How Irish-America sees Ireland

Ireland: a land of 100m people where abortion is legal and Protestants are ‘devils’. We visit Boston to meet Irish-Americans whose views of Ireland are a mix of confusion and piercing insight. Photographs by Kael Alford

We in Ireland might think we know who Irish-Americans are. They’re the visitors who arrive each year before the swallows, to travel the country on buses, to golf, to look for their roots. They search out traditional music, castles, scenic countryside, the Book of Kells and something far more abstract: an attempt to connect with their past.

But there are millions of Irish-Americans who never make it to Ireland, whose stories we do not know. Usually only the economically privileged can afford to travel to Ireland. And the sheer volume of people who identify as Irish-American might in any case make it hard for all of them to visit Ireland in their lifetimes.

The US Migration Policy Institute has recorded 39 million people as claiming Irish ancestry. The US Census Bureau data collected in 2011 recorded almost 33.1 million people, or just over 10 per cent of the population, in 2014. The disparity shows how hard it can be to define identity.

In September The Irish Times travelled to Boston, Massachusetts, where 21.5 per cent of the state's population say that they are of Irish descent. I talked to eight people who claim Irish ancestry but who have never been to Ireland. I wanted to learn why their Irish heritage was so important to them and what their views were on a country they had never been to; how their lives had been shaped by a religion, culture and education that had been handed down.


In the course of these interviews I discovered that when Irish-Americans talk about identifying with the Irish they mean the Irish who came to settle in the United States and their descendants, not those of us living in Ireland. Ireland itself, the country, is the abstract, romanticised receptacle of dreams and green fields, and the place that will soothe a lifelong ache.

I learned much about Irish America, but I did not solve the mystery of why they eat corned beef on St Patrick’s Day.

Rob Walsh lives in Medford, Massachusetts. The 45-year-old is a firefighter, "an occupation which is, at least in this part of the US, a sounding board for Irish-heritage pride".

Rob Anderson, who is 38, lives in Natick. He plays the bagpipes in two Celtic bands.

Beverly McDonald lives in Quincy. The 59-year-old listens to Irish Hit Parade on local radio every Saturday.

Patty Sullivan, who is 56, and Kim Camillo, who is a year younger, are lifelong friends who grew up together in South Boston. They asked to be photographed on "their" corner of Southie, at N and Sixth.

John Timmins, who is 55, lives in Milton. His Galway-born mother, Mary Howley, came to the United States as a child, on RMS Lancastria.

Bob Brooks, lives in Braintree. The 52-year-old asked to be photographed in the Cambridge church where his Irish great-great-grandfather, Andrew O'Connell from Kerry, married Ellen Quinlan.

Brian Kelleher, who is 55, lives on Plum Island, north of the city. He writes as Mack Maloney, and believes that his Irish heritage is responsible for his "storytelling gene."

On Irish identity: ‘There is an ache in me to get over there’

“I’m 100 per cent Irish,” says Brian Kelleher. His paternal grandparents came from Galway. He’s puzzled, though. “A friend of mine has been to Ireland, and he was in a pub somewhere, and he said he was Irish. He was gently corrected and told, ‘You’re Irish-American. We’re Irish’.”

“I’m Irish-American,” says Rob Walsh. His maternal great-grandparents came from Bantry, in Co Cork. “Sure, I’m American first, but you can’t take the Irish piece out of it, even if you feel the Irish Irish don’t really understand where I’m coming from. The Irish piece of me certainly shapes who I am.”

“I’m American-Irish,” says Beverly McDonald, whose maternal grandparents were from Connemara. “I wasn’t Irish first and then American. But Ireland is in my heart. It’s where my roots started. My Irish identity is so important to me. I’m really proud of my heritage. I’m proud of the whole Famine thing and how people were so starved and repressed and held down, yet they still fled Ireland for the US.

Click to listen: Rob Anderson on the story of how relieved his great-grandmother was to get back on Boston soil after a trip to Ireland

“I’m proud of how they went from being called a dirty bunch of drunks, and the whole ‘No Irish Need Apply’, to building our bridges and roads. Against all odds the Irish who came here have contributed so much to this country. It seemed impossible that they would triumph and prosper, but they did. They thrived through hard, hard work and fierce determination.”

Patty Sullivan says she is Irish-American. She has a grandparent on either side who came from Ireland, “from one of the Aran Islands, and Cork. I identify with the Irish. We had nothing when we were growing up but our pride in being Irish. Being Irish was worth more than having $1 million. I got that pride from my parents. The big thing for me growing up is that everyone called me one of the Black Irish. It meant that I had the dark hair and the dark eyes and skin, I guess because of the Spanish influence on my ancestors. I was favoured because of that, and my hair was never cut as a child.”

