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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: March 12, 2012 @ 9:01 am

    Irish-America: the last frontier for Irish multi-culturalism

    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. 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.

    • JOD says:

      Poor oul’ Chuck. His day will come too. Chuckie ar la.

    • Allan says:

      There are nearly 30 million Italian-Americans if you count the ones who are half Italian who usually always still refer themselves as Italian. And get with the times, that number of Mexican-Americans has almost doubled to what you mentioned. It’s no longer 2000 anymore so get your facts up-to-date. Poor journalism, very poor !!

    • Allan says:

      I’m Italian-American. I’m born in Brooklyn, New York, lived here my whole life, my grandparents are from Italy and I have Italian citizenship. I have both American & Italian citizenship so Im Italian-American. There’s a strong Italian culture in our household too so if you can’t handle Americans calling themselves Italian-American, Irish-American, African-American then don’t come into our country. Go back under your rock !!

    • J. B. Barrett says:

      A sense of humor is required when attempting to understand what being Irish American means to an Irish American. For many it is unabashed pride in accomplishment of their forebears who rose, generation by generation, from day laborers, to being a cop, to being a lawyer, to being a judge, a Congressman, a Senator, and finally a President, JFK. Alongside, those who entered the Church, though respected, never carried the same cachet. Most of the early arrivals lived in tenements or neighborhoods comprised mostly or solely of Irish. If they did not marry Irish, they married Italians or Polish and the kids were Irish. St Patrick’s Day is the biggest ethnic holiday in the US and source of great pride to all who consider themselves Irish, if only on that day.

      When I arrived in the US fifty years ago this month i was astounded at this tradition until I came to understand the emotional content and how it is revered in the same way people revere their long departed family members. It has a reverence about it for many that, while difficult to understand, is truly admirable. Only the Italians come close and they are much smaller in number; the Germans do not care, the Poles do, and we all celebrate St Patrick’s Day.

    • When I moved to Canada from New Jersey, I could really see the difference in the Irish identification of the people. No one calls themselves “Irish-Canadian” here in Toronto, and if you say you are “Irish,” you had better be ready to be laughed out of the pub unless you are a recent immigrant from Ireland itself. My own family was very quietly “Irish American,” (no green beer on our St. Patrick’s Day), and I must admit that I do understand how some of the American silliness can be irritating. But, please don’t begrudge me my love of Irish literature and music, my pride in my Irish ancestors, or even my leprachaun collection (I get them as gifts, and I love the givers!). As a family historian, I’ve done quite a bit of research myself into the question of why we Americans have such a strong need to identify with Ireland–with no clear answer. Perhaps it is something in the Irish DNA? Or our need to hang on to myths and ethnic history as we become less “Irish” through the generations? Our love of clubs and associations and parades? I do wish that the Irish themselves would take our love of all things Irish as a compliment, and excuse our exhuberance. Think of us as a pesky sibling whom you love in spite of the bother we can be!

    • Kate says:

      My grandparents all emigrated/immigrated from Ireland to the US years ago. When I was growing up, we might have fresh soda bread on St. Patrick’s Day but that was the extent of our celebration. Occasionally my parents would go to a dance at church.
      But, in their efforts to assimilate they did not identify too closely with being Irish, and in fact, my mother could not understand why I would even want to visit Ireland at all, when I did so during a summer break from college (university). Although my grandparents were native Irish Gaelic speakers, they did not pass it down.

      It’s especially difficult to have an Irish name here on St. Patrick’s Day. The bad jokes about “you must be Italian” and references to drinking too much are tiresome. At the same time, a little pride goes a long way. There are still many people who are extremely negative and biased in their views of the Irish and Americans of Irish descent. They believe seriously that anyone from an Irish background is a bit backward or a slave to the Catholic Church. I find it more true in the New York area than the Washington, DC region where I lived until my husband and I married.

      In any case, I think most people of Irish descent are proud; in my own family there are now lawyers, airline pilots, an admiral in the Navy (first generation American), and other accomplished people. The rest of us have pursued education and make a decent living, but are simply anonymous, regular people, which is all our grandparents wanted: a way to make a living and have a good life.

