Americans, if you want the full Irish, take it
THERE’S A little corner of the internet where the air is permanently soft and lilting melodies underscore every homesick pang. I just adore Irish Central. Founded by Niall O’Dowd, the genial chief druid of Irish America, the site provides endless succour to rubicund men in green blazers throughout the United States.
As we approach the vile orgy of vomiting and chilblained majorettes that is St Patrick’s Day, the site is offering stories about The Quiet Man, recipes for corned beef and cabbage, and information about some midwestern “football” team that calls itself the “Fighting Irish”. Read it in South Side, Chicago, and you will surely feel yourself being transported home to, well, South Side, Chicago.
To be fair to this odd entity, the editors did recently commission a story that undercut many of its readers’ cherished beliefs. Written by one James Farrell, the piece was entitled “Top 10 reasons why some Irish Americans have no real clue about Ireland”.
You could, from a few thousand miles away (to be sure, to be sure), hear bottles of Tullamore Dew being flung angrily at blameless photographs of Milo O’Shea.
“We don’t really like Danny Boy and all the sentimental songs,” Farrell wrote.
True enough. Let us not forget that a barrister from north Somerset wrote the lyrics to that lachrymose atrocity.
“We don’t drink all day and fight all night,” he continued.
Quite right. I’ll kick the living crap out of anybody who says differently.
The entry that really energised the comments board – 260 and counting – concerned, however, the tricky business of defining Irishness. “We don’t really think you are Irish, the same way as us. If you are not born here then by our definition you are not Irish,” the author ventured.
There’s quite a bit to process in these two sentences. It is certainly true that few people who were born and raised in Ireland regard the average Irish American – that’s to say one who has never lived here – as being Irish “in the same way” as themselves. Then again, how many of those second- or third-generation emigrants really expect to be accepted as full-blown sons and daughters of Erin?
Well, peruse the comments boards on Irish Central, and you will find endless examples of Americans claiming, with no other qualification bar a wandering ancestor, the right to pontificate on domestic affairs like a natural-born native.
A qualification should be made. It’s one thing to call yourself Irish while chatting to other Americans. Native Americans aside, every citizen of the United States can boast some sort of overseas heritage. Nobody could object to that. However, many readers will, while visiting an American hostelry, have been forced to grit their teeth when some eighth-generation O’Hara marches over and announces: “Hey, you’re Irish! I’m Irish too!”
For the most part, the real Irish play along. We smile tolerantly when the likes of John Huston establish rural mansions and make like returning exiles. We generously accept cheques from the chieftains of overseas Irish dynasties.
But for all our lip service, the sentimental, unreconstructed version of Irish America now seems more ludicrous than ever. It lost its scant appeal for many Irish when, tolerating the intrusion of the deluded O’Hara described above, they were forced to endure a stream of invective against “the Brits” and suffer enthusiastic paeans to the guerrillas who were then still blowing up chip shops and crowded war memorials.
These people do (or did) represent a minority of Irish Americans. But they certainly do (or did) exist. This writer clearly remembers an infuriating conversation with a woman in a New York bar during the late 1980s. Raised in Queens, having never visited this nation, she rigorously explained why she was Irish and I was not. I had, you see, an unacceptable name and a funny, posh accent. More seriously still, I was equivocal about the notion of blasting people to smithereens because they fancied a cod and chips.
Such experiences help explain why many of us baulk at the notion of Americans pretending to be fully Irish. But we should, of course, be flattered. It’s not just the Americans. For decades, Peter O’Toole has batted aside claims that he was born in Leeds and allowed the myth to grow that he entered the world in Connemara. Everyone wants to be bleeding Irish.
What do they see in the dump? It’s damp, windy, inefficient and remote. We’ve spent ourselves into financial ruin. The national cuisine comprises blood sausage, rough bread and boiled potatoes. Everyone’s late all the time and nobody know how to give directions.
I take it all back, America. You’re welcome to the place.