Irish-American: To be or not to be

Every St. Patrick’s Day, I call my father, sister, and brother to wish them a "Happy St. Patrick’s Day." This year was no different, except that I sent my brother a text message first, proclaiming "Free Ireland!" And he promptly responded, "never."

See, my sister Kimberly, brother Shane, and I are all fourth generation Irish (from our father) and second generation Italian (from our mother).  Both our parents grew up in poor, working class neighborhoods of Providence that were highly concentrated with each of their ethnic grouping. My father grew up in the South Side where there was a sharp racial divide of Irish-Catholics in one part of the neighborhood and African-Americans in the other.  My mother is from Federal Hill–what used to be the historic stronghold of Italian immigrants.

My direct roots to my Italian background have always been the strongest in the sense that my mom’s first language is italian, my grandparents spoke broken english, my grandfather fought in the Italian Army during World War II, I have a handful of relatives born in Italy living in Rhode Island, and a whole bunch of family still living in Italy–all of whom reside on the small island of Ischia. In fact, when I was in high school–I can’t remember the exact date–my great grandmother was going to be turning 100 years old, and the entire section of Ischia where she lived was going to have a festival for her. She died just two weeks before.

However, I don’t know much of that family’s history, except for my grandparents (now deceased) and the experiences of my mother, aunt, and uncle. I was also never taught Italian. Nor was I raised to have much affinity to Italy, itself. It was only recently that I discovered that Ischia had historically been an island filled with exiles and full of rebellion. For example, it participated in the short-lived Republic of Naples.

The narrative I was raised with, regarding my Italian side, revolved around my mother’s struggle to assimilate into the American way of life and the hardships her family went through to achieve a respectable living for themselves. The stories I remember most were how she had to learn english on her own without any English as a Second Language (ESL) programs in school–something that carries hardships well beyond merely learning a new language; how my grandmother worked in a soap factory under horrible working conditions, later contributing to her cancer and death; about my grandfather’s janitor and construction jobs–he would take pride in pointing out bridges and buildings he worked on; stories about how little toys, if any, my mother had, telling me how much she wanted a new bicycle and never got one; and how my grandmother stayed married, with the intent of preserving the family, even though it probably wasn’t her true desire.  There are many more but this gives you an a sense of the situation. My mother’s conclusion drawn from these experiences was that she wanted her kids to have a better life and not have to go through what she had to. Part of this conclusion–which I have only recently grasped–was to make sure, for the most part, I was an American without hyphens. I will come back to this in a bit.

My Irish upbringing is quite similar in that I inherited the psychological history of my father’s uphill battle in life. My father comes from a classic Irish Catholic family. My father had seven brothers and sisters–eight total including him. Every male since the Cronan’s first arrived in America worked on the railroad. Some of my first male cousins even do today.  I heard stories of race riots in high school; an incident of a Catholic nun knocking out cold the tough guy of the class; of how being the last one to the dinner table could mean less to no food for the night; of crowded bedrooms; of friends overdosing and being killed in street violence; and, of course, of my grandfather dying of a heart attack at age forty-nine, in front of my teenage father and even younger aunt. The same fate of his father and grandfather, all before age fifty.

Like the conclusion from my mother’s story, my father wanted to make sure that his kids had it better than him. And from what I’ve heard of their past, along with their constant reminders, we certainly had a higher standard of living as children than they did, especially in the aspect of having closer relationships with us than their parents had with them; but we definitely weren’t "well-off" by any means.

However, there was something that I took from being an Irish-American that was missing from me also being raised as an Italian-American, though it was also filled with contradictions.  Even though I am generations removed from the my physical roots on the soil of Ireland, I was raised to never forget that my roots were from Ireland and what this meant.  Unlike my Italian identity, I had more of a historical sense of my Irish identity, and now realize this has had an profound impact on who I have become. The contradictions that I alluded to were the result of my father’s own battle between holding onto to his Irishness and the contrary forces of assimilating into being a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) defined box of what an American is–and the by products of each side of the contradiction.

For example, my father is an electrician on the railroad and also a union representative, following what the generations before him had also become. And I remember him on several occasions pointing out that a good portion of the railroads in this country were built by the Irish. However, since I was old enough to remember, he told me that he hoped I would never work on the railroad. Part of this was the dream of most working class parents for their children to obtain a coordinator class job, such as a doctor or lawyer; the latter being my father’s dream growing up. But I also think it was him not wanting me to be just another Irishman on the railroad. This is just an example of how someone who is even aware of their true roots can internalize their own oppression.

Basically, I was raised an Irish republican, as were my brother and sister; I was taught that for hundreds of years, my Irish ancestors were repressed and occupied by the British, treated as sub-human, and that this followed us to the United States. During the late 1980s and1990s, when there was a Hollywood interest in movies involving many aspects of the Irish conflict, I saw every one. And most of the ones dealing with Irish Republican Army (IRA) members in the United States, especially the Tom Clancy movies, championed Irish-Americans who had already been assimilated into WASP America fighting against what they perceived as the backwardness and savageness the "old" Irish still fighting for a free and united Ireland.  Irish-Americans were supposed to be past all of this. One time this image was even explicitly reinforced by my Italian mother who, ironically, faced her own WASP induced prejudices when she claimed the Irish have no culture or worthwhile history. This could have just been a stab at my father (they divorced when I was thirteen) but this is pretty much the accepted narrative. To most, referencing "Irish culture" conjures up images of beer, drunks, green, and St. Patrick’s Day.

