The Story We Don’t Talk About: On Irishness, Immigration, and Race
August 10, 2018 7:34 AM   Subscribe

Maeve Higgins writes on Irishness, immigration, and race: Being white in America is so potent, so seductive, it can blind a person without them knowing it. Being white can make a whole community forget who they are and where they came from. The year Frederick Douglass visited Ireland was the year the country began its terrible spiral into a famine that ultimately killed a million people. There had been food shortages before, and the extent of the disaster was not yet clear, but he writes in a letter of the horror of leaving his house and being confronted with the sight of hungry children begging on the street. It’s painful to look through that lens at the present and see so many powerful Irish-Americans, like Paul Ryan, whose great-great-grandfather survived the famine and fled to America in 1851, doing everything they can to stop today’s refugees from entering the very country that gave their family sanctuary when they most needed it.

Maeve Higgins was interviewed (transcript) for the Lithub Podcast, But That's Another Story.
posted by ChuraChura (35 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
 
Two thoughts prompted by reading this.

--

From the article:
A book called "How the Irish Became White" is a tough read for those of us harboring any illusions that the Irish struggle for autonomy may have translated to support for black America’s struggle for justice. It chronicles the earliest days of Irish immigration, when the newly arrived Irish were in the same social and economic class as the free black Americans of the North. They already competed for jobs, and an end to slavery would heighten that competition. Like most immigrants, the Irish wanted to assimilate as quickly as possible, and soon realized that they had what we now know as white privilege, like in the labor movement where they rose to power, a movement African-Americans were excluded from. It’s a tragic and all-too-human story of how one group of oppressed people learned to collaborate in the oppression of another in order to get ahead themselves.
Every time anyone talks about "Irish slavery" and how the Irish were "enslaved", I feel like pointing at Shaquille O'Neal or any other African-American with a traditionally Irish surname and asking "oh, is this who you're talking about?" Yes, there was a tradition of the Irish immigrants getting kicked around, but there is also a tradition of people from the subsequent generations pulling the ladder up behind them.

--

Don't worry, this one's a funnier recollection:
They bought soda bread and Aran sweaters, anything that was for sale, really. We joked that you could sell them stones, if you convinced them that the stones were Irish enough.
The last time my Irish friend (who coincidentally also lives in County Cork) came for a visit, we were browsing in Brooklyn's Botanic Garden gift shop. They already had some simple gardening things out - including, as I saw to my tremendous amusement, a specially-packaged "shamrock growing kit" complete with Limerick-china pot, shamrock seeds, and "100% genuine auld sod," which was a packet of dirt that the box claimed had been specifically dug up from Ireland itself. The look on my friend's face when she saw the package was withering, and I spent the rest of the afternoon teasing her that this would be a perfect side hustle for her ("seriously, just go out to your back yard with a shovel and some plastic baggies....")
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:02 AM on August 10 [13 favorites]


Kansas City is exactly bang in the middle of America and it’s not even in Kansas, it’s in Missouri. That’s one of my go-to facts to tell guys I’m trying to impress. It never works. Often, they already know. More often, they don’t find it interesting and are confused as to why I told them.

and yet if i had a dime for every time I had to explain this to someone
posted by dismas at 8:15 AM on August 10 [4 favorites]


Maeve was just on (Mefi's Own) Judge John Hodgman podcast, too.
posted by ardgedee at 8:22 AM on August 10 [2 favorites]


"It’s a tragic and all-too-human story of how one group of oppressed people learned to collaborate in the oppression of another in order to get ahead themselves.

It’s also a story rarely told, at least among ourselves."


This. Great post. The history of how many Irish people in America reconciled themselves to/embraced white supremacy (i.e. this distracted boyfriend meme, though I don't think 'liberationary' is really a word) is seriously underdiscussed in Ireland. Same for the whole fantasy story of Irish slaves; if an Irish person is repeating that, it's likely they picked it up on 4chan.

