Tom Curtin’s Land of the Free: an Irish Odyssey in America tells the tale of Irish college students’ pilgrimage to New York City in the Summer of ’69. They are seemingly uninterested in the American milestone moments occurring around them as they are on a mission to create their own personal milestones. For better or worse, that’s exactly what they do.
As the back-cover copy states “It’s 1969, the last summer of love.” At least it is in America. In Galway, Ireland, the times definitely were not a-changing in terms of sexual freedom. After hearing about the escapades of their American peers, university students Gallagher, O’Reilly, and the story’s central character, Moloney, decide they need to go experience the free love for themselves. Visas in hand, they travel to New York City for the summer to live the American dream of true freedom from the religious and parental confines that they have been sheltered in their entire lives.
The boys disembark the plane into a world that seems to be teeming with jobs for everyone and free-loving women. These developments suit their purpose to have as much sex as possible before they go back to the land of holding hands and second-base maybe good night make-out sessions. From Moloney’s American cousin to the waitress at their corner bar, the lads have little trouble sowing their oats once they get the hang of how things are in America. While off to a bumpy start, words of wisdom on the art of seduction are found within the pages of Playboy by the resident romance columnist called “The Advisor”. O’Reilly, the pre-med student, sharpens his scientific chops by methodically researching and practicing the tips given by “The Advisor” and helps his mates do the same. The bra removal workshop and the “doorbell” were some of my favorite parts of the book.
It’s not all fun and games, however, as they also see the downside of such free-loving. They start to realize that maybe having this kind of devil-may-care attitude about sex isn’t really who they are. Gallagher, the ex-seminarian, seems to embrace his voyeuristic inner urges the most enthusiastically of the bunch, while O’Reilly has a “type” and usually sticks to it. Moloney, the instigator and cheerleader for all things debauchery, seems to lose his rosy outlook the soonest and deepest of his friends. He has his share of flings and no-strings encounters but they don’t leave him as fulfilled as he thought they would. One semi-serious relationship ends due to a coke-fueled night resulting in a ménage à trois and another enconter finds him in the apartment of a junky prostitute whose young children are in the other room. Needless to say, these are not the aspects of free love he ever envisioned. He often goes back to thinking of his university girlfriend who is having her own summer of love a few miles away but refuses to see or talk to him due to his vanishing act as soon as they hit American soil. The ups and downs of their relationship provide a different perspective on how, especially back then, double standards in women’s and men’s sexual politics were played out.
Unlike his fellow travelers, the purpose of Moloney’s American odyssey is two-fold. The first and foremost is for him to have lots of sex. But his secondary mission is to find his long-lost aunt who left Ireland for New York City decades prior and hadn’t been heard from for nearly 40 years. His journey from her old apartment to searching the library census records lead him to an incident in her past that is the root of why his aunt never wrote home again. In the age of Google and social media, it is hard to remember how easy it was for people to disappear if they wanted to and how hard it was to track them down. His search also reminds readers that following your instincts when it comes to love spans the generations.
I enjoyed the look into the past on what it was like for young adults during a time when all you needed was the pill and you were considered good to go for any and all sexual exploits. Seeing how strange and intriguing the American culture was back then through the eyes of young Irish immigrants was one I had never seen before. While I was thrown that the characters seemed completely uninterested in the moon landing and there was no mention of Woodstock in a book that takes place in 1969, I see the author’s reasoning for leaving them out of the narrative. It wasn’t about the country’s landmark moments. The book is about their own landmark moments and how they deal with the fallout from them. These milestones should not be overshadowed by a narrative construct that seems to overtake stories that occur during this time period.
This was a pleasant read. I wasn’t moved to tears or thrown into uncontrolled fits of laughter by the story. Nothing really pulled at my heartstrings or caused me to ponder the plights or adventures they had. I enjoyed what I was reading when I was reading it, but I can’t say that it was a page-turner that kept me up at night reading. If you are interested in a nice look back on how some horny lads from Ireland fared in New York City during the summer of ‘69, then you won’t be disappointed.
Land of the Free: an Irish Odyssey in America is available on Amazon Kindle.