This piece has been written by Professor Liam Kennedy, Clinton Institute, University College Dublin
The Ageing of the Green
The survey of Irish-Americans underlines both their growing distance from Ireland and the strong sense of identity and ties retained by many.
There is a wide perception of decline in Irish-America, reflected recently in Irish Times correspondent Martin Wall’s comments on how “Irish ties are waning in the US”, and yet there remains a potent sense of identification with Irishness among millions of Americans.
The truth is that Irish-American identity is evolving, reflecting social and political changes in the US as well as a shifting relationship between Ireland and the US. As millions of Americans prepare to celebrate St Patrick’s Day it is timely to reflect on this evolution.
Late Generation Ethnicity
88% of the survey respondents are third generation or later (with first generation being born in Ireland). This indicates that Irish-America today is at a stage of “late-generation ethnicity,” a term used by sociologists to designate an ethnic formation that reaches back many generations in the US and is not being replenished from the country of origin.
It also indicates the settled maturity of the Irish diaspora in the US, where Irishness is at once a relatively privileged narrative of identity, often signalling personal resilience and tribal success. Compared to other ethnic groups in the US, Irish Americans are relatively wealthy and well-educated - 55% of the survey respondents are retired from employment and 78% hold either a first college degree or a Masters or Doctoral degree.
The maintenance of Irish identity in the US can seem something of a paradox. With the disappearance of material ethnic environments and institutions to sustain it – think of the urban parishes of old – how can it survive? The answer is that it takes on more overtly symbolic forms. While Irish ethnicity does not principally exist today as a political block or sociological formation, it persists as a realm of cultural and political signification and psychological investment – as Irishness.
While some of the connections to Ireland seem fragile – for example, 66% of survey respondents say they have no immediate contact with family in Ireland, 87% do not have an Irish passport, only 11% have studied Irish history or literature, and only 2% speak the Irish language – there are strong indicators of Irish identity being important.
Asked to self-ascribe their identity, 48% say Irish or Irish-American, while a large proportion underline the depth and continuity of their sense of Irishness, with 75% indicating their first awareness of being Irish springs from early childhood.
Culture is the glue of symbolic ethnicity, providing the ties that continue to bind. 75% of survey respondents say their sense of Irishness is enriched by film and television and by festivals, while 62% say foods provide that nourishment.
Culture also strengthens the imaginative pull of Ireland in the Irish American imagination. While 79% of survey respondents say their interest in visiting Ireland is primarily for tourism and tracing family roots, only 4% say business and very few have an interest in relocating. Traditional music, pub culture, heritage sites and museums all score highly as points of interest in visiting Ireland, and there is a significant interest in studying in Ireland, particularly in history and the arts.
There is a common perception that Irish America has grown more conservative in recent years, reflecting its settled maturity but also its unsettled political affiliations. As is well documented, the Irish in America have a long historical association with the Democratic Party but that relationship began to fracture in the 1960s and has since seen many Irish move rightwards. In recent years the sight of Irish-American faces on Fox News and in the Trump administration has led to hyperbolic claims about the Irish in America disavowing their immigrant past – claims that have often reached a pitch in relation to St Patrick’s Day.
The reality is more complex however as a residual liberalism still tails Irish America. In this, President Joe Biden is less of an anachronism than he can seem, reminding us that the concept of America as a “nation of immigrants” was powerfully framed and promoted by the Irish-American president John F. Kennedy and that the immigrant past can function as a lodestone for a liberal politics of empathy in the present.
The survey results display a more liberal cast to ageing Irish-Americans than might have been anticipated. 46% identify as leaning liberal, liberal, or very liberal, only 24% identify as conservative or leaning conservative, while none identify as very conservative. These identifications are reinforced by the responses on favoured news sources, with 76% favouring NPR and 26% Fox News.
95% of survey respondents say they voted in the 2020 presidential election, a high proportion evidencing a commonly held view among pollsters that while the Irish may not vote as a block in the US they do vote in high numbers – a reason that Irishness continues to signify and attract political interest in the US.
When asked if the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process was important to them, 65% of respondents said yes – a support that was baked into the diplomatic strategising by the Irish lobby in Washington as they negotiated the political drama of Brexit.
A Sense of an Ending
The growing distance between Ireland and Irish-America is presaging concern among those involved in engaging the Irish diaspora. Mike Feerick, the founder of Ireland Reaching Out, argues that engagement cannot continue to rely on direct family links and that “Irish government policy must embrace ways to reconnect those of Irish heritage, with Irish culture and with Ireland, often for the very first time.”
In particular, he posits, "We need to help the tens of millions of Irish-Americans who are of Irish descent, who are unconnected to any type of Irish cultural celebration in the United States with their genealogical links to Ireland. We can do this using modern technologies, harnessing the advantages we already have.”
This technological outreach promises to broaden and deepen engagement and it needs to be synched with research into the desires and drives of a disparate and distant diaspora. What does Irishness mean to them? What does Irish America want?
Irishness will not stop mattering to Americans anytime soon. For white Americans in particular the claim to a hyphenated ethnic identity provides a sense of rootedness, offering salient claims to identity and value. A sense of Irishness can allow Americans to negotiate their national status; as such it is an enduring ethnic currency, albeit a somewhat idealised identity-credential.
The survey of younger generation (18-35 years old) of Americans of Irish heritage in 2020 found a more fluid sense of identity with many stating Irishness was just one of many strands of ethnic heritage within their family networks, though one they seemed to privilege. For the younger generation, being Irish was more clearly if complexly a choice they made, securing a sense of identity amidst the volatile landscape of identity politics and culture wars.
Ethnic identity can endure long after ethnic structures and practices have dissolved, and we know all too little about how this works among late generation Irish Americans. Irish America is dead; long live Irish America.