I cannot for the life of me find it but there was a decent episode of an American leftist podacst - its name was something fairly anodyne like 'American Socialist' or something - that covered the changing self-perceptions of Irish Americans. Interestingly it picked up the counter-current, looking at what happened when the Northern Irish civil rights movement, directly inspired by the US civil rights movement, went looking to well-off Irish Americans for support.

The dissonance between 'Catholic Irish fighting for rights' and 'dirty longhairs inspired by black radicals' seems to have produced something of a mental divide-by-zero error in prominent bodies like the Ancient Order of Hibernians, in turn causing some internal tension amongst Northern Irish civil rights folks who needed the money and support but who also began to recognise how awful the Irish American establishment was. Most memorably Belfast MP Bernadette Devlin McAliskey was disgusted with what she saw and upon receiving the key to New York, gave it to the Black Panthers.

Unfortunately google isn't helping me turn up the podcast episode in question, which also highlighted the disgusting examples of Pence and Mulvaney. Blah.
posted by ocular shenanigans at 8:38 AM on August 10 [13 favorites]


God, what a well-written essay. I thought I knew where it was going, and in broad strokes, I did, just as Higgins knows the spoilers to Titanic. Unlike Titanic, the essay tells a thoughtful set of interwoven stories on the way, and ends with a simply stated, basic truth that still punched me in the fucking gut.
posted by pykrete jungle at 8:54 AM on August 10 [6 favorites]


Yeah, I know a lot of racist Irish Americans and it always bums me out. You'd like to think the ancestral struggles in the US and the current illegal status of many in the community would lead to solidarity with black and brown people. Instead it's almost always false equating with African slavery as 'look how far we've been able to come / why can't they?' Never 'Thank god we were never actually slaves and we're white / good on those who have more to struggle with.'

The best I can understand it is the success of strategies that pit poor folks against each other.
posted by es_de_bah at 8:57 AM on August 10 [2 favorites]


Every time anyone talks about "Irish slavery" and how the Irish were "enslaved"

There is pretty much a 100% chance that this same person will also insist that slavery is a property rights issue, complain every time someone proposes destroying a Confederate memorial, and/or insist on talking about black-on-black crime.
posted by zombieflanders at 9:00 AM on August 10 [11 favorites]


Maeve also made a pretty convincing lamppost on the Everything is Alive podcast.
posted by Jugwine at 9:07 AM on August 10 [3 favorites]




Every time anyone talks about "Irish slavery" and how the Irish were "enslaved"

There is pretty much a 100% chance that this same person will also insist that slavery is a property rights issue, complain every time someone proposes destroying a Confederate memorial, and/or insist on talking about black-on-black crime.


Nope. Plenty of "middle of the road" white ppl bring this up who would never repeat such obvious racist shibboleths re:confederacy or property rights..

In the 21st century northern/coastal USA, confederacy support is absolutely in the "overt racism" signifier list......when talking about African American slavery, "africans enslaved other africans" and "irish were slaves too" are still on the "well they have a point...." list.
posted by lalochezia at 9:20 AM on August 10 [8 favorites]


I know educated, progressive white people who believe the various "Irish as slaves" narratives. It's usually presented with an academic veneer so like Jordan Peterson it tricks those who don't look closer or who don't spend time on Metafilter.
posted by tofu_crouton at 9:56 AM on August 10 [3 favorites]


The best I can understand it is the success of strategies that pit poor folks against each other.

I heard it from my grandmother, bless her heart, who was proud of her yankee heritage and how she sat at colored lunch counters when forced to travel into the South. But she was a typical northern white person when it came to what neighborhoods to live in, what church to go to, and who could be in the family. She's probably terribly disappointed in the afterlife to know that her only great-grandchildren are latino, but she disowned that daughter before I was born.

