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Column What does it mean to be an Irish American today?

It’s not a political bond or a business bond that binds Ireland and the US – it’s a bond between people, writes Sean Dunne.

RETURNING TO LIVE in America last November seemed like such an easy decision as a recent graduate. I had lived in Boston in 2010 and San Francisco in 2012, so why not give New York a chance this time around I thought.

This time I was determined to discover more about the true meaning behind the identity of Irish America and the affiliation between two countries bound by history and mutual respect.

The Irish American identity truly is a fascinating world for anyone who has ever experienced it. It’s not the clichéd drunken ‘Irish Paddy’ or the ‘Shamrock’ instead its a deep affiliation between people who share the same values of family, heritage, music and Ireland.

Being an ‘immigrant’ means something different today

Here in New York, there is no mistaking the kinship between Irish people, part of the Irish American identity is extending the arm of friendship to those as they say are ‘just off the boat’.

This phrase is striking in the sense that the boat is still a symbol which represents the Irish American identity.

So many immigrants made the journey by boat in years gone by, knowing that they would probably never return to Ireland. This is a vastly different world that the new age immigrant like myself who can be sitting at the dinner table with my parents in Ireland via Skype if needs be.

While I have become immersed in the Irish American community through my work as the new reporter at IrishCentral here in New York, there are so many layers that go behind this community in the wider New York area.

Sense of identity

I was invited by one of the largest Irish communities in the greater New York area to come and experience their sense of identity and what it means to engage in an Irish American community.

The community which invited me to share in their community was Bergen County in New Jersey. By percentage, Waldwick is the most Irish town in Bergen County. Out of its 9,580 residents, 2,881 are Irish. That’s more than 30 percent.

With so much hype surrounding the ‘festivities’ of St Patrick’s this year in the city, I took off in search of the true meaning behind the Irish American identity and what exactly it means for a younger generation of Irish Americans.

What I found in New Jersey may shock some people. I found an actual community, a community united in celebrating their Irish American identity. A far cry from the mud-slinging in Manhattan surrounding a parade.

Bergen County were celebrating the launch to their first annual Irish festival which will take place this summer. As we packed in the local Bergen council offices, the community was alive with the anticipation of a much loved tradition, celebrating being Irish. Several generations of Irish Americans were out in force to celebrate their identity, through music, dance and a good old cup of tea.

Music and Irish dance

There was a great parochial sense of community to be felt as the local dancing school were out in force to kick off the festivities and a local Irish American piper echoed through the building. Music and the traditions of Irish dance are very much a part of this identity, I realised.

Some questions whether the younger generation of Irish Americans even care about about this sense of community and identity. I was asked how I felt about the traditions behind the month of St Patrick.

Pausing for a moment, I made a fatal mistake of saying I thought traditions would die out in years to come.

This was was met with gasps from several older members of this community who quickly informed that their children had been raised on the traditions of the Irish American identity and engage in their own community. As I bowed my head in shame, a few Irish dancers told me how much they loved being part of the heritage of dancing.

Speaking to a first generation Irish American Peter E Quinn whose parents were born in Co Donegal and Co Louth he said that his sense of the Irish American identity stemmed from his upbringing as a first generation Irish American child.

“It’s something that’s always been part of my life, I have been involved in the Irish community here in America all my life.”

As I made my way back to Manhattan on the bus, I felt I had a finally discovered the world behind Ireland and America and the ties that bind us. It’s not a political bond or a business bond, it’s a bond between people.

Sean is the multimedia reporter and editorial assistant for IrishCenral and The Irish Voice newspaper based in New York. He moved to New York in 2013 having graduated from NUI Galway with an MA in Journalism. He worked across a wide spectrum of print, online and broadcast journalism in Ireland, including RTÉ, TV3 and Newstalk. You can follow him on Twitter @SeandunneNYC

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