My introduction to an Irish-American sense of history was not in Boston or New York but in the American Midwest. I was visiting the eccentric House on the Rock in rural Wisconsin. The receptionist told me proudly that she was Irish. ‘My people were driven out during the Famine by Cromwell… and Strongbow.’ I admired her compositional virtuosity in bringing together the 12th-century Cambro-Norman warlord Strongbow, the mid-17th-century hammer of the Gaels (and the Scots) Oliver Cromwell, and the Irish landlord clearances of the 1840s — all in one short sentence. What’s more, her declaration chimed with the self-mythologising of Irish-Americans who trace their origins back to the Great Famine of the 1840s.
It’s a trope that Joe Biden, the first Irish-American Catholic president since Kennedy, is happy to adopt. In September’s presidential TV debate, he used his Irishness to attack Trump, claiming that he and his associates ‘look down their nose on people like Irish Catholics and like me’. He’s also fond of the word ‘malarkey’, claiming it’s a word ‘we Irish’ use. In fact, there’s no evidence for malarkey’s Irish origin, but that didn’t stop Biden making ‘No malarkey!’ the short-lived and much-mocked slogan for his campaign tour across Iowa at the end of 2019.
Biden has deep Irish roots and an attachment to nationalist Ireland, though little knowledge, it seems, of the darker side of Irish-American history. Nor is it likely that the storming of Capitol Hill by American ‘patriots’ caused him to register faint echoes of the occupation of central Dublin by Irish ‘patriots’, Easter week 1916.
A recent throwaway comment by Biden to dismiss a BBC reporter — ‘I am Irish’ — has alarmed some in the British press. Does he share a sense of historic grievance against the English? Or is that English paranoia? To understand the Irish-American mindset it helps to examine its foundational myth.
The trouble with the Great Famine as an origin tale is that, at most, a million Irish emigrated to North America, including Canada, between 1846 and 1850. During the following half-century several million others followed. Most were Irish Catholics, unlike pre-Famine emigrants, who were mainly Irish Protestants. These earlier origins explain why the majority of Americans who can claim Irish ancestry are of Protestant descent.
The numbers self-identifying as Irish American vary wildly depending on the question asked. The US Census Bureau reported 33 million in 2013. Other estimates are close to double this figure. But there is no doubt the politically active segments of Irish America are of Catholic background. Militant minorities within the Catholic Irish have preserved remembrances of suffering and oppression that defy time and scholarship. Even in the early 1800s Catholic newspapers in the USA could trivialise the plight of black slaves and argue against abolition, while at the same time insisting on the incomparable suffering of the Irish. This was an early iteration of the Mope syndrome —the self-image of the Catholic Irish as the ‘Most Oppressed People Ever’.
More surprisingly, some exiles from the radical United Irish movement took up the pro-slavery cause when they arrived. The 1840s revolutionary John Mitchel readily fused hatred of England and a defence of slavery. From his standpoint: ‘We deny that it is a crime, or a wrong, or even a peccadillo, to hold slaves, to buy slaves, to sell slaves, to keep slaves to their work, by flogging or other needful coercion.’
Most Catholic Irish, having landed in the northern cities of the USA, fought on the Union side, though not necessarily to end slavery. The ‘anti-draft riots’, really race riots, in New York in 1863 saw Irish immigrants descend on black neighbourhoods, burning and lynching as they pursued the business of ethnic cleansing.
In recent times, the notion of the Irish as somehow the equivalent of African-Americans in terms of oppression has been pressed into service in extremist Irish-American political circles. Appropriating the suffering of other ethnic groups may be bad history but it finds fertile expression on social media.
A more organised example was the crusade during the 1990s to place the Irish potato famine alongside the Jewish Holocaust on the school curriculum. The implication was that each might be viewed as genocide. New York and New Jersey, with large Irish Catholic constituencies, were the first to implement this comparison. Anglophobia and the Troubles in Northern Ireland were the motivation but there may also have been an element of ethnic competitiveness. I’m reminded of the whispered comment of an Israeli writer after a ‘dark tourism’ tour of Troubles spots in Belfast, which was topped off by a smooth Sinn Féin presentation: ‘Victimhood never did anyone any good.’
The Troubles gave rise to a resurgence of interest in Irish history and politics in the Irish diaspora. But the diaspora is a set of variegated categories and some of the finest contributions to Irish studies have come from Irish Americans, usually but not invariably culturally Catholic. It is also true, however, that a militant minority were cheerleaders for the IRA and ultra-nationalism during the ‘armed struggle’. As always, England was the ‘never-failing source of all our political evils’.
Some latter-day republicans, in Ireland and abroad, sense a new opportunity to perpetuate old stereotypes and complete the drive for a united Ireland and the defeat of Ulster Protestants. Disagreements over Brexit and the spectre of a renewed land boundary on the island of Ireland are breathing new life into old enmities.
The Ireland of John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952), if it ever existed, was buried a long time ago. Still, Irish-American sentimentality and an ignorance of modern Ireland continue to animate passionate denunciations of ‘England’ in certain pubs and meeting places of the Irish diaspora.
But to seek to magnify Biden’s assumed Irishness into some notion of a threat to Anglo-American relations is misplaced and, if clumsily handled, might well be self-fulfilling. There are limits to Irish nationalist ‘soft power’ in a post-Covid US with its record levels of unemployment, its deep racial and political divisions and its place in a world order where the main show in town is the duopoly of the United States and China.