Do you guys have pizza in Ireland? 'Most Americans I met knew almost nothing about Ireland'

Their Ireland is the Ireland their ancestors left, often untouched by the changes that have taken place since then, writes Caoimhín De Barra.

ST PATRICK’S DAY is a unique holiday in that it is both local and global. Local in the sense that it is a celebration of one very small corner of earth, and global in that it is marked in many different places around the world.

As such it simultaneously allows us to reflect on how other nations view us, and what it actually means to be “Irish.”

Stereotypical associations

The first thing that many emigrants realise when they move abroad is how small (dare I say, insignificant?) Ireland is in the conscience of the wider world. I remember being surprised that most Americans I met knew almost nothing about Ireland, beyond stereotypical associations with alcohol, potatoes and Catholicism.

The Northern Irish Troubles, for example, is something completely unknown to many Americans. Even Americans who identify as “Irish” often have only a hazy knowledge of Ireland itself.

When I arrived in the US in 2006, the first friend I made was “Irish-American”. He had an Irish last name, a “Fightin’ Irish” flag on the wall of his dorm room, and definitely saw himself as “Irish.” One of the first questions he asked me was: “Do you guys have pizza in Ireland?”

A strong connection

I share this story not to make fun of my friend, but because it made me realise that it is possible for Americans to feel a very strong connection with Ireland without knowing a lot about day to day life there.

Being “Irish” had been a part of my friend’s identity his whole life. While his sense of Irishness differed in many ways from my own, it was not something fake or “plastic”.

Indeed, I have always found the term “plastic paddy” to be exceptionally mean-spirited, a device to claim a sense of superiority over the descendants of Irish emigrants while hoarding “genuine Irishness” for ourselves.

We tend to be guilty of great hypocrisy in this as well, celebrating the tenuous connections international celebrities have to Ireland while ridiculing ordinary Americans who claim an Irish identity.

A window into our own past

The Irish American vision of Ireland has always fascinated me because it is a window into our own past. It is the Ireland their ancestors left, often untouched by the changes that have taken place since then. Hence they call the language “Gaelic”, because that is what people called it when their ancestors lived here. They assume Ireland is still devoutly Catholic, because the Ireland of their forefathers was.

They think we don’t really celebrate St Patrick’s Day, because it didn’t become a public holiday in Ireland until after their forbearers departed. Their restaurants offer “traditional Irish boxty”, while many of us in Ireland don’t know what that is.

Nor are we free of such misunderstandings about Irish America. Some people in Ireland believe there is an “Irish vote” in American elections. There certainly once was such a thing, in the nineteenth century, but it is long gone. Yet the belief that American politicians act Irish to try and capture the “Irish vote” is still held by many in Ireland.

Of course, living overseas not only allows one to see how others view Ireland, but it often pushes people to think more deeply about their Irish identity. This was certainly true in my own case.

What it means to be Irish

When I first arrived in the US, I was like a lot of people in that I was sympathetic toward the Irish language, but I couldn’t actually speak it. Then at my first rugby training session, I saw a guy wearing a T-shirt that read: “Más feidir leat é seo a léamh, rachaimid a luí”. Roughly translated, this means “if you can read this, we will sleep together”.

Perhaps fortunately, I could not read it at the time, but I was so embarrassed at not being able to that I decided to learn Irish properly.

When I went to Irish-language events in the US, I found many Irish people like myself, people who only found the motivation to learn Irish after they left Ireland. Today, living in New Jersey, I am raising my daughter through the language. I want her to have this part of her Irish heritage because I know what it was like for me, and a lot of Irish people, in wanting to speak the language but being unable to.

Living abroad while teaching Irish history to American students means I regularly think about what it means to be Irish. The internet acts as a weird kind of window to Ireland, in that reading or watching what is happening back home makes it seem so close, yet you know how far away it really is. Which is why you appreciate the special moments when you feel a true sense of connection to home.

I was among my own people

The best example I have of this was on my first trip back to Ireland. Standing in the airport in Newark, I was delighted to hear all of these Irish accents after spending months without talking to another Irish person.

The flight ended up being delayed for a couple of hours, and then when we boarded the plane, we sat on the runway for another hour. Eventually the captain came on the intercom and said there was a queue of planes waiting to depart, and we would not take off for another hour again.

As soon as he said that, a very clear thought went through my mind. But I wasn’t alone. A chorus of voices from around the plane gave voice to the very thought I was thinking. In unison, I heard young voices and old voices, male voices and female voices, eastern accents and western accents, northern accents and southern accents, all coming together to express exactly the same sentiment: “Oh, for FUCK’S sake!”

It was a great feeling. After months of separation, I was among my own people once more.

Caoimhín De Barra is Assistant Professor for Irish History and Culture at Drew University, New Jersey.

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Caoimhín De Barra
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