An Irish American

Yes – I am one of those Americans who loves to talk about his Irish ancestry. Yes – if you are Irish I understand how annoying that can be. This is not going to be a perfect piece, but I do want to talk about that sense of identity today from both the good and the bad.

Now, I cannot speak for every American who has (or claims) Irish ancestry. The truth is that more often than not the “Irish American” also annoys me, for reasons that we will discuss here. I also know that there’s the brand of hyphenation that can annoy people all over the world. Irish people tend to be Irish. Japanese people are Japanese. Americans usually present with some sort of hyphenated qualification on being American. Irish American. African American.

The first part of this phenomenon is: America does not have a culture. I do not mean that in a snobbish “culturally bankrupt” sort of way. That’s a separate contention that I think one can definitely raise, but we have deep culture all over the United States. The problem is that exactly none of it is American. We imported the culture along with the people because this is ultimately a colonial nation of immigrants. We pushed out the indigenous peoples with native cultures and made way for imported cultures. So, even when I identify something as “significantly cultural,” it’s not American. It’s French. It’s Greek. It’s Chinese. It’s Nigerian. It’s always from somewhere else.

I don’t know what it means to be culturally American. Politically it’s easy – I was born here. End of story. Culturally, I see nothing that makes me American. The cultural values I share are shared only with a subset of Americans usually along some other cultural line.

Enter Ireland and the conflict.

Something I have impressed upon Irish friends is a degree of patience with their Americans cousins (we barely deserve the patience – what I am about to describe is an explanation, not an excuse). US schools teach zero Irish history or culture. It doesn’t happen. American history education, until one ventures into Advanced Placement courses in high school or beyond (which are optional) focuses on how history impacts the United States. When American students learn about Ireland, we learn within the context of, “Something happened in Ireland, a lot of Irish people came to the United States, and this is how they were treated.” That’s it.

This is also the source of the American refrain that Irish Americans were slaves. The extent of the education is that the Irish arrived in the United States and then got treated like shit alongside the Chinese immigrants and actual slaves, which seems to have created a weird equivocation where modern Irish Americans embrace a “we were in it together” attitude. It’s just bad education paired with zero curiosity.

Quick aside – I often think of Blazing Saddles during these discussions online. There’s a scene where Sheriff Bart and his friends offer to help the citizens of Rock Ridge with the coming fight, but only if the citizens allow them to homestead freely in return. One of the leading citizens replies, “All right. We’ll give some land to the [pejorative for Black people] and the [pejorative for the Chinese], but we don’t want the Irish.”

My personal heritage is split between the Irish and the Italians. I explored both and found wildly differing results. The philosopher in me did enjoy examining more recent Italian history because they have a strong parallel with the United States and France in terms of democracy (though I think it’s fair to say they fumbled it after that). One sees the influence of Jefferson, Locke, and Voltaire in 1861 Italy, and that fascinated me. End of story though.

Where I did find myself drawn was my study into the history of Ireland. I began with my very American education and, as just described, had a philosophical interest in governance and how we organize society. A feature of that study is always the Roman Empire, in which the Celts feature as background characters. By studying my Irish history, I got a better perspective on that Celtic experience and it re-contextualized my full understanding of Western history with respect to colonialism and imperialism.

What does that mean exactly?

When you are an American student, the education is all about how courageous, entrepreneurial spirits ventured out into the world, discovered new lands on the other side of the Atlantic, tried to befriend the indigenous populations and then had to defend against their aggression, then stood up the English crown when it impeded our self-determining sense of identity. More to the point, the Roman Empire was an accomplishment. The British Empire was an accomplishment until the American colonies had to stand up to the them. Then Manifest Destiny and the success of US growth into the 20th century. My American education largely celebrated the colonialist side of the story.

Studying Irish history recast that light. I understood better the cost of colonial expansion on indigenous populations, especially as it related to my sense of governance and social organization. Imagine if a foreign power showed up today, even with all the trappings of benevolence, and said they would determine policy moving forward. We would reject it outright – who are they to determine policy for us? That’s so anti-democracy it feels unfathomable.

