HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT: SCORSESE, THE DEPARTED AND THE ASSIMILATED IRISH-AMERICAN IDENTITY
The heterogeneous microclimate of Boston has allowed the ethnic identity of the Irish-American male to evolve at a rate distinctly separate from other forms of white American hegemony. The recent profusion of films using Boston as a setting may be as much a product of Massachusetts’ appealing tax credit scheme  as it is of the city’s attractive architecture and versatile landscape. Nevertheless, the growth of the sub-genre of gangster film set in Boston over the past two decades is noteworthy on a number of levels. Films such as The Boondock Saints (Duffy, 1999), Gone Baby Gone (Affleck, 2007), The Fighter (Russell, 2010), and The Town (Affleck, 2010) use the location as a type of semiotic short-hand for the representation of a particular brand of ethnic hyper-masculinity. Language, dialect, costume and lifestyle are all used as signifiers of the Bostonian’s essential Otherness. The Irish-American white male protagonist of the crime film is typically either a cop or a criminal. However, the psychologically complex twin protagonists of Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) in Martin Scorsese’s Boston crime drama, The Departed (2006),are both at once.
The Irish on screen have traditionally inhabited a moveable place in the hierarchy of whiteness. Richard Dyer explains the shifting ethnicity of Irish identity thus: “Some people are whiter than others… The Irish [are] sometimes… assimilated into the category of whiteness, and at others treated as a ‘buffer’” (19). Rather than repressing white privilege, fictional characters of Irish extraction are often used to represent a quality which Diane Negra describes as an “enriched whiteness” (The Irish in Us, 1). Characters such as Father Flanagan in Boys Town (Taurog, 1938), and Sean Thornton in The Quiet Man (Ford, 1952) have established this status as an easily identifiable, non-threatening form of assimilated ethnicity in our collective psyche. However, the conspicuous ethnicity of The Departed’s Irish-American characters is used to emphasise their Otherness within a white male hierarchy, rather than to reinforce an assimilated homogeneity. As Sally Robinson notes, “Invisibility is a necessary condition for the perpetuation of white male dominance, both in representation and in the realm of the social, [and] white male power has benefited enormously from keeping whiteness and masculinity in the dark” (1). These characters inhabit a minority position between white and non-white and such positioning serves specific ideological ends.
What is significant about the Boston crime drama’s distinctly gendered representation of Irish-American ethnicity is that the romantic connection with Ireland, usually apparent in other Irish-American diaspora narratives,  is conspicuous by its absence. In this version of post-nationalist assimilation, there is neither nostalgia for Irish traditions, nor a yearning for any return to the “homeland.” Although these films present the Irish-American male as an ethnically distinct minority, any form of romantic sentimentality for what Ireland represents is absent.Totemic symbols of Ireland, such as the shamrock or the leprechaun are conspicuous, but appear only in the assimilated context of basketball, American football and ice hockey team crests. These totems are worn in the tribal context of competitive sport, and are used solely to promote regressive gender norms. The shamrock of the Boston Celtics and Chicago Blackhawks, and the “fightin’ Irish,” leprechaun of Notre Dame, are worn with pride, but not in any meaningful form of solidarity with an Irish heritage. There is no desire to reconnect with the “auld sod” through the promotion of – or participation in – native Irish sports, such as hurling or Gaelic football. The Irish-American white male of the Boston crime drama gestures to an earlier phase of Irish-American history, rather than to Ireland itself.
Fig. 1 – The assimilated Irish-American’s drink of choice is Budweiser, not Guinness.
This appropriation of Irish symbolism is also evident in the abundance of hyper-masculine Celtic tattoos, and in the popularity of the bastardised hybridity of the Celtic punk musical sub-genre on the film’s soundtrack. No Boston crime drama would be complete without the presence of a boisterous anthem to working class pride and binge drinking, performed by Flogging Molly or Dropkick Murphys. These drinking anthems reinforce the cliché of the Irish capacity for a prodigious consumption of alcohol, and Sullivan certainly adheres to this stereotype (Fig. 1). However, his drink of choice is Budweiser (the bastion of American branding) rather than Guinness (the alcoholic beverage traditionally associated with Ireland). These diverse ethnic identifiers indicate a cherry-picking attitude to tradition and ethnicity. The white, male protagonists of The Departed represent an Irish-American ethnicity with a lower case “I” and a capital “A.”
