On Being "Irish"-American

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

This is a post that I've wanted to write for a while now but I've waited to make sure I could really formulate it the way I wanted to.  It is something that has bothered me for a long time until I finally just decided that I had to look at it as cultural differences.

The "it" I'm referring to is the distinction between nationality and ethnicity that we have in the United States that doesn't seem to be understood here in Ireland.  If anyone in the U.S. asked me 'what I was' I would know that they were talking about my heritage and I would answer Irish.  It's a concept that I just grew up with and I can remember having lessons on it in elementary school.  We are all American, but we are made up of other things.

It wasn't until coming to Ireland that I realized how unique making this distinction is.  I cannot speak for all Irish, but many of them hate it when Americans call themselves Irish.  I've lost count of the number of eye rolls I've received, the "oh yeah because like everyone in America thinks they're Irish", and the one person who actually thought we called ourselves Irish because we thought it "sounded cooler" than saying we're American.  While I have spent a lot of time being annoyed by it, I've realized that it is just something that we may never see the same way.

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In fact, I think there are very few groups of people around the world that would be able to understand where we are coming from.  I think Canada and Australia might understand this sentiment, but unless living in a country built entirely by immigrants I can understand why the concept doesn't make sense to some people.  I'm also not sure if Italians or Germans or other groups of Europeans feel the same way about American's associating themselves with their country but I could understand why it would be difficult for them to understand, too.  I think what makes those of Irish descent stand out more than others is that they are extremely proud (which seems to have been passed on genetically) and they tend to reproduce a lot and quickly.

The thing is, few people in America are "American." Unless you are Native American, your family came from somewhere else.  I can't speak for the entire country because I know that some families have been here for hundreds of years and consider themselves nothing but American, but in the case of the Irish wave of immigration, many of them came over just a few decades ago (and many are still coming).

The thing about America is that people don't just hop on a boat (or plane today) and suddenly become "American."  They bring with them their languages and music and food and culture.  I grew up listening to celtic music and eating far too many potatoes.  My skin still hates the sunlight and alcoholism unfortunately didn't get lost over the Atlantic.

I can also understand the sentiment of the Irish.  They have the passports and the accents so they are the Irish.  What you "are" in America just has very little do to with a passport and it has so much more to do with what foods are passed around the dinner table and the traditions your family share during holidays.

I think people also need to take into account the fact that when the hundreds of thousands of Irish came over to America, most of them transplanted entire communities that just continued to grow as if they were still in the homeland.  The Irish didn't assimilate to America, America assimilated to the Irish.  Anyone who has been to Boston will be able to recognize the Irish culture that still exists today.  Boston doesn't have over 100 Irish pubs because we really like Guinness, we have them because that is our culture, too. After only a few days of living in Dublin, I could safely say that I felt more at home in Dublin than I would in Atlanta, Georgia and probably throughout a majority of other US cities.

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And yes, of course the culture has adapted since the Irish came to America.  Irish-American's eat corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's Day.  The Irish will be the first to say "that's not even Irish," while the Irish-Americans recognize it as their ancestors way of celebrating survival of the famine and the end of starvation.  And, yes, my name is "Erin" which is almost never used in Ireland because it literally means Ireland, but what better way could my parents have paid homage to the place that their families came from? So, while the two cultures may not be the same today, they both stemmed from the same place and have not veered too far off from one another.

Of course there will someday be a time when the culture has been diluted and is no longer as strong as it once was and perhaps the number of people associating themselves with Ireland will diminish, but I feel that that time is still a ways off.

So, while I am a citizen of the United States, I am still Irish by blood. (you know... with a little Scottish and Swedish in there, too!)

P.S. Just to drive home my point, check out "What Being Irish Really Means - Top 10 You Know Your Irish If..." Anyone who knows me will know that I 100% fit the bill without question.

P.P.S.  You don't get to call "dibs" on Obama and then tell me I'm not Irish!

P.P.P.S I would love to hear the opinions of any one who is Irish, Irish-American, or from any other country that may have a lot of immigration and/or emigration! The distinction between heritage and nationality fascinates me so I'd love to see how others perceive it!

