Sunday, January 30, 2011

to be irish

"We are a very small community in the Anglophone world. The contributions 
for which we are known are usually for contributions to other people's cultures.
- Kevin Myers in his column for the Irish Independent 


I picked up a copy of the Irish Independent one day and read this column: What great talent would the world lose today if Ireland were washed away without trace?. The sentiment was refreshing, especially coming from an Irishman. The whole idea of admitting mediocrity is intriguing because I have critical thoughts about the Irish people's view of themselves. Myers calls it an "overweening conceit and pathological self-loathing"--his words. I guess you could say his words piqued my interest, especially as we constantly deal with the odd question of Irish heritage.


Hubs and I have noticed that there is a resentment towards Americans who come to Ireland. Even our friend Ilsa commented on feeling a general unwelcoming attitude in shops and out in public. This, after just one week in the country. There must be deep roots but the awkwardness comes from many years of Irish Americans coming to Ireland seeking a connection to the culture. If you see the classic Irish play or movie The Field, you have a perfect example of the reaction I am talking about. When an American uses the phrase "I am Irish" there are two basic misunderstandings that cause a negative reaction. Let's lay it out: 


Misunderstanding #1: An American is claiming to be Irish


To an Irish person, this is blasphemy. Of course the person is not Irish, he/she was not born in Ireland. To an Irish person, it sounds as if the American is claiming to be their actual countryman. It is offensive because the Irish are ethnocentric. Ireland has a unique history that only those who have grown up in this land can truly understand. The country also has a history of being overrun by other cultures, so the Irish have a vested interest in preserving their unique identity. In many cases the Irish were forced to leave Ireland due to horrible conditions like famine and lack of work, so those who left--and returned with greater wealth from countries like the US and Australia--tend to be seen as deserters of some nature. 


In the American's mind, he/she not claiming to 'be' Irish in the sense that the Irish person understands. Just as an American has no concept of growing up in Irish culture, Irish people have no concept of what it is like to be an American. Americans grow up in a country where everybody has immigrant heritage except the Native Americans. It is common upon meeting a person to ask what their heritage is, and as the question is so common, we Americans dont bother prefacing it. We ask people, "What are you?" When an American says "I am Irish", they mean to say "my family came from Ireland X generations ago". When an American says "I'm Irish, German, and English" they mean to say that their family heritage is a mixture of those cultures. Why do we say it this way? All Americans are a mixture of cultures so the comment being a description of our family heritage and not our own birth country is inherently understood.


The US is a relatively young country made up of immigrants. That means every single person in the US (except Native Americans) can easily trace their heritage to another country, often within a few generations. Because each of our family's arrival in the US is fairly recent, we tend to identify not as merely 'American' but as having the heritage of the most easily traceable relative. Add to that an embarrassing US foreign policy and most Americans living abroad are likely to admit being anything but American. 


Another factor in the American obsession with heritage is that the US has largely segregated itself by communities of ethnic and racial heritage, thus keeping our cultures fairly heterogeneous within America as a whole. Take New York City for example--neighborhoods are separated by ethnicities and have been for generations. Immigrant populations came across the Atlantic Ocean and settled in neighborhoods with folks that spoke the same language, looked like them, and were from the same country. There are Italian, Jewish, Puerto Rican, and African American neighborhoods that are clearly segregated based on immigration waves. Heck, there are people living in the US their whole lives who have never learned English because of it. 


My own experience of the Twin Cities shows this tendency to segregate: North Minneapolis and Rondo in St. Paul are heavily African American neighborhoods, South Mpls and East St. Paul are mostly Latino, Cedar Riverside is almost completely Somali refugees, and Frogtown in St. Paul is where most Hmong refugees settled. This leads to new generations identifying strongly with the heritage of another country without having lived there. Do you think the Jersey Shore folks really believe they are Italian? No. They, like most Americans, have a strong connection to the country of their heritage so they identify with it--even though their idea of the culture has been americanized. 


This is a fact of life for all Americans and something that the Irish dont understand. Irish people are from Ireland. They have not assimilated any other cultures (except maybe some Normans) and they have done their best to forcibly remove other cultural influences (the British) quite literally. The Irish identify so strongly with the actual land that Ireland occupies that they cannot fathom a cultural identity foreign to the place in which you were born. Why? Simply because they are all born in Ireland.


