When the Provisional Irish Republican Army agreed to end its paramilitary insurgency (and/or terrorist campaign) against British rule in Northern Ireland with the Good Friday accords of 1998, it was unambiguously a good thing for the people of Ireland and their British next-door neighbors. It’s not like everything suddenly became hunky-dory in the long and troubled historical relationship between those islands, but the peace has largely held – splinter groups and isolated sectarian violence aside – and an era of relative normalcy and increasing prosperity has followed. Given the global context of the 21st century, an intractable religious-cum-nationalist dispute between two tiny groups of white people in the northwest corner of Europe looks pretty close to irrelevant.
But the end of the IRA’s guerrilla war had a less salubrious effect on the Irish-American population, and I say that in full awareness that on the surface that’s an offensive statement. What I mean is that the last connection between Irish-American identity and genuine history was severed, and all we’re left with now is a fading and largely bogus afterlife. On one hand, Irishness is a nonspecific global brand of pseudo-old pubs, watered-down Guinness, “Celtic” tattoos and vague New Age spirituality, designed to make white people feel faintly cool without doing any of the hard work of actually learning anything. On the other, it’s Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Pat Buchanan and Rep. Peter King, Long Island’s longtime Republican congressman (and IRA supporter), consistently representing the most stereotypical grade of racist, xenophobic, small-minded, right-wing Irish-American intolerance. When you think of the face of white rage in America, it belongs to a red-faced Irish dude on Fox News.
It’s no secret that much of the IRA’s moral and financial support during the 30-year conflict came from the American descendants of Irish immigrants, many of whom were several generations removed from the ancestral homeland, understood the contemporary Irish context poorly, and were motivated by a sentimental and mythological version of nationalism. Supporting the ‘RA’s campaign of anti-British violence, either openly or (this was even more common) in private after a few drinks, was a uniting aspect of 20th-century Irish-American identity. It went along with Clancy Brothers records, covering up for abusive Catholic priests, a certain domestic style of monogrammed lace curtains and china knickknacks, and long St. Patrick’s Day pilgrimages to the kinds of decrepit, wood-paneled big-city bars that today exist largely as upscale simulacra of themselves. (I’m aware there are some real Irish bars left, but if you don’t know I’m not telling.)
That dim connection to a faraway romantic dream fueled by the doomed rebellions of 1798 and 1916, that kitschification of violence, was never entirely healthy. (Indeed, to the extent that American financial support helped lead to the deaths of both British and Irish civilians, it was shameful.) But galvanizing events like the Bloody Sunday shootings in Derry in 1972, or the Long Kesh hunger strikes of 1981, also led more than a few Irish-Americans back to the true complications of their history, and helped them to see that there was an inextricable connection between the long-running Anglo-Irish conflict and other events, in America and around the world.
In its finer moments, the Irish republicanism of the ’70s and ’80s sparked a global consciousness among a population of privileged white Americans whose cultural distinctness was fading fast. You didn’t have to support Angela Davis, Che Guevara and the PLO to understand that there was a historical relationship between their issues and the Irish Troubles. Ireland was the original colonized nation, and was subjected to a near-genocidal conquest centuries before the Holocaust. It was where the policies of the British Empire were road-tested for use in India and Africa, and where a subject population stripped of property and political rights was then blamed for its own poverty. The island’s native people, despite their white skin, were viewed as savage and barbaric because they did not speak English, practiced an alien religion and hewed to unfamiliar cultural customs. During the Great Famine of the 1840s, which produced a huge wave of Irish emigration to America, the Irish poor were starved to death or driven off their own land by the millions. Yes, the potato — a plant imported from South America by the British — had been ruined by blight, but the famine itself was avoidable. Its true cause was not the black fungus that turned the prátaí to inedible mush, but a pseudo-Darwinian, proto-Milton Friedman free market ideology, insisted upon at a time when Ireland as a whole was a net exporter of food.
As the title of Noel Ignatiev’s important if overly harsh academic study “How the Irish Became White” makes clear, Irish immigrants first arrived in America as despised outsiders, who were white in terms of complexion but not culture. In my colleague Joan Walsh’s “What’s the Matter with White People?”, she discusses Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, a little-noticed event in which black and Irish indentured servants rose up against British colonial rule. (This led to the creation of the slave codes, which made African-Americans slaves for life, and the conferring of limited white privilege on the Irish.) As late as the 19th century, Anglo elites in New York perceived the drunken and disorderly Irish newcomers as an unhealthful influence on the city’s industrious and long-settled black population.
But Irish-Americans rapidly absorbed the lesson that the way to succeed in their new country was to reject the politics of class and shared economic interests and embrace the politics of race. One disgraceful result was the New York draft riots of 1863, the low point of Irish-black relations in American history, when Irish immigrants by the thousands turned on their black neighbors in a thinly disguised race riot. Irish-Americans were under no delusions that the ruling class of Anglo Protestants liked or trusted them, and anti-Irish and/or anti-Catholic bigotry endured in diluted form well into the 20th century. But by allying themselves with a system of white supremacy, the Irish in America were granted a share of power and privilege — most notably in urban machine politics, and the police and fire departments of every major city.
As Joan’s book and many other sources have discussed, over the course of the last century the bulk of the Irish-American population drifted rightward through the Democratic Party and then out the other side into Archie Bunker-land. A key constituency of the New Deal coalition became, 40 years later, a key constituency of the Reagan revolution. But throughout that period there was always a countervailing social-justice tendency in Irish-American life, the tendency of the antiwar activist brothers Daniel and Philip Berrigan (quite likely the only Jesuit priests ever to make the FBI’s most-wanted list), or of 1952 left-wing presidential candidate Vincent Hallinan and his firebrand San Francisco family. This was the tradition of the radical Vatican II priests, nuns and theologians, who kept many of us from abandoning the Church altogether, and of the 1968 reawakening of Robert F. Kennedy and the subsequent career of his brother Teddy.
Without exception, those people started from an understanding of their own cultural and national history. They began with Irish nationalist or republican politics, and moved from there to consider how Ireland’s story fit into a worldwide pattern that transcended the specific racial paranoia of the United States. Of course Irish history did not end in 1998, and the current situation in that country – a land of immigrants for the first time in its modern history – is exceptionally interesting. But Ireland is no longer a divisive and charismatic “issue,” capable of galvanizing people who live thousands of miles away. With Irish-American identity now split between an optional lifestyle accessory and a bunch of unappealing right-wing guys yelling at us, its social-justice component has evaporated as well.
Am I proud of my Irish heritage? Sure I am, up to a point: We’re all born with something, and I was born with a name no one can spell or pronounce, which is specific to a few townlands in County Clare. I’ve actually made it more Yank-friendly by inserting the apostrophe; my dad insisted upon “O Hehir,” and in retrospect I’m surprised he didn’t go all the way to Ó hEithir or Ó hAíchir. (As I have told strangers roughly twice a day for the last several decades, you say it “just like the airport.”) I inherited some of my Irish-raised dad’s snobbery about the hopelessly Americanized character of St. Patrick’s Day, which a serious alcoholic like him could only view as amateur hour. I don’t miss Irish-America’s dishonest relationship to Irish violence (although the worst offenders in that department were almost always the racist and homophobic old guard). But I’d put up with many choruses of “Danny Boy,” and many rounds of green-label Budweiser, to get back that feeling we briefly had of being an immigrant group that was trying to confront its history, and to see the prison of whiteness for what it really is.