Wednesday, 7 March 2012

More Irish Than Ireland: The Curious Phenomenon of Irish-Americanism

In a flurry of flamboyant rhetoric and quixotic reflection, President Obama triumphantly proclaimed on March 1 that March 2012 was to be officially designated, ‘Irish-American Heritage Month.’ During his address the President described the Irish as, ‘sons and daughters of Erin’ and encouraged his fellow citizens, ‘to observe this month by celebrating the contributions of Irish Americans to our Nation.’

The move is not without merit. Out of a population of 313 million, a little over 36 million Americans claim Irish ancestry, with 22 of their Presidents, including Mr Obama, being descended from a son or daughter of Erin. Even our accent remains prominent in American intonation in some regions.

Concentration of Americans who claim Irish ancestry according to the 2000 Census

The two nations are old friends. Ireland’s relationship with North America goes as far back as the early colonial period of the seventeenth century, if not earlier when Irish monks claim to have landed on the east coast in the middle ages.

Immigrants arriving in the New World were presented with a beautiful, but potentially fatal invitation; to go forth, prosper and help to bring about a New World founded on Christian principles. The idea was stirring and the romance appealing, and aware that there was no way back, the settlers had no choice but to give life to the dream.

The colonies were divided up into various social groupings, and many Irish found themselves headed to the Appalachia where they helped to push the frontier forward and forge a unique identity in the eastern hinterlands. Irish settlers faced the same problems as their fellow migrants across the colonies; hard graft, uncertainty and bloody encounters with Indians. Perseverance was key, and bolstered by tens of thousands more of their kinsmen, the Irish moved forward with tenacity.

With them came their culture and ideas of society, and importantly their music. Irish music, fused with traditions and influences of other folk musicians, made a marked impact in the cultural evolution of early America, eventually evolving into bluegrass and country. If settlers could counterbalance the hardships of daily life with the rousing rhythms and melodies of a céilí¸ they could, in turn, use music as a psychological tool in conquering the interior. As late as the 1860s and 1870s, Lieutenant George Armstrong Custer used the Limerick air Garryowen on his campaigns against Plains Indians.    

While important, music alone is not enough to explain the insatiable American romance with Ireland and the celebration of all things Celtic thrust upon, and relished by, the descendants of the Irish in America. And this New World interpretation of Irish culture has teeth, with 150,000 people expected at the New York Saint Patrick’s Day parade, and a further 2 million lining the streets.

The Chicago River is dyed green each year for St. Patrick's Day

What made the stereotyped sociable, happy-go-lucky and dreamy-eyed Irishman into an American icon was twofold: the sheer numbers of Irish immigrants and the people they spawned. From the much-loved yarn-spinners of Ireland came such men as Andrew Jackson, John F. Kennedy and Billy the Kid. Two Presidents and an outlaw; men such as these allowed the Irish to claim a place in American culture that went beyond the fun-loving friend of all. What people such as Jackson, Kennedy and The Kid did was to put the Irish at the forefront of American legend.

Greatly helping things along was the almost continual immigration of the Irish to the New World. Upwards of 250,000 migrated to America during the colonial era alone. Two centuries later nothing had changed, with almost 2 million arriving between 1820 and 1860. The sheer numbers reflect the appalling conditions in Ireland, and most had left due to hardships such as persecution and famine.

But this did nothing to destroy Irish pride, and in the New World, many felt at liberty to display it more prominently than they had at home. The Irish clung together in the cities, forging strongholds such as Boston, New York and Chicago, where they settled in close proximity and were voted into government, their identity enhanced as a form of neo-tribal marker. For those who risked it and headed west, their ideas came with them, as did their involvement in frontier affairs.

This caricatured injection of ‘Ireland’ that the immigrant culture developed was well nurtured by the promise of America and flourished. When this is considered within the greater context of American historical identity, it is clear that the contribution of the Irish is as important as that of the Founding Fathers or the cowboys, some of whom were of Irish descent themselves.  

(with credit to Malachi Throne, Bertha Howell, George Grantham Bain, Anne S. Faulkner, Alice Boughton, and Maurice Carnes LaClaire, unaffiliated.)
But today there is a difference. The great waves of Irish migrants have petered away to droplets, and the increasing majority of Irish-Americans are many generations removed from their Irish-born forbearers. The curious thing is that these people, born and bred in the United States of America, reflect favourably on a country which is, for all intents and purposes, alien to them. Shamrock power is not to be taken lightly in America, with countless Irish-American societies keeping the notions of the Old World alive in a polished, New World fashion.

