Irish Americans’ connection to their heritage remains strong due to draw of Ireland’s history and culture

Survey reveals that Irish Americans still largely progressive in their values and attracted to their Irish heritage

Every March during the St Patrick’s Day season, joyful parades take place in US cities and towns to celebrate the Irish heritage of 32 million Americans who self-identify as Irish American in the US census. But who are these Irish Americans, what are their values and are their connections to the ancestral Irish home waning as time goes by?

Glucksman Ireland House NYU and the Council for American Irish Relations commissioned Change Research, a nationally rated polling firm, to conduct a new nationwide survey to find some answers.

The big finding is that Irish Americans, despite being many generations removed from Ireland, continue to be attracted to their Irish heritage because of Irish history and culture, and the positive perceptions of Irish identity in the US.

The vast majority of Irish Americans’ ancestors emigrated from Ireland more than three generations ago, but asked what attracts them most to their Irish-American identity, 33 per cent said Irish history, 24 per cent Irish music, 12 per cent positive perceptions of Irish identity in the US and 11 per cent travel in Ireland.

Irish Americans

According to this new survey, religion plays less of a role in Irish American identity than in the past. While almost half (47 per cent) of respondents either identify as Catholic or were raised Catholic, only 12 per cent regularly attend church, 20 per cent do not regularly attend church and 15 per cent were raised Catholic but no longer identify as Catholic. In addition, young Irish Americans do not identify with Catholicism as much as their older counterparts; just 23 per cent of those under the age of 35 identify as Catholic (an additional 17 per cent of those under 35 were raised Catholic but no longer identify as such).

These results echo the 2009 data from the American Religious Identification Survey showing that Asians, Irish and Jews are the most secularised ethnic origin groups, with a third of the Nones (No religion) claiming Irish ancestry.

Contrast this with the 20th century when Irish Americans identified their home neighbourhoods with the name of their Catholic parish, which was the core of Irish American identity and community, connecting young and old through church halls, weekly Mass, high schools, colleges and even hospitals.

The survey confirmed that a sizeable number of the descendants of Irish Protestant immigrants from the 18th and 19th centuries still identify as Irish American, amounting to 19 per cent of respondents. Three per cent said they were Evangelical, 1 per cent Jewish and 16 per cent were non-religious.

Asked what most connects them to their Irish American identity, 33 per cent of respondents said family, 18 per cent chose a sense of social justice and responsibility for one another, followed by honesty and work ethic, love of country, faith and social life.

With the effective ending of immigration from Ireland following the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, many Irish American leaders feared that their community might be ageing out. The survey indicates 17 per cent of respondents have at least one grandparent who came from Ireland, but it also shows that 77 per cent of respondents descended from earlier generations of Irish immigrants enjoy 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 are threatened in Northern Ireland, as is the case currently with the Brexit fallout.

This continuing attraction to Irish culture reinforces findings in a 2017 survey of younger Irish Americans conducted by and Amárach Research, which found respondents drawn to Irish music, literature, Irish language and dancing.

Asked what Ireland can do to strengthen Irish American links with their ancestral home, 52 per cent chose more opportunities for young Irish Americans to study, volunteer and work in Ireland. This was followed by more support for Irish studies in US colleges and lobbying for immigration reform for Irish immigrants in the US.

Irish Americans remain very active in US politics, with prominent leaders from the Democratic and Republican parties at the federal, state and local levels. Asked what is the most important issue for US politicians to address in relation to Ireland, 31 per cent said support for peaceful Irish unification, 29 per cent chose two-way trade and investment between Ireland and the US, followed by support for the Belfast Agreement, visas for new Irish immigrants and visas forthe undocumented Irish.

The Congressional Friends of Ireland, a bipartisan body in Washington which is jointly chaired by Richie Neal and Mike Kelly, focuses on peace in Ireland, supporting with President Biden the Belfast Agreement, and blocking any US trade pact with the UK if a military border is threatened on the island of Ireland.

The survey shows that Irish Americans are largely progressive with clear majorities in favour of marriage equality and LGBTQ+ rights, climate change, gender equality, labour rights, racial equality, abortion and reproductive rights, and protecting Social Security and Medicare. However, small majorities favour conservative positions on national security, crime and gun rights.

By a margin of 71 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”. But a majority of 62 to 34 per cent agreed that “Government is almost always wasteful and inefficient”.

For those in Ireland and the US who are seeking ways to engage succeeding generations of young Irish Americans with their identity and with Ireland, the key takeaway from the survey is to provide more opportunities for young Irish Americans to study, volunteer and work in Ireland; devote more resources to Irish studies in US colleges; lobby for immigration reform for Irish immigrants in the US; and give Irish citizens overseas the ability to vote in Irish presidential elections.

Ted Smyth is president of the advisory board of Glucksman Ireland House NYU and Brian O’Dwyer is chair of the Council for American Irish Relations