Irish Roots


March 12th 2012

- now also available as an Irish Times blog.

John Grenham

Irish-America is the softest of soft targets, especially at this time of the year. Dress up a straw man in a green waistcoat and red beard, stick a dudeen in his mouth and a pair of buckled brogues on his feet, and let the jeering begin. Irish-America can, of course, be its own worst enemy. I still sometimes wake in a cold sweat at the memory of the Mother Mackree Irish Strudel House in Milwaukee. But a few simple considerations should give the choir of begrudgers pause.

First, in America "Irish" partakes of none of the European enmeshing of race with nation with state that has sparked a thousand wars. Instead, it is just one of the range of available add-on ethnicities:.the word simply means something different in North America. So a transatlantic "false friend" is the reason for the intense discomfort most Irish (nationality) people feel when Chuck Kowalski corners them in a bar in Peoria to tell them he's Irish (add-on) too.

But "Irish" still remains the most peculiar and intense of American ethnicities. In the 2000 US census there were 43 million German-Americans, making them the largest ethnic group. But the population of Germany is 82 million; there are 15 million Italian-Americans, and 61 million Italians; 12 million Mexican-Americans, 114 million Mexicans. Contrast that with Ireland: 41 million Irish-Americans, but only 6 million Irish. That disproportion is extraordinary and it can be frightening for some Irish (nationality). Hence the Leprechaun-bashing.

One of the best things to come out of the Troubles was a realization that "Irish" had to be stretched, first to include the British-Irish of Northern Ireland, then to cover both the diaspora and the "New Irish": Turlough and Wojciech and Donald. St. Patrick's Day reminds us there is still some stretching left to do. Add Chuck.


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