Whereas the Irish American sense of Ireland so often seems to be, “My ancestors came here to escape problems in Ireland, and found themselves as the most persecuted type of white people but overcame that,” paired with Darby O’Gill accents and a love of alcohol, what I learned of my Irish heritage was a painful history married with a strong sense of community and pride.

One of the telling points is watching Irish Americans “discover” titanic events in Irish history like The Troubles. A recent conversation appeared on Twitter among Irish Americans revealing The Troubles to one another and discussing how horrible it must have been. It’s staggering to see people who claim to have a such a strong sense of Irish culture only just discover something that massive. It also reared it’s head after the death of Queen Elizabeth II when so many Irish Americans seemed confused by the Irish response to the event. Americans had no particular animosity towards Elizabeth, and it struck some as odd that Ireland would still feel strongly about it. It was also clear in American discussions about Brexit where people failed to grasp the implications of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the southern 26 counties (side note: my Irish family is originally from Co. Fermanagh).

What fascinates me that an Irish American would not identify more quickly with their Irish ancestry by even a simple reading. How can events like the Irish response to the death of Queen Elizabeth II or Brexit surprise an American? Our entire nation is founded on a rejection of British colonialism. Hamilton, the award-winning musical, plays up the animosity felt by Americans towards George III to comedic effect. American colonists experienced a fraction of the oppression for a portion of the time.

I also find it spreads into other areas of my life. Yes, Irish immigrants did experience poor conditions upon arriving in the United States, but that is not where I find empathy with other populations. The history of colonialism in Ireland itself is where I’ve found my sense of social justice, and that includes criticizing American imperialism. I also think the word “history” can obfuscate here. While it does refer to the completed periods of human events, history also includes events unfolding today. The influence of colonialism on Ireland persists and the Irish continue to live that reality.

My sense of heritage is less one of “my family was once in Ireland and now they are not” and a more deliberate sense of what the Irish diaspora is and why, and that those conditions persist. When examining the Irish sense of culture and community, it becomes easier to examine the diaspora and find a sense of connection to Ireland today. A real Ireland – not pots of gold and green faerie mounds, but a modern nation of people with a distinct culture trying to live.

The other area that strikes me is an inability of more Irish Americans to extend the awareness to other areas. I saw a recent piece by an American rabbi criticizing Jewish leaders for failing to confront the crisis of democracy in Israel sooner. It’s long been a monolithic thought fixture in the United States to support Israel without further context or nuance. What I observed the actual Irish catch onto much faster was that crisis of democracy that resulted in colonialist oppression of Palestinians. It’s not a condemnation of Israel, the Israeli people, or Judaism, but a critique of a crisis of democracy resulting in colonialist oppression. It’s that sense of community and cultural pride, of wanting room to exist in peace. The Irish saw their experience mirrored in the eyes of Palestinians and spoke. Personally, I think being an Irish American means feeling the same – not seeing a trend and acting in response, but in the genuine sense of how colonialism is adversely impacting people because it’s such a fixture in the experience (again, not in the 1400s or even 1960s – today).

Irish is a massive part of the identify for Americans who take the time to learn the history and to understand truly what about the Irish culture brought about their lives today. It’s not being Irish for the sake of knowing someone who knew someone who once lived in Cork. It’s about being part of that community until some point in history made an ancestor part of the diaspora and that story continuing elsewhere.

It’s fine for an American to embrace and identify with their Irish heritage. I understand that. There’s no American heritage to embrace really, apart from the melting pot of other heritages that formed it – so why not embrace the parts that speak to your personal identity? But embrace the actual history and culture, not just some caricature of it. It requires a granular examination of everything, even the words you choose because part of the centuries of colonialism included attempts to erase the language.

I’m not perfect. I continue to learn about my Irish history and culture because I consider an important part of my identity. While I may certainly be wrong, I think that’s the point – the growth. One does not get to claim membership based on some distant blood connection with no understanding or appreciation of the actual culture.

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