John Timmins’s mother was born in Gort, Co Galway, and came to the United States when she was four. “I’m American Irish,” he says.

Bob Brooks has a great-grandfather who came from Kerry. “I’m so proud of being Irish-American. I yearn to really meet true Irish folks, in Ireland. I know hundreds of Irish-Americans, but until I go to Ireland I won’t know what it’s like to be Irish. I can read as many books as I like, but I really don’t know yet. There is an ache in me to get over there. I can’t describe it. It’s like something calling me. I get emotional when I think of stepping off that plane.

“I can’t tell you why, because I don’t know why. Maybe it’s something to do with feeling connected in a strange way with my ancestors, not that I’ll know this side of heaven why some of them left Ireland. Do they know that their great-great-grandson thinks about them? I just want to walk where they walked. I want to meet my past and connect the two worlds.”

“I think the Irish in Ireland see us as Americans, the high and mighty Americans, who are well-to-do, and who made it, especially here in Boston,” says Kim Camillo. “I always thought how lucky we were that our ancestors left and settled in Southie. We own everything now – the police and fire departments. We’re making big money in property. None of the Irish-Americans I know have any desire to go back. People go and visit, but they like it better here. There’s more freedom here.”

“If I’m talking to someone from the old sod – Ireland – I’ll say I’m an American of Irish descent,” says Rob Anderson. If I’m talking to someone here in America it’s easier to say I’m Irish, because here everyone comes from somewhere.” His maternal great-grandparents are Irish. “My grandmother put it best. She said that those who had to go got up and left Ireland. They endured a 3,000-mile boat journey, and when they landed here they saw signs that said ‘No Irish Need Apply’. It’s those people I identify with. They are the people who made the Irish in America what they are today.”

Click to listen: Kim Camillo on the powerful Irish in BostonClick to listen: Patty Sullivan on being "black Irish"
On St Patrick’s Day: ‘I’ve rejected it. I don’t know why, but I have’

Bob Brooks: "I generally take the day off work, that's how crazy I am about St Patrick's Day. We really make a big deal of it. We always wore green as kids. The pubs are open at 9am, for fried breakfasts with Guinness and live music. Then we go to my sister's house, and she has the corned-beef-and-cabbage dinner that we always used to have as kids. My mum died on St Patrick's Day, and her mother was baptised on the same day, so we remember them both on that day."

Beverly McDonald: "We went to our grandmother's in South Boston, and she would cook corned beef and cabbage. My grandmother boiled everything she cooked. I'd say the Irish sure weren't known for the cooking. Everything was boiled in the one pot. We'd go and see the parade, and we wore green."

John Timmins: "I'm not sure why, but when we were young we didn't go to the parade. As an adult I've never been to it, either, but I've always sought out the meaning of the day in other ways. St Patrick's Day can be a drunken affair for many, and I don't think it represents the heritage which I was shown growing up. The day was not a focal point for us. I think if you grew up in South Boston it was a different kind of day, people wearing their heritage on their sleeves.

“My mother, who was born in Ireland, was fiercely proud of her heritage. I don’t know why I have rejected St Patrick’s Day, I only know that I have. Because of my mother I’ve always known my Irish heritage as more to do with people and something that is represented by elements other than kitsch.”

On Northern Ireland: ‘We thought Protestants were devils’

Patty Sullivan: "When we were growing up we had the idea that England was a horrible place and that Protestants in Northern Ireland were really bad. They were rich and had all the money and land, and Catholics were poor. I thought the war was about land, that the Protestants in Northern Ireland had taken over the rightful land of the Catholics. In Boston we thought Protestants were devils. I think that today Northern Ireland is ruled by England, and the south part of Ireland is ruled by Catholics."

Rob Walsh: "There was no lack of support here in Boston for the IRA when I was growing up. There was a tin on the counter of our local pizza place that collected money for Noraid. There were a lot of them around. There were pins for sale that would say 'Sinn Fein Provisionals', and people had Bobby Sands shirts; '26 + 6 = 1' – you'd see that on stickers a lot, and now and then you still see it. I think if you were to ask most Irish-Americans what they think of Northern Ireland they'd say they are in favour of an united Ireland. I imagine that's what the population of Ireland wants, too."