Misunderstanding #2: The American merely wishes they had Irish heritage


I hear this quite a bit from Irish people and it is the part of this whole conversation that honestly irks me. I accept that due to Misunderstanding #1 there is already a communication barrier. Still, after explaining what Americans mean when they say they are Irish, most Irish people scoff to think that so many Americans actually have Irish heritage. They think people want to be Irish just because Ireland is cool to claim. It seems nobody is educated about the huge amount of immigrants, specifically Irish people, that have emigrated to the US over the years. In the late 1800s about 2 million Irish went to the US because of the Great Famine. By 1850 Irish immigrants made up a quarter of the population in some of the largest US cities: Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. 


Imagine how many good Irish Catholics have gone without using birth control over the past 100 years and you end up with quite a few people with Irish heritage. Seriously. It's a lot. According to the US Census Bureau, Irish Americans are second only to German Americans in the entire population of the country. Nobody is pretending. Almost everybody in the country--including President Barack Obama--can rightly claim Irish heritage through one of their relatives. Which brings me to the article at the beginning of my post. Why do the Irish think that people pretend to be Irish? Is there some sort of conceit at work? Before moving here, my entire impression of Ireland revolved around alcohol, clever toasts, "the troubles", and the color green. There isn't much else the greater world can say. I have learned more about Ireland since being here but the truth is that nobody outside of Ireland has ever heard of hurling, Michael Collins, or the Irish language--in fact people call it Gaelic.


I am not making these comments to be rude. I actually love it here and the people I have met are perfectly friendly and open to talking about this. I only take offense to the general attitude--as if my nationality means I have something to prove. That the Irish think heritage is something to be proud of and in the same breath deny people proud of their Irish heritage a share in the culture...is a strange dichotomy that I have been dealing with since arriving. Thank goodness 'I am Polish and Chilean' or I'd have to take the exclusion personally. 


A final bit of hypocrisy: I went to see a movie last month and during the previews watched a lengthy commercial for the new terminal at the Dublin International Airport. The gist of the commercial (below) is about how amazing the contributions of Ireland have been for the world. According to the commercial, the Irish "built half the transcontinental railroad of America. We designed the White House and sat in the Oval Office." Oh really? That was the Irish? Your thoughts? Do you think this phenomenon is unique to Irish/American relations or have you experienced this in other countries? 



9 comments:

  1. I read your post with interest. I am Irish abroad. Let me qualify that. I was born in St James hospital, the one across the road from guinness. What I notice in your article is what a lot of Irish people notice when they an offended American. It's all about how you are offended. Firstly you make a statement, 'I am Irish', but then you use 6 paragraphs to explain that you mean you have Irish heritage. Why don't you be clear in the first place? Why are you expecting the guy behind the counter to instantly clue himself into what you mean? That is not his job. The person sending the message is the one responsible for sending a complete message and you cannot put the blame on the receiver if they understand you. So you make a statement of 3 words and expect someone of a different culure to understand that you really mean 6 paragraphs? Secondly, when you make that statement, what you don't see, is that you denigrate what it is to be Irish. In one short phrase, you negate all those who identify, with the famine, with the rising, the struggle, bloody sunday, the civil war, a lot of hurt and lot of things that Irish people today are still struggling to come to terms with. It's not self hate as that west brit wanna be English man Myers has written. Much like someone who has suffered abuse at the hands of a relative, it takes time for a nation to find it's feet and it's pride and to get over it's pain and heal itself. As an American you have none of this pain. So here is probably the crux of the reaction that you percieve as hostile or negative. You know part of the Irish view of Americans is coloured by events like the following, Singer Oleeta Adams being Interviewed by Dave Fanning... She says, I am Irish, he says, really? She says yep I have an O in my name........ I was stunned watching it.
    I have met many people on facebook and elsewhere have Irish flags and guns, IRA symbols, anti british symbols and are still banging on about the struggle, but doing nothing to help a country on knees..what sort of message do you think that this conveys to a people who want no more bombs or guns or warfare? At best it says Americans haven't got a clue, are crass unfeeling and unconnected.
    As far as I recall from school, during the famine, 1 million died, 1 million emigrated, and they didn't all emigrate to the United States. Just to let you know that. People with Irish heritage exist in Australia, in Germany, in France, Italy,Russia and Sweden, and the only ones who claim to be Irish, are the Americans.....ahem... must be an american thing...ahem....why are they saying this to me.