As a transplant into the deep South, I've come to see my Midwestern heritage as about as racist, only willing to hide behind the "invisible hand" for de facto segregation and more willing to use regional stereotypes to avoid any serious self-examination.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 10:29 AM on August 10 [4 favorites]


Beyond the Pale: Frederick Douglass in Cork, Lee Jenkins, The Irish Review (1986-), No. 24 (Autumn, 1999), pp. 80-95 [JSTOR, PDF]
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:41 AM on August 10 [5 favorites]


Yuuuuuupppp. My just Irish enough to make a big deal about it grandparents supported the civil rights movement, like good Catholics, and also lived in Leavittown, like actual racists. My huge extended (American) Irish Catholic family is a very, very mixed bag, but man they do love the Irish victimization nonsense. They drag that shit around like it’s some kind of magical shield that allows them to be as terrible as they want and still think of themselves as the underdogs. Which seems exacerbated in cases where they were actually victims, but not of anything they can ever admit out loud, bc Irish Catholic. (sexual abuse. It always seems to be sexual abuse.) it’s a really complicated, messy mix of fuckery, and I have never seen anyone engage with it without getting sucked into the absolute ratsnest of interlocking pathologies that make up what I know as American Irish Catholic culture.

In the very first episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, the gang accidentally hires a gay Black man to promote the bar. His first act is to get rid of all the shamrocks and shit. “Nothing scares gay people or Black people more than Irish crap.”

That is...if not 100% accurate, it’s not totally wrong, either.
posted by schadenfrau at 11:43 AM on August 10 [15 favorites]


According to family history, some of my 17th century Irish immigrant ancestors were indentured or penal labor. But they were never chattel, and their descendants were American citizens when the constitution was ratified, and after that, low-level civil servants. They were, for all intents and purposes, White Americans. Some were probably nativist and anti-Catholic during the period when Ellis Island was active.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 11:59 AM on August 10


Interestingly it picked up the counter-current, looking at what happened when the Northern Irish civil rights movement, directly inspired by the US civil rights movement, went looking to well-off Irish Americans for support.

Hence that Bernadette Devlin quote:
‘My people’—the people who knew about oppression, discrimination, prejudice, poverty and the frustration and despair that they produce– were not Irish Americans. They were black, Puerto Ricans, Chicanos. And those who were supposed to be ‘my people’, the Irish Americans who knew about English misrule and the Famine and supported the civil rights movement at home, and knew that Partition and England were the cause of the problem, looked and sounded to me like Orangemen. They said exactly the same things about blacks that the loyalists said about us at home. In New York I was given the key to the city by the mayor, an honor not to be sneezed at. I gave it to the Black Panthers.
posted by kersplunk at 12:01 PM on August 10 [19 favorites]


Also, Maeve Higgins is routinely wonderful and great, and if you’re in New York you can see her most Mondays (along with Aparna Nancherla! Who is also routinely wonderful and great) hosting one of the best stand up shows at Littlefield’s in Brooklyn.

(I assume. I haven’t been in a while, and they’ve both blown up a bit the last year, so who knows.)
posted by schadenfrau at 12:02 PM on August 10 [1 favorite]


Wonderful writing, a great story teller--But I do wonder with whom she thought the early Irish immigrants should identify--Irish they may have been but they were also Catholic, Europeans and had hopes and dreams of assimilating--she mentions the political leaders of Irish descent who appear to forget their good fortune as immigrants but fails to mentions what I am sure ( I am not going to do the research for this) are the thousands, if not 10's of thousands of politicians, lawyers, professionals, business and labor leaders of Irish decent who full embraced the civil rights movement, organized labor and progressive social causes (remember, at one time they were mostly all Democrats. It is certainly debatable but I will put the Irish up against any other immigrant group in terms of their contributions to progressive politics. It is OK to pick and choose to make a point but that is still picking and choosing. And depending how far one wants to go back--many Irish were enslaved and traded by the Vikings when they invaded ireland and ruled Dublin. I do not think the Irish were in the strictest sense "slaves" during the British occupation but it is still debatable if the two famines( 1740+ and 1845 +) were not, in fact, passive genocide with millions dying millions more force to leave. The question i have--what was it the writer wanted them to do?
posted by rmhsinc at 12:31 PM on August 10


remember, at one time they were mostly all Democrats

Many of them at the point in time where Democrat were the less progressive (e.g. pro-slavery) party in US politics (see below).

