Irish-Americans strongly engaged with their identity and this island, survey finds

Findings highlight belief that it is critical to improve opportunities for young Irish-Americans to study, volunteer and work in Ireland

The bond between Irish-Americans, whether of a Catholic or Protestant background, and this island remains very strong, according to a new survey, with the country’s history and music still influential generations after many respondents’ ancestors would have departed.

The findings highlight an across-the-board belief that the best way to sustain this connection is to provide more opportunities for young Irish-Americans to study, volunteer and work in Ireland.

The research, carried out among 736 Irish-Americans in January, finds that providing more support for Irish studies programmes in US colleges and universities, as well as lobbying for immigration reform for Irish immigrants in America, would also be beneficial.

While the vast majority of Irish-Americans’ ancestors emigrated from Ireland more than three generations ago, transatlantic ties appear to be enduring over time according to the survey, carried out by Change Research polling on behalf of Glucksman Ireland House NYU (New York University) and the non-profit Council for American Irish Relations. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.8 per cent.


Respondents are most attracted to their Irish-American identity through Irish history (33 per cent), Irish music (22 per cent), positive perceptions of Irish identity in the US (12 per cent) and travel in Ireland (11 per cent).

Irish Americans

Religion plays a lesser role in today’s Irish-American identity than in the past. Almost half of respondents (47 per cent) identified as Catholic or were raised Catholic, but just 12 per cent regularly attend church and 15 per cent were raised Catholic but no longer identify as such.

Young Irish-Americans do not identify with Catholicism as much as their older counterparts, with just 23 per cent of those under 35 identifying as Catholic. An additional 17 per cent of under-35s were raised Catholic but no longer identify as such.

The survey also had many respondents from non-Catholic backgrounds, with 19 per cent of those who identified as Irish-American descending from Irish Protestant immigrants of the 18th and 19th century. Three per cent said they were Evangelical, 1 per cent Jewish and 16 per cent said they were non-religious.

Some 33 per cent of respondents said their strongest connection to their Irish-American identity was through family, and 18 per cent said it was a sense of social justice and responsibility for one another, with the next most popular responses being honesty and work ethic, love of country, faith, and social life.

A total 77 per cent of respondents said they enjoyed a meaningful connection with their Irish heritage through Irish studies and culture, including music concerts, theatre and dance. They also become engaged when peace and equality seem threatened in Northern Ireland, as was the case after Brexit.

They believed the most important issue for US politicians to address in relation to Ireland was support for peaceful Irish unification (31 per cent), while 29 per cent felt this was two-way trade and investment between Ireland and the US, followed by support for the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, visas for new Irish immigrants and visas for undocumented Irish.

Large majorities of Irish-Americans surveyed favour marriage equality and LGBTQ rights, believe in climate change, gender equality, labour rights, racial equality, abortion and reproductive rights, and protecting social security and Medicare in the US. Small majorities favour conservative positions on US national security, crime and gun rights.

By a margin of 71 per cent to 28 per cent, respondents disagreed with the proposition that “poor people have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return”.

Irish-Americans also disagreed by 72 to 24 per cent that “immigrants are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing, and healthcare”. However, a majority of 62 to 34 per cent agreed that “government is almost always wasteful and inefficient”.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times