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  2. What exactly do you want when you walk into a shop or a bar exclaimly loudly you are Irish to a bunch of people who are in fact Irish? Are you expecting some sort of gratitude for finding your way home like the lost salmon? Are you expecting a round of drinks? A whooopeee thank you for telling us, we are so happy for you? You have never heard of Micheal Colins, or hurling, that's fine, that doesn't mean no one else out of Ireland ever has. Shemus Heaney, Noble Prize for Literature, alive and living today, U2, Sinead O Connor, Mary Robinson, Wiliam Butler Yeats, Oscar Wilde, James Connolly, all of these people and more are known by many people outside of Ireland, and while we may be sensitive, we may even be ignorant, it seems your article is the very reason people are cold to you, the hypocrisy seems to be coming from you. You are uneducated about your subject, you expect us to be mind readers, you critcise our 'self loathing' and criticise when we try and stand up and be proud of ourselves.... what is it you want from the Irish, not to be just like the Americans by any chance is it? You are in a different country, culture, walk gently with respect and an open mind you will find a deep richness, one which the Irish Independant and Mr Myeres do their level best to trample on....Why don't Australians who come to Ireland say... " I am Irish"... thanks for the space and apologies if I am ranting.......but you see you are not the first to approach us like this, but it's always only the Americans who do it like this.

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  3. I drove off the Rosslare ferry just before Christmas 1994, intending to wire up and office and leave Ireland after the job was done. I'm still on Irish soil. I've never encountered anti-American sentiment and I think a lot of it is down to the fact that I sound mid-Atlantic, not Pennsylvanian. That change of accent occurred because I lived in Germany for six years prior to my arrival in Ireland.

    And I don't ask cashiers in shops, "Where are your Reese Peanut Butter cups?"

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  4. I don't think there's any significant number of Irish people (in Ireland) who are not very aware of the numbers of people who left Ireland during the Famine and over the century and a half since. Our immigrant status all over the world is part and parcel of the national psyche and is something we learn about in school, as Warrior above said, from an early age. From my own experience, Irish people (from Ireland) do not think people are simply pretending to be Irish. If an American has told me they're Irish, I haven't thought to myself "what a spoofer." Instead, I've wondered why someone would proclaim that without knowing anything beyond St. Patty, Bobby Sands and Guinness. Any anti-American sentiment I have been aware of (I worked in a shop in Temple Bar for two years) was a result of the kind of behaviour America tourists are infamous for the world over - ie being loud, ignorant etc. I myself welcomed gladly Americans to Ireland and have witnessed fellow Irish do the same more times than not. We like America. We know how many millions of Irish people emigrated there. We listen to American music. Absorb American TV and cinema with more fervour than our own. We all adopt American catch-phrases, colloquialisms, slang and movie quotes into our every-dray speech. We're fans of American culture. The anti-American sentiments here are related to the stereo-typical tourist who's looking for a Guinness and a green t-shirt and we reject that bottling up of Irish culture into those gift-shop clichés. Of course anti-American feelings flourished world-wide under Bush - that's not uniquely Irish but an entirely separate debate! This hypocrisy that you describe doesn't exist. I find it hard to imagine an Irish person that would deny the heritage to any other person of Irish decent no matter how diluted. There were huge celebrations in Moneygall, Co. Offaly when Obama won the presidency.

    I found your perspective very interesting and it gave me a new insight into what Americans mean by saying, "I'm Irish," in terms of meeting each other and identifying your heritage but let's be real when you go abroad you can't expect the people to know what you mean because usually when someone says, I'm Chinese, I'm German, I'm Scottish, I'm Nigerian, it means they're actually from there.

    That being said I recently met a guy who was born and lived all his life in Berlin but was Turkish. One of the issues you haven't mentioned is that someone born in Ireland is considered Irish. We have a hard time getting our heads around countries where the same does not apply. I think we like to reserve the claim, "I'm Irish," for people that were born here on the island but we don't deny the heritage or the right to Irishness to any people of Irish decent no matter where they are from.

    Great blog post - I've enjoyed mulling over it!

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  5. I think the biggest issue at play here is the difference in understandings of nationality versus ethnicity. In Ireland and most of Europe, these two things are inextricably linked. While living in Galway I found some intense hostility toward the eastern Europeans who were living in Ireland. I worked with a number of Polish and Lithuanian folks, and the hostility toward them was only just under the surface. I listened to one old-timer rant at me for ten minutes about how "they all come over here, take our jobs and expect to be treated the same as every other Irishman."