Hamilton Carroll argues that Million Dollar Baby (Eastwood, 2004), “produces a relationship between Irishness, a positive form of white minority identity, and white trash, a negative form” (131). In Eastwood’s film, Irishness recuperates both whiteness and masculinity “by transforming white patriarchy into a form of benign Irish paternalism” (132). Conversely, The Departed uses the negative association between Irishness and “white trash” in its unresolved struggle with patriarchal ratification. The negative stereotype “of poor whites as… sexually promiscuous, violent, alcoholic, lazy, and stupid” (Wray and Newitz, 2) is personified by the character of Sean (Kevin Corrigan), Costigan’s slow-witted, criminally-minded cousin. Costume is used as an external manifestation of ethnic difference. Sean’s choice of cheap leisurewear worn under an outer layer of leather exemplifies the wardrobe of the fictional Bostonian wiseguy. His wardrobe emphasises his working class roots while also suggesting a negative “white trash” undertone.
The Bostonian’s distinctive non-rhotic speech pattern, extensive use of the broad A, and regionally specific slang are aural signifiers of an ethnicity as recognisable as Creole or Cajun. Where the Irish brogue is often associated with verbal fluency, the Boston accent is commonly used as a cinematic sign of a playfully aggressive personality type. Vocal sparring (often sexual) is accompanied by a dormant hostility that threatens to awaken at any given moment. Scenes such as Costigan’s brutal bar beating, or Mr. French’s (Ray Winstone) impersonal dispatch of rival mobsters, are described by Carlo Rotella as “like a shot of a yak herder or a snake charmer in a movie set in Mongolia or India: a moment that’s there for the pleasure of tasting an exotic locality that moviegoers can be counted on to recognize” (“Hollywood on the Charles”).
As I have argued, The Departed’s Boston setting is as significant to the representation of Irish-American ethnic identity as any other element of the narrative. Sullivan and Costigan both represent subtle variations in the singularly gendered Bostonian Irish-American identity. They begin on an equal footing, as cadets in the Massachusetts State Police. Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), the Irish mob kingpin, has assumed the role of surrogate father to Sullivan since he was a child. Upon graduation from the academy, Sullivan quickly rises through the ranks of power, largely as a result of Costello’s patronage. He secures a high-ranking position in Boston’s Organized Crime Investigations Unit, a position he uses to act as a mole for Costello. Conversely, Costigan’s professional path is impeded by his family’s connection to organized crime. Costigan has worked hard to suppress his ethnicity, and affects a regionally neutral cadence in comparison to Sullivan’s broad Bostonian brogue. He is offered the opportunity to break this impasse by going undercover and infiltrating Costello’s gang. The understanding that Sullivan and Costigan represent two facets of one whole is reinforced by their romantic involvement with the same woman. Madolyn Sullivan (Vera Farmiga) is a psychiatrist working with the Police Department, and a sole instance of an exceptional female character in a narrative which otherwise remains heavily focussed on homosocial relations.
Fig. 2 – Mr. French (Ray Winstone) and Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Irish-American with a lower case “I” and a capital “A.”
Scorsese’s film opens with documentary footage of race riots during the 1974 Boston busing crisis, and establishes an early agenda of racial Otherness. Over these images of racial conflict, the voiceover of Irish-American mobster, Frank Costello (Fig. 2) sets forth his individualistic doctrine, “I don’t want to be a product of my environment; I want my environment to be a product of me.” Costello castigates the attitude of entitlement of other ethnic groups who suppose privilege as their birthright. In contrast, he has taken privilege for himself via a self-centred, egoistic interpretation of Manifest Destiny frontier-building. Costello equates Irish identity with self-serving achievement and greed, adopting John F. Kennedy’s presidency as evidence of his own achievements. “20 years after an Irishman couldn’t get a… job, we had the presidency.” As recently as 1876, African and Irish-Americans were “both considered in the US context as members of what might be called today the political underclass” (Dyer, 52-3). Yet there is no sense of empathy between Costello and the persecution suffered by other ethnic minority groups. As an immediate descendent of the Irish-American generation directly affected by “no Irish need apply” bigotry, one would imagine that a degree of solidarity would be evident. However, when he speaks of minority groups, he does so in the language of hate. Italian-Americans are “guineas,” African-Americans are “niggers,” and he refers to a group of Asians as “Bruce Lee and the Karate Kid.” As Sinead Moynihan observes; “Racial sympathy can frequently translate into appropriation, political paralysis, or antipathy” (107). His years at the top of the white racial spectrum have left Costello bigoted and numb to the suffering of others.
