What exactly do we, the Irish, think of our American cousins, the Irish-Americans? Most of us usually encounter them in Ireland as they are bustled about from Blarney Castle, to the Dingle Peninsula and about the various heritage hotspots of Ireland, or maybe we meet them when they are asking us for directions lost, meandering our bothareens. Generally we think of Irish-Americans as loud, obnoxious, and more than a little presumptuous at calling themselves ‘Irish’, and between ourselves we usually just call them ‘Americans’. Our mild irritation with them may have developed from a slight jealousy, watching their success from an island more often mired in political and economic stagnation than not. Or perhaps it stems from a defensiveness around our cultural heritage spawned from an insecurity as a colony for so many years. The idea that we might be nothing more than a breed of Brits with accents (God forbid!). So we basically laugh them off as ‘Yanks’. But Irish-America like Irish identity itself developed during and from, years of struggle. For us it was the British Empire. For Irish-Americans it was a series of nativist groups, like the Know-Nothings, the American Protestant Association, the American Protective Association and the Ku Klux Klan. However their hardwon migrant success allowed these newcomers to claim full ownership of the identity ‘American’ citizen even if they were Irish and Catholic.
Despite strong opposition Irish immigrants rapidly clawed their way into political power demonstrating remarkable political astuteness by far more effectively utilizing their numbers than other ethnic immigrants. Meanwhile the American Civil War left shallow any claims that the Irish lacked loyalty to their homeland through the blood sacrifice and heroism of Irish-born soldiers, such as that of Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg. Still the Irish in America refused to become American, to shed their old world culture and religion. Instead they shaped a new identity, Irish-American.
The idea of a hyphenated American was lambasted by many Americans and President Wilson, responding to jeers of Irish-Americans in Peubo, Colorado snapped, “Any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic.” A patently absurd statement proven wrong by the numbers of Irish-Americans who have died in service to the United States in wartime.
The Irish had led the charge, supported by Germans, in holding the so-called “golden door” ( that featured in Emma Lazerus’ poem on the famed Statue of Liberty) of wider American identity ajar to those who were not Anglo-Protestants.
How relevant is that struggle with the present day? Well, as with Irish identity, what it is to be Irish-American has changed in the past hundred years. Once a phrase associated entirely with Irish Catholic immigrants, it has come to include all Irish immigrants and their descendants to the US regardless of religious affiliation , partly due to abating of anti-Catholicism, partly due to the fading of Scots-Irish as a term of relevance, but also partly due to Islam succeeding Catholicism as the bogeyman within American society. Back in October 2008, Colin Powell told Meet the Press that he had to correct senior members of his Republican Party who said Barack Obama was a Muslim. “Well the correct answer is that he is not a Muslim, he is a Christian, but the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?” Contrast this with Al Smith, whose mother was from Westmeath and who was the first Catholic to run for President in 1928 and who faced opponents who printed on badges the slogan “A Christian in the White House”. Kennedy faced a less virulent hostility but was still asked whether he would take order from Rome. Challenging intolerance within society is something all Americans must do, but it is especially important that Irish-Americans are a movement for inclusion, not exclusion, as so many of them come from a religious affiliation that, until recently, earned them similar alienation.
If we look at Irish-America, and see nothing but green beer and shamrock shakes we are viewing Irish-America as superficially as an American looking at the Irish and seeing nothing but leprechauns and drunks. The Irish can be proud in many different ways of being Irish. Irish-Americans, likewise, can be proud of the term Irish-American.