    I was born and raised in America, but received dual citizenship with Ireland two years ago, lived in Ireland, and now I call Wales home. My reaction to the old-timer's comment was, "Well, yeah. They should be treated equally." But unless your parents and your parents' parents are from the country, it seems you aren't truly Irish (or Welsh or German or what have you). While I don't endorse the stereotypical boisterous American proclamation of Irish heritage, a country can't be judged by it's loudest and most obnoxious members.

    Which brings me to this: My grandfather left Limerick (by way of Cobh) ninety years ago. He grew up to raise a family and struggled with intense anti-Irish racism in New York and lived in the ghetto, struggling to raise six children. One of those children gave birth to me, and very specific parts of my upbringing I can trace back to my Irish heritage: The devout Catholicism; the importance of staying in touch with extended family; the biting humor — all these are a result of my great grandfather (and my namesake) struggling with leaving Ireland and making it in America. So why shouldn't I feel proud of that struggle?

    John F. O'Sullivan
    http://www.twopassports.com

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  6. @Warrior Your response puts me a little on the defense. I dont want this to be personal because I am not the American charging into pubs proclaiming to be Irish. Frankly, that is a crowd and a type of personality that I dont run with. Without representing that crowd, I will guess those folks are looking for simple camaraderie and in fact, would probably be the ones buying you pints if the reaction were friendly. In fact, I think they actually want to be educated about Ireland instead of shut out. This is the part I find difficult--a country spends large amounts of money promoting tourism as one of its main industries and yet the people hate tourists. Prague is similar and yet we have countries like Mexico on the other end of the spectrum. I get why I just dont think it's pleasant.

    Myself, I am just looking for a fair chance to be seen as an individual. I feel like the prevailing negative attitude holds a bitterness that often feels wrongfully directed at me. I have to let people know I am not like "those Americans" because the broad sweeping generalisation is the accepted norm. What do you think about the article I wrote--or do you blow off the idea because it was written by a 'wannabe Englishman'?

    You are right that we expect you to be mind readers--but just as you ask me to 'walk gently with respect' I ask you to do the same. This is not the football field where we are on somebody else's turf--this is cross-cultural interaction and there should be respect coming from both sides. As I said we Americans have our own deeply embedded psychological attachment to our cultural identities, which is why it is always Americans (not Australians/Germans/etc) who approach you in this manner. My post was not intended to justify the approach--my hope is to educate both Americans and Irish. There are connotations being misunderstood and misinterpreted throughout this basic conversation that both sides are not grasping. My intention is to learn and not to spread ignorance.

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  7. @Bernie You have the advantage of an unidentifiable accent then. I've noticed how accents are often the first basis for judgement--whether it be positive or negative.

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  8. @David I am glad to read your comment because it seems honest.

    Thanks for clarifying that some people do like American culture despite the reputation we have gained as horrible tourists. I will be the first to admit that in a huge country like the US, we are not educated much about anything outside the country. This is why Americans claim to be Irish when they hardly know a thing about Ireland--and why they cling to symbolic knowledge like shamrocks, claddaghs, and gift shop cliches. I honestly believe Irish Americans come here looking to educate themselves and get to know the culture first-hand.

    I also think the concept of heritage is incredibly fascinating. From my American point of view your friend would be Turkish because ethnically he is Turkish. This is how we classify people in the US. To what end? I can't say. Would you classify him as German because of his birth? I have always made the observation that there are no "African-French" or "Mexican-Spanish" people in the world. Is it only in the US that we identify first with ethnicity/heritage and second with our birthplace?

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  9. @John You hit the nail on the head. Nationality is such an ambiguous term that each country denotes (and connotes) the meaning in drastically different ways. We are having trouble with common rhetoric and this is the breakdown I was trying to address.

    I know what you mean about sentiments towards Polish and Lithuanian people. My passport lists my maiden name, which is incredibly Polish. As soon as I arrived in Ireland every person advised me to switch everything to my married name, especially for job applications. I can't say I was comfortable with the reason but of course I see the practicality of not appearing Polish. Isn't that a sad comment?

    "A country can't be judged by it's loudest and most obnoxious members."
    Yes. I hope that both Americans and Irish can agree.

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