I will put the Irish up against any other immigrant group in terms of their contributions to progressive politics

I can think of plenty of others, not least of all Jewish immigrants, who have been one of the most consistently progressive cultural and religious groups throughout virtually all of American history (the rightward turn of many Jewish Americans has occurred almost entirely in the last several decades). Also, Irish-Americans, including recent immigrants, were the impetus behind several racist anti-draft riots during the US Civil War precisely because so many were Democrats at the time Republicans were more or less the progressives.
posted by zombieflanders at 1:24 PM on August 10 [10 favorites]


A lot of those groups voted at the ballot box for legal desegregation while voting with their feet and wallets for white-flight suburbia. Now that we're 50 years past the civil rights acts it's becoming clear that white-flight geography has also been a toxic and racist blight on American culture.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 2:07 PM on August 10 [2 favorites]


Note, my own family participated in that dynamic moving to the other side of Chicago to get away from Gary. So my history is part of the problem.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 2:33 PM on August 10


I'm (partially) Irish-Canadian. A quick Google search (to check birth records) confirms that my ancestors left Ireland sometime during the Great Famine. I'm also descended from Welsh Quakers who immigrated to Pennsylvania (presumably to escape religious persecution) and Scottish immigrants to New York who then became refugees fleeing the American Revolutionary War.

What little I know of my family's history with regards to oppression and Whiteness has only made the difficulties faced by current refugees and racialized peoples more relatable. I am absolutely boggled by people today with backgrounds similar to mine who have "screw you got mine" attitudes towards those currently disadvantaged and oppressed. I mean, I'm not naive enough to be surprised, but I do wonder what part of a person's heart has to rot for that to be an emotionally acceptable position to them.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 2:45 PM on August 10 [6 favorites]


My dad's parents both came here in the 1910's. We were maybe slightly more connected to Ireland than some other So Cal "Irish Americans". My dad had first cousins there, and he went to Ireland quite a few times, and they would also come visit us. I grew up as a competitive Irish Dancer, I know a smattering of Irish - I can say hello, ask how people are, I know lots of dancing-specific vocab - and I know how to play both hurling and gaelic football. I play guitar in a band that plays trad and Pogues songs. I even hold Irish citizenship.

But I'm not Irish. I'm American. I grew up here, Los Angeles is my home, my accent is clearly Californian, I love baseball and apple pie and all that shit. I'm not "Irish American". I'm American. Even if I move to Ireland (and we're keeping that option open, because there's waaay too many Nazis running around, and we're Jews), we'll still be American.

I can't understand how people can ignore that the very treatment that the Irish were subjected to - language and culture outlawed, religion suppressed, dispossession of their land - is exactly what was done to indigenous peoples in America, and Africa, and the Caribbean, and just everywhere. It's what colonizers do to the colonized.

I think anybody who can realistically trace ancestry back to Ireland should remember the gift the Choctaw sent to Ireland during the Great Hunger and start finding a way to pay that shit forward.
posted by curiousgene at 3:29 PM on August 10 [17 favorites]


I'm Irish and have been back and forth since my teens between the US and Ireland. Irish-American culture is completely different than Irish culture. The good things: the humor, kindness and humanity and distrust of wealth or even the idea of a ruling class has been surgically removed and replaced with whatever is going on with Conor McGregor. The bad things; over-religiousness, greed, lack of ability to look at the bigger picture or pay your fucking taxes (the Irish Water fiasco, every Irish musician ever), feeling the rules don't apply to you really and whatever the problem with Scots-Irish culture is seem to have been magnified though. The vast majority of American's of distant Irish descent that I've met are perfectly nice, normal, slightly more left-leaning people but the ones who call themselves irish and go on and on about it and who's ancestors came over far past living memory? they are mostly weirdos.

Ok, the rules thing can go either way but clearly Paul Ryan and Mike Pence are using it for evil.
posted by fshgrl at 5:19 PM on August 10 [4 favorites]


I think anybody who can realistically trace ancestry back to Ireland should remember the gift the Choctaw sent to Ireland during the Great Hunger and start finding a way to pay that shit forward.

