Irish-American identity isn’t disappearing – it’s just evolving

Irish ethnicity in the US persists in the realm of cultural symbolism and political leanings

There is a wide perception of a decline in Irish-America and yet there remains a potent sense of identification with Irishness among millions of Americans.

The truth is that Irish-American identity is evolving, reflecting social and political changes in the US as well as a shifting relationship between Ireland and the US. As millions of Americans celebrate St Patrick’s Day it is timely to reflect on this evolution.

A survey of mostly older Irish Americans by Ireland Reaching Out in collaboration with researchers at UCD’s Clinton Institute found that 88 per cent of Irish Americans are third generation or later (with first generation being born in Ireland).

This indicates that Irish-America today is at a stage of “late-generation ethnicity”, a term used by sociologists to designate an ethnic formation that reaches back many generations in the US and is not being replenished from the country of origin.

It also indicates the settled maturity of the Irish diaspora in the US, where Irishness is at once a relatively privileged narrative of identity, often signalling personal resilience and tribal success. Compared to other ethnic groups in the US, Irish Americans are relatively wealthy and well-educated – 55 per cent of the survey respondents are retired from employment and 78 per cent hold a degree.

Culture also strengthens the imaginative pull of Ireland in the Irish-American imagination

The maintenance of Irish identity in the US can seem something of a paradox. With the disappearance of material ethnic environments and institutions to sustain it – think of the urban parishes of old – how can it survive? The answer is that it takes on more overtly symbolic forms. While Irish ethnicity does not principally exist today as a political block or sociological formation, it persists as a realm of cultural and political signification and psychological investment – as Irishness.

While some of the connections to Ireland seem fragile – for example, 66 per cent of survey respondents say they have no immediate contact with family in Ireland, 87 per cent do not have an Irish passport, only 11 per cent have studied Irish history or literature, and only 2 per cent speak Irish – there are strong indicators of Irish identity being important.

Asked to self-ascribe their identity, 48 per cent say Irish or Irish-American, while a large proportion underline the depth and continuity of their sense of Irishness, with 75 per cent indicating their first awareness of being Irish springs from early childhood.

Symbolic ethnicity

Culture is the glue of symbolic ethnicity, providing the ties that continue to bind. Some 75 per cent of survey respondents say their sense of Irishness is enriched by film and television and by festivals, while 62 per cent say foods provide that nourishment.

Culture also strengthens the imaginative pull of Ireland in the Irish-American imagination. While 79 per cent of survey respondents say their interest in visiting Ireland is primarily for tourism and tracing family roots, only 4 per cent say business and very few have an interest in relocating. Traditional music, pub culture, heritage sites and museums all score highly as points of interest in visiting Ireland, and there is a significant interest in studying in Ireland, particularly in history and the arts.

There is a common perception that Irish America has grown more conservative in recent years, reflecting its settled maturity but also its unsettled political affiliations. As is well documented, the Irish in America have a long historical association with the Democratic Party but that relationship began to fracture in the 1960s and has since seen many Irish move to the right. In recent years the sight of Irish-American faces on Fox News and in the Trump administration has led to hyperbolic claims about the Irish in America disavowing their immigrant past – claims that have often reached a pitch in relation to St Patrick’s Day.

The reality is more complex however as a residual liberalism still tails Irish America. In this, US president Joe Biden is less of an anachronism than he can seem, reminding us that the concept of America as a “nation of immigrants” was powerfully framed and promoted by the Irish-American president John F Kennedy and that the immigrant past can function as a lodestone for a liberal politics of empathy in the present.

Liberal cast

The survey results display a more liberal cast to ageing Irish-Americans than might have been anticipated. Some 46 per cent identify as leaning liberal, liberal, or very liberal, only 24 per cent identify as conservative or leaning conservative, while none identify as very conservative. These identifications are reinforced by the responses on favoured news sources, with 76 per cent favouring NPR and 26 per cent Fox News.

Some 95 per cent of survey respondents say they voted in the 2020 presidential election, a high proportion evidencing a commonly held view among pollsters that while the Irish may not vote as a block in the US they do vote in high numbers – a reason that Irishness continues to signify and attract political interest in the US.

When asked if the Belfast Agreement and the peace process was important to them, 65 per cent of respondents said yes – a support that was baked into the diplomatic strategising by the Irish lobby in Washington as they negotiated the political drama of Brexit.

Ethnic identity can endure long after ethnic structures and practices have dissolved

The growing distance between Ireland and Irish-America is presaging concern among those involved in engaging the Irish diaspora. But Irishness will not stop mattering to Americans anytime soon. For white Americans in particular the claim to a hyphenated ethnic identity provides a sense of rootedness, offering salient claims to identity and values. A sense of Irishness can allow Americans to negotiate their national status; as such it is an enduring ethnic currency, albeit a somewhat idealised identity-credential.

A similar survey of a younger generation (18- to 35-years-old) of Americans of Irish heritage in 2020 found a more fluid sense of identity with many stating Irishness was just one of many strands of ethnic heritage within their family networks, though one they seemed to privilege. For the younger generation, being Irish was more clearly if complexly a choice they made, securing a sense of identity amid the volatile landscape of identity politics and culture wars.

Ethnic identity can endure long after ethnic structures and practices have dissolved, and we know all too little about how this works among late generation Irish Americans. Irish America is dead; long live Irish America.

– Liam Kennedy is chairman in American Studies and director of the Clinton Institute for American Studies at University College Dublin