Click to listen: John Timmins on St Patrick's Day

Bob Brooks: "I don't think the Troubles are as bad as they were in the past. I can understand that there is turmoil between Britain and Ireland, but getting into who's a Protestant and who's a Catholic, that seemed crazy to me, a religious battle. The violence was senseless killing. Why can't everyone believe what they want to believe and try to get along? I don't know why Great Britain are still governing Northern Ireland. I don't see the value of them being there for that little chunk of land. What's the purpose? Are they making a lot of money out of Northern Ireland?"

Kim Camillo: "There were all kinds of people in our neighbourhood in South Boston who were gunrunners for the IRA. I'm not really sure what was going on, though. I thought it was a religious war and that the Protestants and the Catholics hated each other. I think that Northern Ireland is on its own now, and the Republic is on its own. Northern Ireland isn't part of Great Britain. It's by itself and it's governed by Belfast, isn't it?"

Brian Kelleher: "When I was a kid the Troubles were really going, and I remember thinking, This is where I'm from and just about everyone I know is from, and they're fighting over religion and it's so stupid and needless. I suppose it was really about the animosity between the Irish and the British. I should know who governs Northern Ireland now, but I'm not sure. Is it governed by a coalition and absorbed into the Republic? The British influence is gone, right? I would be really surprised to hear it wasn't. I think Northern Ireland is now part of the Republic, and Britain is gone forever."

John Timmins: "My understanding about the Troubles was that it was all about power, and who should control Northern Ireland. To be truthful, I don't know who governs it now."

Rob Anderson: "I was too young to remember the Troubles. My parents didn't talk about it much, but my impression was that there was a division between the north of Ireland and the south of Ireland. Some kind of violent division, but the rest of Ireland was green and cool and calm. I think today probably a good chunk of people in Northern Ireland see themselves as British and if given the option would side with the British."

On Catholicism and abortion: ‘People probably use the rhythm method’

Rob Anderson: "I did not know abortion was illegal in Ireland. It's been a choice here for so long. At the end of the day abortion is an important health issue. If you cut if off wholesale, like in Ireland, then you must have people doing risky things with coat hangers. People in Ireland should have the opportunity to vote about abortion in a referendum. It's simple democracy."

Rob Walsh: "As far as Catholicism goes I'd say that Ireland is very Catholic. I'd imagine the younger generation don't go to church much, but it's part of their identity – the saints and all that."

Click to listen: Bob Brooks on his longing to go to IrelandClick to listen: Bob Brooks singing Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears

Kim Camillo: "I grew up not realising there was any other faith than Catholicism. I was shocked when I found out that my grandmother was a Protestant. I went away from Catholicism for years, but I have gone back to it now. I go to Mass on Sundays. I pray every morning and night on my knees.

“Didn’t abortion become legal lately in Ireland? It didn’t? That surprises me, because I think of Ireland as modern and with it. I don’t think of them as country bumpkins and farmers. I think of Irish people as very hard working and smart. To me they are not aspiring to be farmers any more, so it seems so old fashioned that there is no abortion. I didn’t think there was anywhere left that didn’t have it.”

John Timmins: "I believe abortion is illegal in Ireland, is that right? It doesn't surprise me, because of the abundance of Catholics who live there. My personal view would be to get the debate on the table, because it was to be legal to keep women safe. If you're of the opinion that abortion is a bad thing – and I think most people do, including those women who avail of the service – then the best way to deal with it is through birth control and education."

Patty Sullivan: "I think of the church in Ireland having a strong presence. I don't think birth control is legal in Ireland, and if it is that must be a very new thing. People probably use the rhythm method."

Click to listen: Brian Kelleher on the Troubles

Bob Brooks: "I would think that people in Ireland still take their faith fairly seriously. There might be a bit of rebellion going on with the younger people against their faith and the status quo, but I think young people still go to Mass on a regular basis. I imagine at noon that the angelus bells ring and everyone stops to say the angelus together.

“I heard lately that in the past five years there’s been a lot of controversy going on about abortion. Something tells me there is no abortion in Ireland, but I can’t imagine that’s true. It’s legal in so many countries now. I’m thinking if there is no abortion it’s because people are still entrenched in what I believe to be the historical values of Ireland; people must still be really entrenched in their Catholic faith. Are there a lot of guys making the decisions about what happens in Ireland? If there are I guess that must have something to do with it.”

Beverly McDonald: "I'm a Catholic. I pray on my knees every night and give thanks for my day. I think Ireland is still a very Catholic country. I'm guessing everyone still goes to church and that it is still very strict, that everyone must follow the rules and go to Mass every Sunday. I don't know if there is still a lot of guilt over there nowadays about practising birth control. It doesn't surprise me that abortion is illegal in Ireland, because of the strict Catholic rules."

Their image of Ireland: ‘What’s the population? 100 million?’