There is a deeply moving book on the history between the Choctaw and the Irish called The Long March. One of the government agents in the 1800s was a secon generation Irishman and they regarded him highly (for a government agent). It was through him they donated the funds and that act turned into a long term friendship between the two peoples. It's a fairly amazing story given the historical events going on around them.

This story by a Choctaw woman who visited Ireland is a moving reminder of what the gift meant at the time. The memorial is really lovely in person, photos don't convey it. Choctaw leaders came to the unveiling and the Taoiseach visited the Choctaw Nation to announce a scholarship for Choctaw students to study in Ireland.

As a footnote that last article mentions he also met with the governor who has Irish ancestry and is a supporter of Trump. The "if you can believe that shite" seems to have been cut off though.
posted by fshgrl at 7:00 PM on August 10 [7 favorites]


My grandmother was actually Scottish-Catholic who came to the US -- during the time when the Catholic Church was illegal in Scotland (always winter and never Christmas!) -- and settled in Boston among the Irish Catholics. The only present she received in the entirety of her childhood was when her father rescued a stray kitten and brought it home for her, carrying it in his shirt to keep it warm. My grandfather was Irish-Catholic (from County Lietrim as per the article, natch, the "Alabama of Ireland" as we've been informed many times!), in New York, and his family was swept up in the Tammany Hall machine; his father was a policeman and later, during Prohibition, a judge; they were prominent and important enough that my grandfather was one of the small handful of Catholics allowed into Yale when they had quotas to keep Catholics out. Also important enough that they had their own personal rum runner to provide them with liquor during Prohibition. (They met because my grandmother joined the Navy WAVES in World War II and was a secretary to the general he reported to as a civil engineer; they dated illegally because he was an officer and she was enlisted.)

My grandfather voted Republican, and my grandmother was never reconciled to this until the day she died, angry that he voted for the party that wanted to assimilate Catholics and the Irish into polite WASP society, the party that claimed the Democrats were the party of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion" (which, fair, w/r/t the Civil War, but way less fair in 1950), the party that thought he was Less Than because he was Irish and Catholic, the party that demanded Catholics pray the Our Father the Protestant way, and every election they went and cancelled each others' votes out because he was an aspiring WASP and she was determinedly a Catholic Democrat. They were approaching their 75th anniversary when he died, and she loved him but could not forgive him for his Republicanism.

We have one important family tradition on that side -- we eat rutabaga at Christmas and Thanksgiving and all family events. Because when our Irish forebearers came to the United States during the Potato Famine, what they ate for every damn meal was potatoes. And what they ate for high holy days and important festivals was rutabaga. That's how poor we were -- rutabaga was our festival food. They grew rutabaga special in a special little patch of garden in Lietrim, so they'd have something besides potatoes for holidays. And so we eat rutabaga for every single holiday -- mashed, roasted, doesn't matter, has to be rutabaga.

My grandfather on the other side was French Catholic -- Quebecois, really -- and grew up in Catholic Chicago, among the Irish and Polish, and learned to polka in self-defense because he was determined to date the pretty girls and the pretty girls were all Polish and would only date a man who could polka. (It wasn't until I was in high school that I realized that NOT ALL FUNERALS END IN POLKAS, because all funerals in my family end in polkas!)

I am fortunate that all of my grandparents, Republican or Democrat, believed in immigrants, and voted for immigrants, and rejected politicians who hated immigrants. I shudder to think what my grandfathers (both GOP voters in their later years) would have thought of Trump (like most of their Republican children, I think, they would have quit their party in disgust). But oh my God, I think about this all the time. I went to Notre Dame, a budding Democrat, on a campus that is 85% GOP. I majored in theology. I know the Irish in America. I know Catholics in America! This is my thing and these are my people.

