The Irish American, Essay Example

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Essay

The study of Irish-American identity has blossomed in recent decades. Historians of this type are like chefs wondering how to choose a tasting menu from a wide range of possible dishes in order to provide solid fare and whet the appetite for more, blending the familiar with the unfamiliar, as well as adding some new ingredients in what they hope is an appetizing mix. Readers seeking a lucid recent interview will find Kevin Kenny’s textbook, The American Irish, an effective digest that processes the vast mass of material published in the decades. So what is new about the new directions in Irish-American historical identity as it is being written in the twenty-first century?

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, American writers developed a habit of talking about social and cultural deviancy through the metaphorical presence of the Irish. By casting the Irish-American character as perpetually unfit, writers developed a literary device for contemplating destabilizing urges within American society and centrifugal pressures toward chaos and savagery. The Irish-American identity offered a unique way to personify a whole host of public fears in the body of one person. Through literary consciousness of Irish-American Identity, writers could discuss political corruption, theories of criminality, threat to public health, challenges to social welfare, the issue of temperance, labor unrest, and the decline of domestic manners and morality. They engendered in the character a subtle, but substantial, threat. The Irish existed at the threshold of American identity, and the antidote to this threat required the shoring up of the national identity along ethnic boundaries. As Kevin Kenny notes, the IrishAmerican identity had changed from an immigrant nationality to an ethnic identification (Kenny 66).

Many Irish Americans today strongly hold onto their ethnic heritage and identity, as can be seen across the country every St. Patrick’s Day. Being white and being Irish are not longer incompatible, though, as the common phrase everyone’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day attests. In contemporary American society, Irish-American identity has been largely absorbed into a homogenous white culture, so much so that many Irish Americans would be surprised at the degree to which their ethnicity would have served as a badge of difference a century ago. For many, it is hard to imagine that the Irish were once considered non-white and a threat to the nation’s security, health, and economy. Similarly, Irish-American Identity has become largely invisible ethnicity to many modern literary critics due to the almost complete assimilation of the Irish into mainstream American culture in the twenty-first century. Beyond ubiquitous shamrocks and shillelaghs, Irish-American identity today in myriad of forms is firmly embossed on the U.S. cultural psyche in the twenty-first century. Amidst several vagaries of the popular commercial marketplace, Irish-American identity continues to adapt, accommodate, and appeal to remarkably diverse audiences, indicating that its popularity is unlikely to fade any time soon.

The study of Irish migration has moved away from a split perspective on push and pulls factors. This new emphasis on migration networks has carried great conceptual promise, allowing for a more comprehensive approach that preserves the unitary nature of the migration experience. Kenny’s account of the Irish-American, illuminating the way in which expatriate networks sought to integrate the experiences of the New World with their Irish backgrounds. “If a single theme has dominated the historiography of the United States in the last decade (to 2000), it is the need to extend the boundaries of inquiry beyond the nation-state, to internationalize the subject (of Diaspora studies) and make it more cosmopolitan) (Kenny 134).

In the twenty-first century Ireland has redefined its relationship with the United States. Building on the strong social, political and economic ties the tradition of emigration has established between the two countries, Ireland has repositioned itself as the gateway to Europe, and particularly to the lucrative European market for the United States. The twenty-first century also witnessed crucial changes in the relationship between Ireland and the United States. One of the most significant changes so far has been the reversal in the traditional patterns of immigration and population loss in Ireland, a consequence of the rising Irish economy in the 1990s. In a departure from the norm, Kenny devotes two chapters to the twentieth century. In stark contrast with previous eras, the way the vast variety of Irish-themed merchandise is offered in countless catalogues, on thousands of Internet sites, in more than five hundred Irish ethnic stores across the U.S., on several TV shopping networks, and even in major department stores.

This altered economic relationship – with Ireland playing host to U.S. companies rather than the United Stated playing host to Irish immigrants – has resulted in a reconsidered and refreshed understanding of Ireland and the Irish in the United States, making the relationship between Irish and American identity much more homeostatic and contemporaneous. While traditional markets such as Catholicism and nationalism may be fading as symbolic registers for Irish-American identity on both sides of the Atlantic, both Ireland and the United States are now engaged in more comprehensive, considered, and modern understanding of what it means to be Irish, American and Irish-American.

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