Bob Brooks: "Is it true that when John F Kennedy went to Ireland, that when his plane was flying over, he said, 'Now I know what Johnny Cash was singing about, with the Forty Shades of Green?' That's what I always heard. I think Ireland is more rural than urban and that there are quaint cottages and rolling countryside. I'd love to go to the GPO and see where all the craziness happened in 1916.

“I’m really interested to know what the Irish people in Ireland think of the people who left, like my ancestors. What do they think of us? Do they think, Why didn’t you stay in Ireland and help us? You might have made us stronger, but you left.

“I think Irish people probably think we are a little bit arrogant, that we identify as Irish but that we don’t know what’s it’s like to be Irish and that we don’t understand their struggles or what is important to them.”

“I know that the economy hasn’t been good in Ireland lately and a lot of people have been leaving. That must be very sad, to be leaving your family, because I imagine Irish families are very close. It must be very tough to not have work, but that probably ties into all the drinking culture, too; if you don’t have a job you go drinking.

“My guess about the drinking is that it’s generational. It comes from all the struggles the Irish had since the Famine, and the strong English rule, and when it was hard to make ends meet. I think people turned to drink to ease the pain and try to cope better, and that does get passed on from generation to generation.”

Click to listen: Beverly McDonald talks about her grandmother's corned beef and cabbage

Patty Sullivan: "When I was growing up people always talked about Ireland as going home. I got the impression that it was green and beautiful and almost like a magical place. I know there are cities there, but I think of it as being rural and farmy."

Kim Camillo: "None of the Irish-Americans I know have any desire to go back to Ireland to live. People go and visit, but they like it better here. There's more freedom here. And I heard the taxes are outrageous there. I'd like to meet the people and talk to them. I don't want to go anywhere near Northern Ireland, though. The thought of it scares me – all those bombings.

Beverly McDonald: "I wouldn't want to live in Ireland, because of the weather. It's misty and rainy there most of the time, but you have one month of sunshine every year, right? Everyone has that great Irish wit and the musical brogue. I haven't been to Ireland, but I already know that I would love the people there and they would love me.

“I’d say life in Ireland is so much simpler, not as chaotic as here, much more peaceful and family orientated. I don’t think people there rush around so much and are always in a hurry. I’m guessing that society in Ireland is maybe 30 or 40 years behind us and that women are not as equal as men. I don’t know if women in Ireland have careers or what’s expected of them. The population? Twelve million?”

John Timmins: "I feel like you owe it to the people who came before you, and your children after you, to know where you came from. I want to go to Ireland. I think it's human nature in life that you start being reflective when you get older, and you start looking backwards. The cliches I know that are associated with Ireland is that people are big drinkers. They work hard all week and drink all weekend. They're gifted with the tongue; they could talk a dog off a meat wagon."

Rob Walsh: "I think it's probably still quite rural and that there is still a lot of farming. I see it as lots of people in living in small towns, with big, tight-knit families, about five or six kids a family. I have this idea that Irish families are very tight and stick up for each other. That's the sort of thing I hope hasn't changed, but some part of that is nostalgia. Dublin, from what I understand, is quite a worldly city; not quite like New York or Paris, but getting there. I hope people are still friendly there. You hear so much about that, especially friendliness towards Americans, because a lot of the time now Americans don't find that abroad."

Click to listen: Rob Walsh on Irish-American identity

Brian Kelleher: "I know Ireland went through an economic boom a while ago. I believe the countryside is ancient and that people there like Americans, but they don't like Americans who identify as Irish. I see Ireland as rolling fields and green, and that you can tell the ocean has been hitting the coast for centuries. I think of it as rural, where the people are friendly and take life at a good pace, not running around crazy, which we definitely tend to do over here. I feel I'm missing something by not going to Ireland, and if I go there some day I hope there won't be that feeling any more of something missing."

Rob Anderson: "What's the population of Ireland? I have no idea. Between 50 and 100 million? I suppose I do think of cliches when I think of Ireland. A pub culture and a session every night in every pub. Crops of potatoes and barley. The green fields and the sheep – nothing can be better than dinner in a sweater!

“I know the expressions that people in Ireland have about us: plastic Paddies and the fake Irish. I guess there are two factions of people in Ireland, one who see us as silly and that we are Yanks, the other who is grateful that things have moved on for the people who emigrated. I know there are a number of people in Ireland who don’t consider people like me as Irish, and that’s technically accurate, but we’re doing our best to keep our Irish culture and heritage alive, and pass it on to our children. At the end of the day that should be enough.”

This article was supported by the Global Irish Media Fund