And I am full of rage. Paul Ryan is not fucking Catholic. John Boehner is not fucking Catholic. I went to college with one of Scalia's kids and Scalia may claim to be Catholic but I am not fucking convinced, "asshole" is not actually a legitimate form of Catholicism and that, as far as I could tell, was what the Scalia family went in for.

Like the author, I cannot reconcile my Irish roots with the Irish-Americans like Paul Ryan who today vote to keep immigrants and refugees out of the United States. I don't understand. Immigration was our salvation. Paul Ryan must not eat rutabaga at Thanksgiving to remind him of where he came from -- during the Potato Famine, the wharves at Cork shipped enough beef to Britain every day to feed all of Ireland -- he must consider himself part of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy who had access to that beef. And anyone who considers themselves part of the beef-eating aristocracy is not someone I can be in community with, and is not someone who can truly call themselves Catholic, because they're not in community with the poor who eat rutabaga for special occasions.

Ugh I don't know that I have a point beyond "Paul Ryan sucks" and "he should stop making Irish-Americans look bad through his suckitude."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:34 PM on August 10 [17 favorites]


Paul Ryan must not eat rutabaga at Thanksgiving to remind him of where he came from -- during the Potato Famine, the wharves at Cork shipped enough beef to Britain every day to feed all of Ireland -- he must consider himself part of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy who had access to that beef.
I'd love to see Paul Ryan being forced to discuss his beliefs on Ireland and Ann Rand with a group of average middle aged to elderly Dublin Irishwomen on live TV.
posted by fshgrl at 11:09 PM on August 10 [11 favorites]


A recent article/essay (with some data ) by "Liam Kennedy director of the Clinton Institute for American Studies at University College Dublin" in the Irish Times. "How Irish America thinks, votes and acts". No simple picture, generational changes and any stereotypes are probably that--stereotypes.
posted by rmhsinc at 2:22 AM on August 11


I am second generation Irish and Polish American who grew up in the 50s and 60s. Those like Paul Ryan disgust me. I agree with Eyebrows Mcgee "Ugh I don't know that I have a point beyond "Paul Ryan sucks" and "he should stop making Irish-Americans look bad through his suckitude." These people do not represent the good in either their ethnic or religious heritage. They are proof of the greedy, evil side of human nature.

My father was more a socialist than anything and grew up in a mixed Black and Irish neighborhood and was a aware of the injustices inflicted on people of color, like his friend who was not accepted to nursing school at the local Catholic hospital because she was black. My parents supported civil rights, and we lived in what was then country on my Polish grandpa's farm, and only later became suburbs, My father said the reason white people became Republicans when they moved to the suburbs was they believed they would be rich some day and wanted to be in the party of the rich. Both my parents were very liberal for their time and could not stand some of the bigots they worked with.

I was very glad to see the quote from Bernadette Devlin; she may be a relative as my grandmother was Annie Devlin from the same town in County Tyrone. Bernadette has always been one of my heroes. We have been doing genealogy, and so far 100% of the living relatives in my Irish and my husband's Jewish family hate Trump at which we are relieved. That includes my relatives still in Co.Galway Ireland.

I have always found it sad and wrong that one group of immigrants turned against the next group, or against Africans brought here against their will. Divide and conquer, keep the poor fighting each other while the rich get richer. I am still fighting this fight with people my age and younger who hate immigrants today but were descended from immigrants yesterday. Disgusting.
posted by mermayd at 6:50 AM on August 11


No simple picture, generational changes and any stereotypes are probably that--stereotypes.

I think this thread is more about the minority of people who make a big deal of having some Irish ancestry but have no real ties to Ireland or understanding of Irish culture. And what they do know is stuck in the 1800s and mostly misconceptions at that. Plus they always seem to think that irishness is/was some kind of obstacle to overcome.

Paul Ryan has become their poster boy because he is just so magnificently clueless. And he goes on about it so much.
posted by fshgrl at 9:19 AM on August 11 [3 favorites]


It’s about Americans who identify as Irish, despite all evidence

Which is actually how I might start describing it

(Is there a name for this? Because it is a thing, but they just call themselves Irish Catholic.)
posted by schadenfrau at 9:21 AM on August 11


In Ireland Irish Americans are just called "Americans".