From this has developed a fondness close to obsession that serves to perpetuate the cartoon Irishman, the Plastic Paddy on the one hand, and to generalise Irish history with romantic notions of justice and poetry on the other. A joint portrayal of this all-Irish-American hero is perhaps most aptly demonstrated in the film Far and Away. And while Irish-American culture is certainly identifiable to a native of the island of Ireland, it is also very much removed from what we know to be Irish. Many traditional musicians for one find the music greatly differs, complaining bitterly about the jazzing up of sacred rhythms; and when have you ever met a fellow-Irishman who regards ‘corned beef and cabbage’ to be the staple fare on St Patrick’s Day?

The New World notion of Irish has become an identity tag of weight in America, and in doing so has allowed the actual native born Irish to flirt a little more outrageously with their stereotype. This writer for one readily admits to abusing the ‘Irish card’ on more than one occasion whilst in New York and having had it received well. The environment allows it, that subtle whiff of the colonial still lingers even today. Americans are certain of their position, but they also seek certain groundings and associations that go back to another place and time.

American tourism to Ireland is big business, and a dollar or six can be made from importing Irish jewellery and emerald paraphernalia. Money flies back and forth across the Atlantic, with Dublin receiving marked investment by big, prospering American businesses. But while the eager accommodation of the old ways is endearing, it must also be treated carefully. Irish culture is neither a stagnant entity nor an interactive museum piece, but an-ever evolving social concept. American eagerness can at times be forbearing, laying claim to another nation with a zoo-esque approach to interaction. Laced among this is the sometimes crude understanding of Irish politics that led to the infamous scandal of American organisations collecting money for the IRA. While this applies only to a small minority of Irish-Americans, it is not an affair to be taken lightly. Celebrating an ancestral culture is one thing, but actively and potentially destructively interfering in the current affairs of a foreign nation is another.

The big question to ask is why Irish-Americans label themselves thus, and not simply as unhyphenated Americans? The answer lies in the problem of romantic gloss. Ireland, while beautiful is a boggy country with lots of rocks and boulders. Its people, while good-natured and friendly, are concerned with the simple things in life and value the importance of being allowed to go about their business in a distinctly understated fashion. The decidedly populist notion of the fighting Irish rogue spinning tales in a misty nation of Blarney and bodhráns is an increasingly Stateside portrayal of the Irish. While historically homogeneous, the Irish and the Irish-American are two distinctly different cultures, and while some of those born on the island may happily don a leprechaun suit and drink whiskey till they sing to their shoes, this is only one of many sides to a native of the island of Ireland. 

Nor is it simply a case of throwing out the Brits and having a massive stout-infused piss up after the fact.

And it is due to these differences and occasional misconceptions that Irish-American Heritage Month finds its true importance as Irish people of all backgrounds can unite in an exercise of exchange and education. Ireland gave America unrestricted access to a romantic notion of Ireland, as well as some of the key building blocks to their nation. Chicago native Michael Flatley gave us Riverdance, Boston gave us the Dropkick Murphys, whose song ‘Shipping up to Boston’ is played during Irish Rugby matches, and politicians such as Bill Clinton gave us cross-Atlantic attention and support. Now it is time to redress the balance. Ireland can hope to learn what Irish-Americans actually think without getting caught up in the smokescreen of fluorescent shamrocks and invasive exuberance. By contrast, America should take time to drop preconceived notions of the fighting Irishman, and instead become better acquainted with what it actually means to be of this island through learning about its history and social expectations. This is not a month for bars, pubs and brawls at 4am on Broadway; this is a month to become properly reacquainted with old friends.

So Mr Obama, thank you for a very kind gesture as it is one that we are very much humbled by. And if we manage to beat England at the rugby on Saint Paddy’s Day, will be sure to attribute the win to you.

The White House Fountain dyed green for St Patrick's Day

© Full copyright remains with Of This Island ( All requests to use Of This Island material must be made in writing to
FOLLOW US ON TWITTER @Of_This_Island and via our blog

1 comment:

  1. "Irish culture is neither a stagnant entity nor an interactive museum piece, but an-ever evolving social concept."

    I love this line in this insightful post. I am Irish born, but my four children are American born. I left Ireland 23 years ago and sometimes I wonder if I miss an Ireland that no longer exists. I have become an American citizen and I know I must reinforce my children's American identity, not their Irishness.