I am the textbook Irish American. My family moved to the States some months after my birth, and have since thoroughly settled ourselves in America. Nevertheless, we cringe at the moniker “Irish American,” and I insist on splitting it as Irish and American. My mum always felt it connoted a certain inauthenticity, uttered by someone with no living ties to the homeland or its culture. While I am a firm believer that my culture is meant to be shared, I second her frustration with Irish America. For me, “Irish American” signifies assimilation done too well: the embrace of Americans’ most racist tendencies while hurriedly burying the lessons of our ancestors under piles of cabbage and beef. For Americans, a true appreciation of Irish culture requires a reckoning with the darker parts of our past—our role in upholding the worst parts of American racism—but grants lessons of hope for our shared future.
When the Irish first came to America, they suffered. Many were driven here by the famine, oppression, and a general desire for a better life. But in America, bigotry originating in cultural holdovers from the British and supplemented by general nativism painted new Irish immigrants as lazy, violent drunks. This drove them into dangerous jobs and slum housing and fostered stereotypes that linger to this day. These facts are too well-known, and have been incorrectly transformed into preposterous claims that the Irish were also slaves.
Those eager to spread this narrative tend to gloss over what came next. Thousands of Irish immigrants participated in the Civil War. Some enlisted and were eager to prove their allegiance to the country. But many were also drafted and unsure as to why they were being thrown into the meat grinder by elites and politicians for a cause and a people they did not know. In New York City, many Irish immigrants translated their anger at the Civil War draft into brutal violence and racism against Black people. As the war ended, the racial composition of the country shifted. The color line that dictated social life became much more explicit. Over those next few decades, white Americans, eager to capitalize on tensions in the working class, offered the Irish a horrible decision: they could assimilate, but only if they promised to help stop Black Americans from doing the same.
While Irish immigration continued steadily throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and the gradual growth of the Irish economy narrowed the stream of new arrivals to only a few thousand people per year. Without the constant replenishing of this connection, these immigrants gradually saw themselves as more American than Irish. These communities, even more separated from the oppression that brought them to America and shaped their first years here, reduced their homeland to a single day of the year and clung to their new status as white Americans.