"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?