Time to tackle the emerging crisis in Irish American identity

The effective absence of a new generation of Irish immigrants has raised important new questions

John Deasy, appointed by the Taoiseach to work as special envoy to the  US on immigration reform

John Deasy, appointed by the Taoiseach to work as special envoy to the US on immigration reform


The demise of Irish American identity has often been predicted due to intermarriage with other ethnic groups and the churches ceasing to be an Irish American convening point. Nevertheless Irish and Scots Irish identity has endured amongst forty-one million Americans largely thanks to the waves of new generations of Irish immigrants who refresh and fortify the links with Ireland. Today, however, the effective absence of a new generation of immigrants from Ireland for the first time in 200 years is causing increasing concern that the crisis in Irish American identity is real.

Irish America is by any standards a strategic and crucial asset for Ireland in economic, political and cultural terms. Irish Americans love Ireland in the way Irish people love Ireland. For them, Ireland is an emotional place in the mind, invoking the aesthetics of memory and longing. Yes, Ireland is a real place, but it’s also a place in the imagination. Irish American identity is informed both by being Irish and by not being in Ireland. The greatest novel of the twentieth century was written by an Irishman, who did not live in Ireland, but who was obsessed by Ireland, and wrote about it in exquisite detail.

The question is, what can we do to sustain Irish American identity in the twenty-first century? Two answers immediately suggest themselves. First, lobby for immigration reform and second, increase the investment in Irish cultural programs in America.

The appointment of John Deasy to work on immigration reform demonstrates that the new Taoiseach has a personal appreciation of the challenges faced by diasporas, and a willingness to try new initiatives. It is unlikely that comprehensive immigration reform will be soon achieved in a divided Washington, but there is room for tactical progress to benefit Irish people in America, as Australia and other countries have shown.

Second, a joint campaign led by the Irish government and Irish American leaders would significantly enhance the growth of Irish culture and studies in American colleges and schools, and in Irish American centres. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Minister for the Diaspora lead the Irish Abroad Unit, which would be central to developing a new strategy to foster Irish studies amongst the next generation of Irish Americans.

Barbara Jones, who has been a much-admired Irish Consul General in New York for four years, believes that “Irish culture is today the heart and soul of Irish America, uniting us all in a shared understanding.”

The Irish American writer, Peter Quinn, agrees: “ Ireland feeds off the energy of American diversity and America off the originality and vitality of Irish culture. Irish-American identity can’t survive without its connection to Irish culture, and Irish culture will suffer without its connection to Irish America and the avenue it opens to the wider American culture”.

In order to nourish the heart and soul of Irish America, we should learn from Jewish American organizations, which have invested heavily in Jewish educational programs for young people in schools and universities. According to a Pew Research survey in 2013, American Jews see being Jewish as more a matter of ancestry, culture and values than of religious observance. By the 1990s nearly 40 percent of Jewish children enrolled in a Jewish educational program.

Importantly, there is a demand for Irish culture amongst Irish Americans who are third, fourth and fifth generation. A recent survey by NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House and UCD on IrishCentral.com shows that 85 percent are interested in Irish studies, if courses were available locally. Importantly, 75 percent are interested in distance learning courses in Irish history and literature.

However, professors in Irish studies programs in American universities face stiff competition for funding at a time when student enrolment in American colleges has peaked, state funding is declining, and STEM and other ethnic courses battle for resources. Successful Irish Studies centres in NYU, Notre Dame and Boston College have been supported by the generosity of families like the Glucksmans, Keoughs, Burns and Naughtons. But where is the next generation of Irish American philanthropists who will endow Irish studies and arts programs in America? Many believe that the Irish government could inspire that next generation to come forward with a high profile campaign.

A key player in this new strategy would be the American Conference for Irish Studies (ACIS), which since 1962 has coordinated and enhanced the approximately 1500 Irish studies courses offered every year in 500 American colleges. At this year’s National Meeting of ACIS, more than 200 papers were presented on a range of Irish studies, including Irish Immigration, Seamus Heaney, John Banville, James Joyce, Joseph O’Connor, Frank McCourt, Claire Keegan, Modern Drama and Evolving Identities in Irish America, Post-Secularism in Ireland, Irish Traditional Music in America, Justice and Conflict after the Troubles, and Women’s Bodies in 21st Century Ireland.

The President of ACIS, Professor Timothy McMahon of Marquette University, agrees that reaching young people is essential; he is focused on “fostering the work of younger scholars, both postgraduate students and early career faculty, so that we can build the next generation of teachers and researchers as our own mentors did”. He also wants to “enhance ties to the Irish and Irish-American communities among which we work every day”.Regional ACIS conferences will follow this year at locations across the US.Next June, the National conference takes place at University College, Cork.

On the Irish culture front, there are promising signs in New York City of a renaissance, but it needs to be replicated in other cities. The Irish Repertory Theatre and the Irish Arts Centre are growing in NYC, Professor Joe Lee is Chair of Glucksman Ireland House at NYU where students earn a Masters in Irish Studies, Colm Tóibín is leading Irish literature studies at Columbia University, and Paul Muldoon’s “Irish Picnic” regularly convenes the best in Irish and Irish American performers.

The Irish American writer and New York Times columnist, Dan Barry, succinctly summarizes why culture matters: “A place like Glucksman Ireland House - whose mission, I think, should be expanded even more - is the perfect example of the twinning of art and scholarship to remind us who we are and where the hell we might be going”.

This is not a bad rallying cry as we strive to sustain what it is to be Irish and Irish American in the 21st century.

Ted Smyth is a former Irish diplomat, business executive and a public affairs consultant based in New York City.

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