike Joey, the band members seem to be gesturing to African Americans for a sense of camaraderie and solidarity. They hope to bring soul to Ireland and all work very hard and dedicate a lot of time and effort to trying to learn this type of music before they even start to play together. They immerse themselves in the culture of the music so that they can learn its intricacies and be better suited to play it. As a result, these members are able to make a connection with the music and the African American experience. They also do not merely collapse the African American and Irish experience. They seem to take soul music and also bring something uniquely Irish to it. This can perhaps be seen in the “Night Train” song, when they add Irish cities to the list of the American cities. They do not remove the cities, as they are not trying to erase or claim that their cities are the same as the others. Rather, they extend the city list and add theirs in an attempt to form a bond with the people across the Atlantic. While they seem to be able to access a deeper and more appropriate connection than Joey, their attempts still fall short in some places. As we mentioned, social class does not equal race and that is something that even Doyle failed to realize. No gesture by the Irish to the black experience is ever going to be completely perfect. They all will have their faults and fail in some way—and perhaps that is part of the reason why the band was destined to break apart. Nevertheless, the Irish gestures seem to be a closer and more respectful fit than those made by Irish Americans, such as Joey.

4/22 Discussion Questions

Concerning the differences between the movie and the story, is Joey really more credible in the movie? Or is he just discredited in different ways?

Why did the movie choose to show more of the aspects of Ireland and make less gestures towards African Americans? How would it have been different if the film was more like the book? If the book was more like the film? Would it change the audience’s reception of either?

Are gestures from the Irish destined to fall short or suffer some kind of problematic disconnect? In connecting themselves to the black experience, are they really trying to reject colonialism and failing to mimic the colonizers (Onkey 4)?