      When I visited Ireland years before the Celtic Tiger, I felt both at home and more American than before. There was something moving about being in a place where my family belonged, and seeing my grandmother’s little cottage and meeting cousins and getting a feel for the place.

    • Scarecrows Of The Stipe says:

      if you can’t handle Americans calling themselves Italian-American, Irish-American, African-American then don’t come into our country. Go back under your rock !!

      what are you on about ?

    • JOD says:

      Recall and I a young fella working in the US in the mid-eighties we used cash our cheques checks they’d call them when we got paid down the local VFW. It was a good place to have a few pints play a bit of pool talk and chat. There was one really oul lad there he was Irish originally came out in the twenties still actually believed if he went home that he’d be shot he was still on the run from the Civil War. No matter how much you’d tell him things had er moved on since then when he’d get a few beers in he’d start going on about it. Sixty years later and he’d never been back. And this was obviously in the pre-Web days when you still had to put money in the phone before you could make a call in a public place. That old man had had next to zero contact with Ireland since he left as a young man. It was sad really.
      And I recall one time meeting an American girl at the VFW or some other bar maybe Tierney’s in Montclair or the Allston Alehouse in Boston and when she heard my accent she went ‘OH MY GAHD YUR FRAM AI ER LAND” and then proceeded to tell me she was from Cork. Fine looking lassie though we got talking and I wound her up to the last recall her asking did we have electricity in Ireland these days and I replying something like ”Oho shurely be to God we got it in lasht year only the mammy does be afraid to leave the plugs out in case it runs all over the floor” oh there was shillelaghs and lepreeshans and glasses of Toolamoore Doo quaffed and we had a grand night so we did me and the cailin deas from Cork via 3 hundred years and a whole bunch of good dentistry. To be sure to be sure.

    • JOD says:

      Well hardly 3 hundred years the US isnot even that old perhaps 1 hundred heckuva lot better dentistry than my oul’ friend who hadn’t been home for 60 though and as I recall tonnight that old man was from Cork too West Cork like my own father’s family that was how we got friendly but isn’t it terrible I can’t for the life of me remember his name now 25 or 27 years later. And he was in his eighties or nineties then long dead now and all his story with him sadly. Fragile thing is memory.

    • Micheal says:


    • Scarecrows Of The Stipe says:

      @ 8 JOD

      and did she end up in yer leaba pray tell ?

    • JOD says:

      Tch. Is this the IT or the Sindo blogs then? How could you even think sucha thing Scarecrow? And me an innocent gosson fresh out of Ho’Lie Mother Ireland and me mammy’s warnings bout the big sinful world still ringin in my ears. Guards wouldn’t ask me that. And like I said a fragile thing is memory tch.

    • JOD says:

      Them ‘merican gals sure do love a rub of the green and isn’t there 41 million Irish Americans to prove it?

    • JOD says:

      (We’ll just leave it at 12 then John ahem)

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, ye Yanks, living in the shadow of the shamrock. Here’s a great post, apropos:

    • Scarecrows Of The Stipe says:

      @ 13

      I’m meeting Barry Egan & Gerard Kean later on for a mocha. I need to have SOME gossip for them sure :)

    • JOD says:

      Don’t know why you’d feel the need to trouble those two gents with such scurrilous tittle tattle about my flaming youth Scarecrow long since gave this kip a sort of Dail privilege in the interests of keeping things real so no question of writs and Mr Egan only writes about famous people. Whether they’re famous for anything or nothing.

    • brendan says:

      I’m Irish. Grew up in Ireland before emigrating to the US 20 years ago. I’ve lived here since and I thank this great country for providing me with the opportunities it has provided me with. I thank Ireland for the education and upbringing it provided me that set me up for success. All that is said so that its understood that I have no axe to grind in this either way.

      the point I’d make is that Irish people whether recent immigrants to the US or visitors or those that have never set foot in the country and who’s only experience of Irish Americans is meeting an American tourist in Ireland -p lighten up, lose the elitist attitude and don’t be so smugly anti- American. Most of the St. Patrick’s Day “Plastic Paddy celebrations are done in fun and meant well. Any of the negative stereotypes around alcohol are perpetuated in Ireland as much as they are here. America has been very good to Ireland and the Irish over the years. In recent years though the Irish have become just a little too condescending and elitist in return.