A year or so ago, a friend who was born and raised in a European country asked me why it is so important to many Americans to be a “something-American.” I gave her an honest but brief answer about why my Irishness is so important to me, but I don’t think I provided a deep enough answer. After some research, observation and thinking, I’d like to attempt a more thorough response.
Many Americans are honestly afraid of having more in common with other Americans than they are with those of a different ethnic group. For example, it might be easier for me to think that I have more in common with my contemporary Irish counterparts than I do with the homeless guy on the street in Philadelphia. Why? Because it’s easier. It absolves me of responsibility. And no matter how early, often and liberally I vote, it’s truthfully hard for me to look at a homeless guy and think I have something in common with him after I (and my ancestors) worked so damn hard to get where I am.
It’s easier for me to wander down the road, behind Independence Hall and the glorious statue of one Irish-born Commodore John Barry, up to Chestnut Street towards Penn’s Landing and the Irish Memorial.
There’s something sick in it. I walk up to the memorial, which depicts the tragedy of death, starvation, and the new life of the Irish in America, and I think about how I ate too much at lunch or how I am (at a size 12) too fat. It’s easy to reflect upon this in my ancestors’ imaginary eyes or by looking at a statue (which is meaningful to me, but still just a statue). It’s hard to confront it by looking at the homeless man, even if I just applauded the vote that would provide him with health care.
We Don’t Want to Be Like Other Americans at All Times
During the George W. Bush Administration, I was scared, frightened, angry – and really into researching my genealogy. America isn’t ugly to me and it never has been, but in my lifetime it has seen some dark and grotesque times. I thought about how others saw America as it was represented and found that I had more in common with how Europeans saw the United States than how most of my fellow Americans saw it. I wasn’t European and I didn’t really want to be'”I wanted a brighter day for my country instead'”but I did want that connection.
I wanted my identity, as presented to myself and others'”to go beyond the face of a failed presidency in action and to establish a greater truth that spanned beyond present wrongs.
We Want to Understand Our Families
In Ireland, I feel like most people might just nod if you told them “your family is completely dysfunctional.” Here, many would take it as an insult. Families are basic structures, but they’re complex. When I say I want to understand my family, I don’t just mean that I want to understand why my grandmother used to tell me to go to bed in Irish or why my grandfather always says the days of the week in German. I want to understand the core dysfunction of divorce and confusion, and marvel in the wonder of how I might possibly be Irish and Italian (but definitely not Catholic).
Sometimes historical research provides the answers. Stereotypes and facts provide information about why we do what we do, or what our families did what they did. It provides a frame for analysis, and in the midst of familial turmoil that we all feel (whether we want to admit it or not), it can help us understand something about ourselves.
America Isn’t One Thing
America is incredibly diverse, and that’s probably the only word that can wholly describe it. Sure, not all Irish people are white or even speak with the same accent, but more Irish seem to have more in common with each other than Americans do with other Americans.
America doesn’t feel like it has a shared set of values, especially not with our tendency to elect administrations in a bipolar fashion. After all, we feel really evangelical, a little bit racist and conservative, then eight years later we want gays to get married and we elect a black guy. I’m not trying to offend conservatives or liberals here, I’m trying to make a point: We aren’t one thing, and on top of that, our “mind” as a country always seems to change.
Our ideas of our ancestors’ homelands, however, feel somewhat more constant.
Maybe I Am More Like Them…
I have a decent singing voice and before I kissed the Blarney Stone I had the gift of gab. I’m pasty pale as paper and I’ve been made fun of for it. I drink whiskey straight when everyone else is drinking beer. My hair is brown, but when you take a picture of me, it’s always red in the photo. I like to be in charge of the household without question, but when I go out with my husband I like it when he drives or makes small decisions. When I went to Ireland in 1999 (long before I felt disenfranchised by my country’s government), some things felt foreign, some did not.
Hell, everything in Donegal is made with fish. Fish in spaghetti! I thought that was pretty disgusting. But in Limerick, people sang in the pubs and drank whiskey straight. In Dublin, it wasn’t odd to discuss literature in a caf© or cry alone in the rain. For the first time in my life, I felt a cultural normalcy I just hadn’t felt in the United States.
I could easily say that genetically I am somehow predispositioned towards Guinness and Gaelic, or that because my grandmother’s grandmother was from Ireland, we are like them, but the truth of it was this: Ireland was different, and so was I.
It’s a hard thing to admit. I am so American. I’m a know-it-all about my favorite subjects. I’m overweight. I once wore a fanny pack in Walt Disney World. I get really impatient in lines and I often tend to exhibit a rebellious attitude (though sometimes I’d say that’s a respectable Irish trait as well). I don’t go to church on Sunday (or at all) and I’m okay with that. These are pretty damn American things, but they’re not always appropriate or “normal” or accepted and the whole point of America was that it was and is supposed to be a place for people who don’t feel normal to become completely accepted.
And yet, thinking back on Ireland and the putrid smell of cow poop along a country road to nowhere, sometimes I think “I’m so not really Irish.” But when I sit down to read by the light of a candle in a rainy window or walk into a random video rental store to be told “your face is a map of Ireland,” I feel like I am Dublin, and that’s enough to make me add the word Irish before my American.