12 comments:

  1. Hi! I just read your post on Niken's blog and a) It was inspiring and b) I LOVE the title of your blog. I actually want to get a tattoo that says that. I, myself, am French, English, German, and Native American, so I really can't claim any of them. Haha. I definitely think the German is most predominant, but I do see other characteristics in myself as well. It is definitely easier, and possibly more appropriate to just say I'm an American, but why should I forget my roots? Too many people stick their nose in the air about things like this, and I think we should just all celebrate who we are and where we have come from! Great post. xo

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    1. Thank you for stopping by and I'm glad you enjoyed my post!

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  2. Erin, I loved this post and just read it aloud to my boyfriend who is Irish-American and was nodding in agreement throughout the entire post. As someone who is only Irish on St. Patrick's Day, I've always been somewhat annoyed by the I'm-Irish-even-though-my-family-came-over-200-years-ago mentality especially since I'm a first generation American but this post, and especially my boyfriend's agreement to it made me
    nderstand that it isn't a mentality, it's heritage, so for that, thank you. I really enjoyed this post and the understanding that came with it. My Irish-American boyfriend and I are actually making our way across the pond next week and will be in Dublin over the weekend, it would be great to grab a pint if you're up for it!

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    1. Thank you for your comment! I was worried that people either wouldn't get it or wouldn't care but I'm glad it at least made one person think about it differently!

      I would love to grab a pint but I'm headed back to the US tomorrow! I've been here for a year now but it's time to get back home and back to reality!

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    2. I know exactly what you mean! When I studied abroad in London, I was so ready to come home! Hope you're back safe and sound in the states now!

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  3. Erin, I love your post so much. So thanks a lot for that!
    For me as a German living in the United States I think a lot of heritage and all the things that comes with it. In America people think that being German means eating Bratwurst, drinking beer and wearing leather pants. We have been to a "German village" last week and let's just say it wasn't German at all. Germany has a very difficult history and lots of people just reduce it to that and the food. The first thing I hear when I tell people that I am German is the word "beer" or "Hitler". And everybody wants to go to the Oktoberfest. I like living in America and I adapted a lot but there is also still a lot German in me.
    Again, thank you so much for this post.

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    1. I can definitely understand why the American perception of being a German is skewed. I don't have any facts to back this up but I'm assuming many of them tried to disassociate themselves with WWII... which apparently turned into an emphasis on bratwurst, beer and leather! Maybe you can work on refocusing them!

      Thanks for you comment!!

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    2. Haha, yeah, maybe I can. :) Every time they mention Germany in American comedy shows it's a joke about Nazis. I guess we will get never rid of it. It's a dark side of our history but it's not like that anymore.

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  4. This is probably one of my favourite posts of yours. Great work! Will be tweeting it

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    1. Thank you! I'm honored to hear that!

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  5. Interesting post!

    I live in Minnesota where a lot of Scandinavians settled, but I'm not originally from Minnesota. The popular thing in Minnesota is lutefisk and lefse, two traditional Scandinavian foods. But people in Sweden and Norway think it's weird that Minnesotans eat that, because people in Scandinavia haven't eaten those foods in 100 years. It's interesting how Swedish and Norwegian Americans cling to something that is considered outdated in Scandinavia.

    My family came from Germany originally and while I would never call myself German (I think Germans assimilated very well into America plus my family came in the 1800s) I understand the clinging to culture and I think that's part of the reason that I studied German.

    However, I think there isn't a concept of German-American as there is Irish-American. I don't know what it is about the Irish that came to the US, but it definitely is an identity in the way that German-American isn't.

    I didn't mean to go on for so long, but this is something I think about!

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  6. Hi my name is Linda and I'm an Irish woman, born and raised in the south of Ireland, grew up learning the Irish language, parents are Irish ect and I will admit I held exactly the same attitudes as other Irish people have had regarding American people calling themselves Irish. For us 'being Irish' means being born in Ireland and living in Ireland or having parents who were born and lived in Ireland. I just want to thank you for explaining what Americans mean when they call themselves Irish. It all makes a whole lot more sense now. Great post! Slán Leat!

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