On Becoming Irish American

March 10, 2023
By: Mary Burke
The Foxes of Harrow (1947), the 20th Century Fox adaptation (starring “Hollywood colleen” Maureen O'Hara) of a 1946 novel about an Irish planter by Frank Yerby, a best-selling author of African American and Scots-Irish descent. Details and image from Mary Burke, Race, Politics, and Irish America: A Gothic History (OUP, 2023). Image courtesy of Alamy.

After I emigrated from Ireland a few years prior to Obama’s election to take a UConn associate professor position, I remained culturally Irish at first. The Irish Times was my newspaper site of choice, and I taught and published almost solely on Irish writers. However, with the election of a Black president of white Irish maternal ancestry, something seemed to shift both in me and in the cohort of students who chose to take my Irish literature classes. At first, these classes had attracted mostly white students with Irish surnames or what I came to recognize as particularly Irish-American first names (Shannon, Megan, or McKenna). After Obama, however, students of color increasingly took my courses and increasingly referred to their own Irish-American identity during discussions, though often in a tentative tone that suggested that it was not a heritage with which they had always thought they could identify. That was not surprising: despite five centuries of Irish presence on the multi-racial continent, every face in 2006 coffee table volume The Irish Face in America is white.

Moreover, this ambivalence regarding Irish connection was evident among some whose ancestors came from the island too: When I began teaching eighteenth-century Ulster-Scots dialect poets alongside their Irish-speaking contemporaries, I had similar responses from students who identified as Scots-Irish. “Scots-Irish” is the American designation for descendants of settler-colonial Scots-speaking Presbyterians who left Ireland from the eighteenth century onwards, and whose perceived Irishness receded in America with the 1845 Famine-prompted Catholic Irish immigrant flood. Such students were often gratified or surprised to have their ancestry and its relationship to Ireland described. My resulting awareness that Irishness in America was much more diverse than the familiar white-Catholic-emigrant-made-good story inspired my new Oxford UP cultural history, Race, Politics, and Irish America: A Gothic History.

It argues that the Irish―from the seventeenth-century indentured and deported to Scots-Irish and Famine Catholic cohorts alike―were both colluders and victims within the racial structures of the Americas, and carried sectarianism and settler-colonialism violence with them from the disordered motherland. They “whitened” not once, but multiple times: in the slave-holding Caribbean, on America’s frontiers and plantations, and on its eastern seaboard. By examining the words and lives of both Black and white figures of Irish connection in the Americas, from the Scots-Irish Andrew Jackson to the family of the Caribbean-Irish Rihanna, my book uncovers the evolving understanding of the Irish of color as well as the uneven history of white Irish relations with Indigenous and African Americans and with their fellow Irish of contending ethno-denominational origins. (I joke in class that the “fighting Irish” often fought each other.)

Perhaps a primary reason that I did not quickly think of myself as Irish American was because I could not identify with the often self-congratulatory “ethnic pride” vein of mainstream (that is, post-Famine) Irish America, which has sometimes stressed historical Irish suffering and the triumph of leaving an initial “off-white” status behind without acknowledging how this legacy might facilitate empathy with the marginalized of today.

Ireland was Partitioned in the 1920s into what became the Catholic-dominated Republic of Ireland and the Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland. The latter remained a UK constituent, and between the 1960s and 1990s the festering legacy of settler-colonialism erupted as the euphemistically named “Troubles,” civil strife between northern Catholic nationalists and Protestants loyal to the Crown. I have lived and been educated on both sides of the Irish border, so I gradually became aware that the popular idea of “Irish America” and Irish-American history that I encountered on moving to the US was an incomplete picture of both Ireland’s past and present and America’s past and present. My Scots-Irish and African American students’ recognition of their Irish links―however qualified and hesitant and however problematic the Irish or American history from which that connection had emerged―bolstered my growing awareness of the varieties of Irish-American identity as I researched my book. As I read and taught the Black, white, Scots-Irish, and Irish-American writers it encompasses, from Frank Yerby and Margaret Mitchell to Henry James, I came to realize that the Irish in America are―and always have been―incredibly diverse in terms of denomination, political outlook, and racial and ethnic identity. The history that produced this diversity remains as unfinished in Ireland as it is in America: contemporary Ireland is currently experiencing political clashes over the assimilation of immigrants and the looming question as to how the post-Partition island will deal with the possible futures produced by Brexit.

And by the last I refer to the following: After the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in 2016, it emerged that a sticking point of the exit centered on the island of Ireland and adherence to the Belfast/Good Friday Peace Agreement of 1998 that ended the “Troubles”: the six counties of Northern Ireland would no longer be in the EU, while the remaining 26 Republic of Ireland counties across the border would remain within that bloc. This threatened a logistical nightmare in terms of the unfettered cross-border movement of people and goods enshrined in the peace agreement. There has been speculation that Brexit might be the catalyst for uniting the island again, the ultimate desire of Irish nationalists and republicans. Conversely, fear has been expressed that Brexit could usher in a new phase of the “Troubles” as a result of its threat to the British links of northern Protestants.

In light of such possible futures and the complex responses they necessitate, I like to remember that the African American Obama―whose Famine-era Irish Protestant ancestor followed the Ulster-Scots pattern of emigrating to farm country in Ohio―is as Irish as the Famine Catholic Biden or Kennedy. Despite the often troubling history of Irish relations with peoples of color and with each other charted in Race, Politics, and Irish America: A Gothic History, its final page chooses a hopeful vision of a potential Irish and Irish-American future by closing with a photo taken on St. Patrick’s Day 2012. It shows Obama drinking Guinness with his Irish cousins.

President Barack Obama celebrates St. Patrick’s Day in Washington in 2012 with distant Irish cousins Henry Healy (C) and Ollie Hayes (R). Details and image from Mary Burke, Race, Politics, and Irish America: A Gothic History (OUP, 2023). Image courtesy of Alamy.

Mary Burke

Mary Burke, a professor at the University of Connecticut, is the author of Race, Politics, and Irish America: A Gothic History (OUP UK, Dec. 2022, OUP US, March 1, 2023).

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