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. …