Fig. 3 – Sullivan appropriates his masculine authority at the expense of Boston’s Fire Department.
The classic occupations of the Irish-American diaspora are the cop, the fire fighter, and the priest. The Departed systematically attacks this holy trinity of tradition. The adult Sullivan is introduced playing a highly competitive and violent game of football between his police cadets and those of the Boston fire department (Fig. 3). Following the match, Sullivan directs homophobic slurs at his opponents, and diminishes their status to the level of rescuing a “kitten from a tree.” This pointed scene introduces a strong demarcation between Sullivan’s occupation and the masculine legitimacy of the fire fighter. Wider perception of the blue collar emergency services had altered drastically in the aftermath of 9/11. “After 9/11, Irishness became associated with white, male, working-class heroism, a means of laying claim to a white identity that was also ‘innocent’” (Moynihan, 151). The fire fighter had become a symbol of heroism and patriotic spirit, and the high percentage of Irish-Americans in the service became widely apparent during the constant human interest news reports in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. It is common practice to use “Irishness as an ethnic code for reinstating social values perceived to be lost in millennial American culture” (The Irish in Us, 4). Sullivan’s belittlement of a heroic profession is an attempt to situate the Police above the Fire Department in the hierarchy of masculinity, and effectively foregrounds his individualistic separation from these codes.
Throughout the twentieth century, the Catholic Church was considered to be the arbiter of morality and virtue in Ireland, and its strong influence on Irish emigrants cannot be overstated. However, ceaseless revelations of sexual abuse, corruption, and misuse of power from within its ranks have come to irreparably destroy its integrity. The Departed undermines the notion that the Catholic Church retains any centrality to the Irish-American diaspora. While dining at a local café, Costello recognises two Catholic priests from his diocese. He admonishes the elder priest for sexually violating children of the neighbourhood, a crime that Costello has already warned the priest against. As the younger priest attempts to defend this affront to the Church’s authority, Costello cuts him down by revealing that he also has knowledge of an illicit affair between the younger priest and a nun. He finishes by reminding the two clergymen that “in this arch-diocese God don’t run the bingo.” Costello and dirty money govern this patriarchal society, not the Church. During a later scene rich in religious imagery, Costello is shown trailing behind a parade of children dressed as angels, led by a nun. He is bringing up the rear with his arm draped around his lover, over which non-diegetic dialogue from the final scene of John Ford’s 1935 IRA drama, The Informer, is heard. We hear Victor McLaglan’s Gypo Nolan begging God’s forgiveness for his crimes, but in contrast, we see Costello’s serene demeanour, smiling and completely at peace with his corruption.
Apart from Costello’s mob, Ireland’s other link to the world of organized crime is represented by an IRA member seen drinking in Costello’s pub. In contrast to the classic portrayal of the IRA terrorist as “a pathological, savage and yet also largely sexless version of Irish masculinity” or a loner “whose values and loyalties are tribal rather than civic” (Rains, 173-4), The Departed’s representation of the IRA terrorist is passive and epicene. It is immediately apparent from his deportment that the IRA member is intimidated by Costello, and the scene plays out as homage to the classic Western standoff. The tension is obvious in the nervous silence of the bar’s other patrons, but is broken when Costello laughs and enquires after the Mother of the IRA man. By linking the supposed terrorist to his mother, Costello emasculates his gender, destroys his credibility, and removes any possible threat posed by the IRA. The scene enforces Costello’s agency and complete hold on power and intimidation, while debunking the possibility that his Irish heritage has resulted in any political ideology beyond pure greed.
