Shamrocks on the Prairie

By Hicks, Patrick | The Midwest Quarterly, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Shamrocks on the Prairie

Hicks, Patrick, The Midwest Quarterly

I've never liked the phrase "Irish-American." This has much to do with my own confusing relationship with that small island on the edge of Europe, but whenever I mingle with Americans of Irish descent their representation of the "Emerald Isle" usually feels like a colorful description of Atlantis. The Ireland that many Irish-Americans believe in--the one they hoist pints to every Saint Patrick's Day--is a fantasy unmoored from reality. Most Irish clubs are full of good intentioned people who are interested in genealogy, traditional music, and drinking lots of Guinness. It's all very sweet and pastoral, everything conforms to a certain version of Ireland, and any deviation from this image is quietly ignored. There isn't much interest in Irish politics, art, history or literature, which I find baffling for a people who profess their love for this country--it's like preferring the shadow of a loved one and turning your gaze away from their flesh and bone. In my adopted home of South Dakota I'm particularly flummoxed by the local Irish Club and their latest piece of public art called "The Potato Man Sculpture." After many years of standing on the sidelines, I decided to visit the Irish Fair and find out more about these people who are promoting a brand of Irishness that I simply do not understand.

Before I go any further I should mention that my mother was born and raised in Northern Ireland, which means half of my family history takes place outside the United States. I'm proud of that. I'm proud that I can look over my shoulder and see a long line of great-grandparents who tilled the soil of County Antrim. When I turned twenty-three, I became a citizen of Ireland and moved to Belfast where I studied at Queen's University. While there, I witnessed the bloody bombings and shootings of the Troubles first hand. I got caught in riots and bomb scares. On weekends, I drove around the country and visited Dublin, Galway, and Cork. All of Ireland was my home and I returned to the United States with a heavy reluctance. Had things gone a little bit differently I might have stayed there, permanently.

I now teach Irish literature at a small college and I usually start each class by asking my students what they know about Ireland. I grab a hub of chalk and begin writing their answers on the board. The usual suspects make early appearances--green, sheep, whiskey, Saint Patrick, shamrocks--but other words pop onto the list like drunk, fighting, potatoes, and red hair. These last few always make the list. Always.

After we've finished brainstorming I turn around and ask them where these images of Ireland came from. Why do they think the Irish are alcoholic red-headed fighters who stuff potatoes into their mouths?

The answer, I go on to say, is buried deep in history.

In the 1800s, the British had total military and economic supremacy over the Irish. It was assumed anyone with red hair was sexually deviant and they should not be trusted. Drinking was a sign of moral decay and an inability to make sound decisions. And no wonder the Irish were perceived as hot-headed after their land, language, and religion had been stripped away from them. The popular stereotype of the Irish (red hair, drunk, quick with the fists) is a deliberate caricature promoted by the British to justify their colonial expansion. The popular British newspaper of the day, Punch, was especially virulent as it depicted the Irish as a dangerous subspecies of moral degenerates. In R.F. Foster's groundbreaking book, Paddy and Mr Punch (1993), he notes "the image of the Irishman was 'simianized' as subhuman, and therefore a candidate for oppression" (171). Drawings in Victorian newspapers made frequent comparisons between the Irishman and the ape as a means to justify colonial rule. In relationship to this, George Boyce makes the useful observation that

    colonization and conquest of a barbarous country and people could
   be justified on the grounds that if the country were not barbarous,
   then it would not need colonization; the very fact that it was
   being colonized was proof of its barbarity; and its barbarity was
   further proof of the need to colonize it. 

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)


1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article

Shamrocks on the Prairie


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.