Just to give you an idea of how the Irish were depicted, in 1860, Charles Kingsley wrote of the peasants in Ireland: "To see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours" (qtd in Hayden 2003)

This is one of the contradictions I’ve always dealt with. If we, people of Irish descent, were treated as second class in both Ireland and the United States, how and why did we end up as the cops, conservatives, and the Reagan Democrats, or more pressing, how did the Irish even "become white"? I don’t intend to tackle these questions fully in this piece (though I intend to explore this issue further in a later piece). There is not a consensus on the motivation behind the process—usually hypotheses fall into the categories of economic, moral, and survival—but it is clear what "becoming white" meant. It meant proving to those already allowed in the system of white privilege that you were respectable and WASP enough, leaving behind your old ways. It meant dropping your affiliation, sympathies, and identification with all of the oppressed—even your own history. And many times this also meant taking part in high levels of racist activity. It was in many ways a "soul splitting" process of Americanization.

So you could say that growing up having a sense of my Irish past (at least on a elementary level) and the struggle of those today for a united Ireland always clashed with the WASP defined notions of the Irish—of which I still am trying to internally decolonize my mind from—causing me to have an identity in limbo.

So what is the past that I speak of? I have briefly touched on a few: the fact the Irish weren’t considered white but subhuman; the American railroads were built by basically Irish indentured servitude; and that the Irish have played a key role in the labor movement. The latter point is generally known, especially in the Northeast, but the image of the Irish American union worker who tends to be socially conservative and racist. However, some of the great early labor organizers—like "Mother" Jones—organized across racial lines. Also, many Irish were abolitionists and helped in the Underground Railroad. And how many people know of the St. Patrick’s Battalion? They were a group of hundreds of Catholics, mostly Irish, who went to fight for Mexico in the Mexican-American War.

And what about the common narrative that the Irish came to this country, lifted themselves up by their bootstraps, and eventually made it to the "middle class"? Well, I already brushed over briefly how they were perceived and treated once they got here, but I think it is worth looking out why many even came here. First off, Ireland was occupied by the British for centuries, only becoming it’s own state in 1922, and even then, the six counties in the north remain to this day under British rule. In addition to being an occupied people, the Irish were basically driven out of their country. In their case, due to the Famine, also known as the "Great Hunger." Some have even compared the lack of British intervention to that of ethnic cleansing. During this period of 1845-1852, the population of Ireland decreased by 25 percent. One can see why the Irish seemed to have a propensity to identify with oppressed peoples.

With the new wave of Irish immigration, the United States also became a hot bed of the Irish Republican movement for national liberation from British rule.. Subsequently, in 1858 the Fenian Brotherhood was founded and grew to over 50,000 members and hundreds of thousands of supporters. It would become a driving force behind the 1916 Easter Uprising in Ireland, where Irish revolutionaries proclaimed the formation of the Republic of Ireland.

You can see that all of this flies in the face of the dominant Irish-American narrative. However, my intention is not to try and uncover the untold Irish past and present—which I only scratched the surface of—merely for setting the record straight, though that is needed. There are over 35 million people in the United States that claim Irish ancestry, about 12 percent of the population. A portion of them are CEOs and politicians, but most are not part of the ruling classes and have every reason to desire systematic change.

So what if Irish-Americans reclaimed their Irishness and rejected the dominate WASP cultural assimilation? What if they embraced the patriotism of dissent and rebellion of the Fenians, instead that of obedience and conservatism? What if they stood in solidarity and identified with all oppressed people, like they had done early on with African-Americans and Mexicans. Imagine an African-American, Latino, Irish-American alliance? Oh what a threat to the white supremacist, capitalist system that would be. Robert F. Kennedy actually put it perfectly during his 1968 presidential campaign.

There was that black Day in February 1847 when it was announced in the House of Commons that fifteen thousand people a day were dying of starvation in Ireland….So the Irish left Ireland. Many of them came here to the United States. Many left behind hearts and fields and a nation yearning to be free. It is no wonder that James Joyce described the Atlantic as a bowl of bitter tears….[Today] there are Americans, who–as the Irish did–still face discrimination in employment….There are walls of silent conspiracy that block the progress of others because of race or creed without regard to ability. It is toward concern for these issues and vigorous participation on the side of freedom that our Irish heritage must impel us. If we are true to our heritage, we cannot stand aside (Hayden 92).

That same year, 1968, Irish were singing "We Shall Overcome" during a Civil Rights Movement of their own.

Moreover, this goes for all ethnic groups in the United States, especially those allowed into the white club of privilige . I could have easily told the story of the ascendancy of Italian-America, my other half, but I am only recently coming to even learn it.

I don’t believe it is too late, that assimilation has been completed. In fact, the times are ripe for a revival of the radically democratic and solidaristic roots of the Irish, Irish-America, and other ethnic groups, even if they are generations removed from first immigration. And in doing so, we must not only look recover our sense of empathy and struggle, but realize that the rebels of our past were also visionaries. As the Fenian Brotherhood and other revolutionary Irish Republicans had a vision of a radically democratic, free and independent Ireland–a vision that Irish-Americans should very well try see gets implemented–we must build off this tradition and offer our own vision of the world we want and the America we want. Only then, when the rekindled struggle meets the hope of a visionary alternative, will my brother’s "never" turn into a "as soon as possible!", followed by  "What about ‘Free America’?"

(As you can see, I used a few excerpts from Tom Hayden’s book, Irish on the Inside:In Seacrh of the Soul of Irish America.  I cannot recommend this book enough to the Irish and non-Irish, alike).


Works Cited

Hayden, Tom. Irish on the Inside:In Search of the Soul of Irish America. New York: Verso, 2003



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