The Departed’s primary representation of Irish-American female identity is in the form of the psychiatrist, Madolyn Sullivan. She is the closest the film comes to showcasing an exceptional female character. Madolyn begins as Sullivan’s lover and becomes pregnant with his child. Eventually, she becomes romantically involved with Costigan also, and in the aftermath of Quinlan’s death is the sole person that he trusts with the evidence that can clear his name. These conditions situate her in a dual role of lover and mother, and her profession allows the viewer a unique insight into the psyche of both protagonists. During the initial stages of their relationship, Sullivan charms her by drawing attention to his heritage’s putative resistance to her profession. He describes the Irish as “one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever.” This apocryphal tenet (often attributed to Freud) is used in jest, but the import is that generations of emotional repression have left the collective Irish psyche immune to the process of psychoanalysis. Repression is the one trait of Irish identity that is shared by both protagonists. Sullivan begins their relationship by telling Madolyn that there are aspects of his job that he cannot discuss. On the surface, the secrecy associated with his professional position is used to explain his clandestine dealings with Costello, but is also an excuse of avoiding any emotional exposure. Sullivan is prone to bouts of impotence, the reasons for which he refuses to discuss. When Madolyn attempts to display some childhood photos, Sullivan refuses to have them in his home, explaining, “you don’t see any pictures of where I came from. I respect who you are, just not in the living room.” Marriage is equated with safe heterosexuality and masculine virility. When Madolyn proudly shows him an ultrasound photo of their unborn child, the penis is the first thing he comments on.During an argument, Sullivan tells Madolyn that if the relationship must end, then it is she who must end it. He is incapable of achieving closure because “I’m… Irish. I’ll deal with something being wrong for the rest of my life.”
Sullivan’s attitude to gender roles and masculine ideals is the result of filling the absence left by a father figure with Costello’s alpha male. It is Costello who has symbolised the aspirational ideal of masculine identity in a patriarchal society, and he is largely responsible for Sullivan’s egoist ideology and damaged moral compass. However, the orphaned Costigan is a tabula rasa. The absence of family has made him an ideal candidate for the dangerous undercover mission, but has also allowed him to develop his identity without regressing to the learned behaviour evident in Sullivan. He is not governed by the assumed gender norms of Boston society. His Otherness is foregrounded when he orders a cranberry juice in the overtly masculine surroundings of a working class Irish bar. As abstinence is seen as a cardinal sin in this hard-drinking patriarchy, a fellow patron ridicules Costigan’s choice of non-alcoholic beverage as evidence of his questionable sexuality. This slight on his masculinity is resolved by violently breaking a glass over the head of his accuser. He is overly combative during his first meeting with Madolyn and distrusting of the therapeutic process. He equates “opening up” with weakness and immaturity, and aggressively asks of her other clients; “Do they all come in here and cry?” Nevertheless, Costigan’s emotional vulnerability does eventually become apparent, and is used as a counterpoint to Sullivan’s reductive masculine stereotype. Costigan tellingly shows a genuine interest in the childhood photo of Madolyn that Sullivan refused to display.
The difference between the ideologies of Costigan and Sullivan lies in their choice of patriarchal model. The fatherly figure of Captain Quinlan (Martin Sheen), the department head who assigned Costigan to undercover duty, is a sole beacon of benevolence in a brutal and corrupt system. His compassion is emphasised by pairing him with the aggressive Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg). It is important to note the pointed casting of Martin Sheen in the role of Quinlan. Sheen’s association with the benevolent Irish-American, developed through roles such as the prodigal Charlie in Da (Clarke, 1988), and the idealistic President Bartlet in The West Wing(Sorkin, 1999), would have positively influenced audience reception of the part. Quinlan is caring, warm-hearted, and exhibits all the traditional characteristics of the Irish-American cop. When Costigan is at his lowest ebb, Quinlan takes him into his home. He feeds and comforts Costigan, both spiritually and figuratively. In contrast to the cold, sterile space of Costello’s apartment, Quinlan’s home is a warm and welcoming environment. While Sullivan insists on a home environment devoid of personal accoutrements, Quinlan proudly displays family photographs alongside a picture of the Sacred Heart. He is a paragon of virtue, and the polar opposite of Costello in every respect.
