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
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.
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
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
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
Saint Patrick’s Day parade, and a
further 2 million lining the streets. New York
|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
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
Greatly helping things along was the almost continual immigration of the Irish to the
New World. Upwards of 250,000 migrated to 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 America , and most had left due to hardships such as persecution and famine. Ireland
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
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. America
John F. Kennedy• Mother Jones• George M. Cohan
James J. Braddock• Michael J. McGivney• James M. Curley
Victor Herbert • Eugene O'Neill • Ed Sullivan
(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
, reflect favourably on a
country which is, for all intents and purposes, alien to them. Shamrock power
is not to be taken lightly in United
States of America 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
The New World notion of Irish has become an identity tag of weight in
, 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 America 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. New York
American tourism to
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 Ireland 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. Dublin
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.
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. 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.
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. Ireland
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|
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