Or maybe Yanks if people want to be a little bit rude about it.

In fairness Irish Catholic was a pretty strong cultural identity for a long time those two words told you a fair bit about a person's upbringing. But it's dying out. Maybe it's dead by now, I'm not sure.
posted by fshgrl at 9:29 AM on August 11


yeah in my family it’s not going to survive my mother’s generation, and they’re already dying. (Although it will take a while; there are ten of them.)
posted by schadenfrau at 9:32 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


Well, things change as they often should. I don't think you'll find too many Irish people looking back nostalgically on the 30s-80s Catholic regime. Things are better now.

If they could just address the generally incompetent way the country is run, the housing crisis and the shocking state of the health system we'd really be getting somewhere.
posted by fshgrl at 5:06 PM on August 11


"(Is there a name for this? Because it is a thing, but they just call themselves Irish Catholic.)"

So, this is actually like a cultural or sociological category. English-speaking Catholicism in the US is largely Irish Catholicism, because there were a lot of Irish, yes, but mostly because the largest portion of priests were imported from Ireland, who had the benefit of already speaking English. So English-speaking Catholicism in the United States is very, very Irish-influenced. In some places you have other dominant strains -- Italian Catholics in New York, Polish Catholics in Chicago, Creole-Cajun Catholics in New Orleans. So when someone says they're "Irish Catholic" it's less about claiming Irishness and more about identifying their cultural background. If I say to you, "I come from a big Irish-Catholic family," you get a lot of information from that about what my family is like, how I grew up, what kinds of traditions my parents probably emphasized, how we do funerals, what colleges and universities we approve of, and so on. Ethnically, I'm only 1/4 Irish, but I'm not communicating my ethnic background when I say I'm from an "Irish Catholic" family; I'm communicating our cultural group, which is "English-speaking American Catholics, heavily influenced by the Irish Catholic diaspora which shaped the modern American Church." But that's so unwieldy. :)

Even scholars often talk about the "Anglo-Irish [Catholic] Church" and the "Latino [Catholic] Church" in America, to distinguish the two major language traditions in Catholicism in the US, which have big cultural and religious praxis differences as well. It's weird to say "Anglo Catholic" because there were English Catholics but culturally and in terms of religious praxis they were VERY VERY DIFFERENT from Irish Catholics, but you can't just say "Irish Catholic" because it's not JUST the Irish, it's all the English-speaking Catholics heavily influenced by the Irish, so they often say "Anglo-Irish" to identify the language AND the cultural influence.

Anyway, people who walk around saying "I'm Irish-American!" when it's not St. Patrick's Day or some kind of event where everyone is announcing their ethnic background, that's different, and that's a little weird. :) But saying "I'm Irish Catholic" is an cultural statement that conveys a lot of information in two small words ... especially to other Catholics.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:48 PM on August 12 [5 favorites]


In Ireland Irish Americans are just called "Americans".

Or maybe Yanks if people want to be a little bit rude about it.


The first time I went to Ireland, my dad's cousin took me to Kenmare to visit some other cousins. When we arrived at the pub apparently run by some relation or another, before I had said a single word, he asked "who's the Yank?" (I was 17 at the time. I shudder to think how I was probably dressed.) My dad's cousin said "oh that's Jerry Dan Jer's grandson". At which point I was slightly more welcome.

This was also my introduction to the usage of patronymic and locative naming in Ireland. It was about then that I realized that apparently approximately everyone in that part of Kerry was named Sullivan. Lots of Jeremiahs, too. So my grandfather was Jerry Dan Jer. There was another Jerry, same townland, whose dad was Dan, but his dad was... something else. I forget. Gotta tell them apart somehow. There was cousin Owen Sullivan, and then there was another Owen, the Master, because he was the schoolmaster, and then Owen the Bridge, who lived by the bridge.

Pick some new names, people.
posted by curiousgene at 11:23 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]


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