Some Thoughts On Identity, Heritage, & Irish-Americanness

I am 1/8th Irish. That doesn’t make me special: It describes many of the people I know. Millions of Irish immigrated to the US in the last couple of centuries, so it’s not at all surprising that many of the people I see every day have Irish ancestors.

Visiting Ireland and learning its history gave me a better understanding of the country and culture my ancestors left behind, but in the end I didn’t come away from the experience feeling any more connected to that heritage.

Truth be told, I didn’t think that I definitely would, but I wondered if I might.

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On long bus rides and train trips, I spent much of the time staring out the window, watching the countryside fly by and wondering how different it looked when my great-grandmother’s family left.

My family jokes that my brother and I are mutts, coming from a mix of different backgrounds. Irish, Swedish, Czech. (More specifically, Bohemia. Does this make me a Bohemian rhapsody?)

Maybe this is why I don’t feel connected to my heritage: I doubt my combination of facial features, hair, et cetera makes me look recognizably like a descendant of any of those countries.

Maybe I don’t feel connected because I don’t speak the language: Until visiting Ireland, I’d never even considered that my great-grandma’s last name was anglicized from Ó hAnnracháin to Hanrahan. (Even the most Irish-sounding of Irish-American surnames seem to have been mangled and condensed, so that I’d never considered them particularly difficult until I encountered the original spelling in Ireland itself.)

Maybe it’s a combination of the two. Maybe it’s something else entirely.

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While skyping with a friend from the UK the other day, she commented that Americans are obsessed with ancestry. Although that fascination certainly isn’t limited to our country, I think she’s right.

And it makes sense: Through both voluntary and forced* migration, we are a nation of peoples all jumbled together. I think we’re all very interested in where we come from. Ethnic boundaries have certainly blurred together, although we still have a ways to go when it comes to race.

*I refer, of course, to the journeys of enslaved Africans to the US and the internal migration of Native Americans westward.

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I think some of our fascination and identification with our ancestry, particularly for white people, is a little forced, however. I’ll use Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans as examples, since they seem to be two of the biggest hyphenated American groups. Having friends with those backgrounds – especially when they only have those ethnic backgrounds and aren’t mutts like me – I’ve noticed that sometimes their idea of heritage and identity seems like a caricature more than anything else.

It’s like, oh, here’s St. Patrick’s Day and shamrocks everywhere and “Celtic”-inspired stuff of questionable historical legitimacy. (This is still one of the funniest things I’ve seen.)

And here’s pasta and loud voices and big families.

Sound familiar?

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So maybe that’s why I didn’t feel a connection. Sometimes it feels as though the hyperfocus on identity and origin has become a parody of itself, especially for groups considered to be white. It’s not my place to speak about the experiences other racial groups have in this area, but especially since coming back from Ireland I’ve come to the conclusion that being, say, Irish-American and having all those “traditions” is really based more on an idea of what being Irish is instead of being grounded in what it actually is.

Because being Irish is… not this monolithic thing. There is no one Irish experience, or even one first-generation Irish-American experience. Being Irish – as in living in Ireland – today can mean so many different things. It encapsulates multiple races, religions, languages, political ideologies, lifestyles, goals, habits, and more. The white hyphenated American idea of identity seems stuck in the past, concerned with what life and culture were like in their ancestors’ country at the time they moved here, and not with what they are like today.

That seems like a major blind spot to me. And I don’t want that kind of connection.

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About nevillegirl

Elizabeth. University of Iowa class of 2019. Triple majoring in English & Creative Writing, Journalism, and Gender, Women's, & Sexuality Studies. Twenty-one-year-old daydreamer, introvert, voracious reader, aspiring writer, and lesbian. Passionate about feminism, mental health, comic books, and cats.
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2 Responses to Some Thoughts On Identity, Heritage, & Irish-Americanness

  1. Mahima says:

    Oh my days you say it so well it’s amazing. I wonder if there’s similar comparisons for people of colour. I’ll report back to you if I think of any!
    But regardless, I think it’s so interesting! Lots of white people do mention their ancestry proudly but how you put it, as something almost like a costume you put on for a holiday, is evident and I wonder if it’s something only white people share in. Especially after reading Between the World and Me, what you’ve said reminds me of the idea that people who believe they are white can choose to relinquish their ancestry in exchange for whiteness plus a side dip of national roots to add some flavour to who they are and what they identify with.

    • nevillegirl says:

      Thanks so much! ❤ I would definitely be interested in hearing if you thought of any! 🙂

      YES. Rereading this post, I can see how Between the World and Me influenced my thinking on the matter. I think for white people, heritage tends to be viewed as harmless fun, a watered-down costume you can slip into without any negative repercussions.

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