Irish Roots

False friends and Boston

Anyone who has ever studied a foreign language is familiar with the idea of a “false friend”, a word that looks identical but has a completely distinct meaning in the other language. “Sensible” is not at all sensible in French.

But there can also be false friends in different dialects of the same language. “To root” has a very different, deeply scatological meaning in Australian slang. Which throws a refreshing light on the name of this column.

And the other part of the column title can also be a false friend. In Ireland, "Irish" is first of all a straightforward label of citizenship, but, like every other European national identifier, is freighted with all sorts of political baggage, as well as a shifting collection of ethnic, territorial and cultural presumptions. Irishness may not be precise, but we know it when we see it. So when Joe Kowalski from Peoria insists on shaking our hand and telling us he's Irish too, most of us feel something is very wrong.

We shouldn’t, though. Joe’s “Irish” is simply a false friend. The rich, sometimes toxic stew of connotations contained in European national labels is just missing in America, dissolved in two-and-a-half centuries of democracy. Though the words are identical, they all contain an unspoken qualifier: Irish(-American), Italian(-American), German(-American).


Why all of this now? I need to think out loud about these things because, come the autumn, I'll be telling Bostonians all about their Irishness, God help me. "iFest Boston" ( is the mother of all Irish fests, scheduled for the end of September, with, among others, Paddy Moloney, Joan Bergin, Darina Allen, Belinda McKeon, and sponsored by Guinness, Aer Lingus, Bord Bia and many more.

Genealogy is only a tiny part of one subsection of the event, and only a small part of what I’ll be doing myself. It’ll be nice to get out of the ghetto for a few days.