The importance of tradition and lineage is referenced constantly in The Departed, but not in the conventional notion of Irish identity. Costigan is repeatedly reminded of his heritage by both Quinlan and Costello. Unlike his uncle, Costigan’s father was uncorrupted by any connection with the Irish mob. Analogous with the role filled by Sheen in Wall Street (Stone, 1987), Costigan’s father was a hardworking, ethical, blue collar baggage handler. Any reference to Costigan’s father by Costello’s crew is invariably followed with the postscript, “I liked your uncle better.” Costigan’s uncle could be bought, a quality that Costello understands and respects, but his father’s principled morality made him invulnerable to corruption, and “you can’t do anything with a guy like that.” Furthermore, his father’s superiority is accepted by Costello, who confesses, “If your father were alive and saw you here, sitting with me… he’d kill seven guys just to cut my throat – and he could do it. Which is maybe something you don’t know about William Costigan Sr.” This exchange emphasises that Costello’s respect is earned through the capacity for extreme violence, rather than the instinct to protect family values.
Although both Sullivan and Costigan choose father figures with a diametrically opposed set of values, their inability to resolve a struggle with patriarchal ratification is ultimately the result of a flawed sense of ethnic identity. When Sullivan is finally exposed as Costello’s mole, he covers his tracks by deleting Costigan’s service history, an act which essentially wipes out his identity. This is a loss felt more profoundly by Costigan than the death of Quinlan, his father figure, and the struggle to recover this flawed identity proves fatal. Following his death, Costigan is vilified by the department and Sullivan is commended and promoted. However, his triumph is brief, as his personal sphere is destroyed once his duplicity is discovered by Madolyn. Sullivan’s futile attempt to achieve resolution through the oedipal act of killing Costello has merely postponed his inevitable downfall.
The Boston crime drama utilises Irishness as a morally corrupt representation of white ethnicity. The Departed employs the ethnic Otherness of the Irish-American “as a kind of light camouflage [to] manifest an anger that would be less sanctioned if directly articulated as an expression of straightforward Americanness” (Irishness, Anger and Masculinity, 294). This anger is the symptom of an unsustainable emotional repression promoted by Irish-American gender norms, and The Departed’s narrative device of truth concealment is a reflection of the crisis of masculinity produced by these tainted, unattainable ideals.
Carroll, Hamilton. Affirmative Reaction : New Formations of White Masculinity. Duke University Press Books, 2011.
Dyer, Richard. White. London: Routledge, 1997. Print
Moynihan, Sinead. Other People’s Diasporas: Negotiating Race in Contemporary Irish and Irish-American Culture. New York: Syracuse University Press, 2013. Print.
Negra, Diane. “Irishness, Anger and Masculinity in Recent Film and Television.” Screening Irish-America: Representing Irish-America in Film and Television. Ed. Barton, Ruth. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2009. 279-96. Print.
– “The Irish in Us: Irishness, Performativity, and Popular Culture.” The Irish in Us: Irishness, Performativity, and Popular Culture. Ed. Negra, Diane. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. 1-19. Print.
– ”Romance and/as Tourism: Heritage Whiteness and the (Inter)national Imaginary in the New Woman’s Film” Keyframes: Popular Cinema and Cultural Studies. Ed. Tinkcom, Matthew and Villarejo, Amy. London: Routledge 2001, 82-97. Print.
Rains, Stephanie. The Irish-American in Popular Culture 1945 – 2000. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2007. Print.
Robinson, Sally. Marked Men: White Masculinity in Crisis. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. Print.
Rotella, Carlo. “Hollywood on the Charles.” Boston Magazine. January (2012). <http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2012/01/hollywood-on-the-charles-movie-industry-crazy-for-boston/>
Wray, Matt & Newitz, Annalee, ed. White Trash: Race and Class in America. New York: Routledge, 1997. Print.
The Departed. Dir. Scorsese, Martin. Warner Brothers, 2006. Film.
 “Movies and TV productions shot in Massachusetts receive tax credits equal to 25 cents of every dollar of new spending they bring to the state” (Rotella, “Hollywood on the Charles”).
 In contrast with The Departed’s male-centric narrative, which fetishizes location, Diane Negra has argued that female-centred diaspora narratives such as The Matchmaker (1997), P.S. I Love You (2007)and Leap Year (2010)instead promote the value of mobility (“Romance and/as Tourism”).