Well I didn’t see much future
When I left the Christian brothers school
So I waved it goodbye with a wistful smile And I left the girls of Tuam
And sometimes when I’m reminiscing
I see the prefabs and my old friends
And I know that they’ll be changed or gone By the time I get home again
And I wish I was on that N 17
(Stone walls and the grasses green)
Yes I wish I was on that N 17
(Stone walls and the grasses green) Travelling with just my thoughts and dreams
I’ve been thinking a lot these last few days about what it means to me to be American. New administration. New day. Or so I’ve been told (and told and told and told). For me, I’ve always seen myself as Irish-American. I remember the day my dad got his American citizenship with great pride. My dad, like my maternal grandparents, and so many others before them from Ireland came to “This Great Nation” for “A Better Life” and “More Opportunities”. I am grateful every day for their sacrifices, and yet I find myself called to my Irish heritage and disconnected from my American nationality more every day.
I truly wish I could tell you I’m proud to be an American, no hyphen or caveat needed. I think my life would be easier if I wasn’t so critical of “The Land of The Free”. I guess I wish there wasn’t a reason to be critical. I wish the United States were Great. Unfortunately for me, I am far too sensitive to the struggles of so many marginalized communities that live on this land that was brutally stolen from Native peoples hundreds of years ago.
Having grown up on mostly meat, potatoes, and anti-English rebel songs, I found the social media posts made by my fellow Irish-Americans in support of the police, bigotry, and white supremacy to be extremely upsetting. How would our rebel ancestors feel to see their descendants supporting systems of evil and upholding white supremacy.
From my time spent learning about Irish Studies in college, I have grown acutely aware of how the Irish assimilated to whiteness, often through joining the police force. I understand it, but I do not respect it. To quote Michael Jordan “And I took that personally” — every time. If you’re interested in learning more about this phenomenon check out “How the Irish Became White” by Noel Ignatiev and “Making The Irish American” by J.J. Lee and Marion R. Casey. These resources really helped me in my understanding of the assimilation of the Irish in America.
My friends often tease me when I inevitably mention being Irish, “oh, are you Irish? I had no idea!” they laugh as they’ve heard it thousands of times. And yet when I’m in Ireland, I’m “the yank”.
I remember watching the movie Selena (1997) in Spanish class in middle school. There’s a quote that always stuck out to me, said passionately by the actor playing Selena’s dad “We have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time!”. This quote made an impression on me at 12, and now at 28 I feel it even deeper. Isn’t that a truly American experience? Isn’t that one of the great struggles of immigrants and their offspring, to be caught between two worlds?
As I sit writing this in my parents home I am surrounded by Ireland. We have framed posters of Irish Cottages, Irish Castles and of course, Pubs of Mayo. A replica of a thatched cottage with working lights sits below the mirror engraved with my parents family crests. The thatched cottage sits on a cabinet with glass doors to display dozens of fine pieces of Waterford Crystal (only authentic Irish-made Waterford is acceptable in this household!) and Belleek vases, plates that will never touch food and mugs that will never hold liquid. Cadbury Roses chocolates, Digestive biscuits + Jam Mallows take up space on the coffee table. Former president and noted war-criminal Barack Obama once said “So you could say there’s always been a little green behind the red, white and blue.” That is especially apparent in my childhood home.
I’m aware of Ireland’s issues. I read about the Mother and Baby homes in disbelief. Their divorce laws are archaic. A man with a mental health crisis was shot dead by Garda just this month. And yet, I find myself holding up Ireland as a promised land, not unlike the way my family viewed The United States when they immigrated here all those years ago. I guess the grass is always greener on the other side. This is especially (literally) true of Ireland.
I do not connect to people who are patriotic in the American sense, especially the past 4+ years. But even before that you wouldn’t catch me dead in anything with Red, White and Blue. Those simply are not my colors and I don’t like what they stand for. When I see a house with an American flag I don’t feel safe, even as a white woman with great privilege. I don’t believe America has ever been capital “G” Great. I don’t believe this current administration will make it capital “G” Great, at least not for the vast majority of Americans.
“American” has been an identity I haven’t felt proud to own for many years. I remember being in Ireland many years ago hearing my peers out for a fun night discuss the atrocities of the Obama administration abroad. I was completely unaware. My politically minded friends didn’t discuss these issues (back then) and I didn’t keep up with politics other than marriage equality. At that time Obama was a hometown hero who gave me a reason to be proud to be American.
Then in 2016, a literal hometown hero ran for President. Although I had grown more politically aware, and to be frank Left-leaning in the interim, I was still excited to see a woman who had grown up in my hometown have the opportunity to win the nomination. Although I didn’t vote for her in the primary, I voted early for Hillary in the General and I cried when doing so. It meant so much to me. Looking back, I realize I wasn’t excited about Hillary, I was excited about defeating Donald Trump. That all came crashing down early November 2016.
The morning after election day 2016 a co-worker who I considered a friend used a racial slur in my presence during work. It seemed all the niceties of the Obama-era were gone, quite literally overnight. When I brought this up to my managers they warned me that I could ruin this man’s life if they followed through with discipline and fired him. It wasn’t my decision whether or not they got fired but those managers passed the buck to me. If I hadn’t brought it up, he wouldn’t be in trouble. There was even mention of the amount of paperwork they had, because of me. No mention of the man who broke the workplace code of ethics, it was my fault. The onus was placed on me, the individual who spoke up and not the man who used a racial slur in the workplace.This was especially difficult for me given that I was raised to speak up for others, but that is easier said than done. It was extremely hard for me to speak up in this instance, even though I knew it was the right thing to do. I didn’t even consider the others that were present that didn’t report this co-worker as complicit until I thought about it recently. Looking back, I’m disappointed in these co-workers and friends. I don’t know how they were processing November 9th 2016 but I know it was one of the darkest days in my life and I still found it in myself to speak up. (extreme Jeb Bush voice “please clap”)
That’s all to say– I’m so happy so many are so full of hope about the current administration. It doesn’t give me hope, but it’s nice to see people who have been grumpy for many years a little less grumpy.
I have so many dreams for this country but after the primary and even the election I don’t necessarily see them coming in my lifetime or even my future childrens.
So, what does being American mean to me now? I’m starting to look forward to the next four years and understanding that to me, being American can mean being hyper-critical and a little cynical. That is, afterall the Irish-way. I look forward to challenging the Biden administration when it comes to issues that I feel passionately about.
The gift of the gab has already come in handy when discussing politics with my family, something I used to dread. I hope as the COVID-19 pandemic comes to a close I have the opportunity to speak to people outside my pod. I most look forward to learning from others and their experiences. I look forward to being challenged to be proud to be American.
Recently, a cover of one of my favorite Irish songs from my childhood was released. This cover is full of both hope and melancholy, emotions I am all too familiar with. Afraid to be hopeful because I’m so terrified of being crushed again and afraid to be melancholy because that’s no way to live. I think I’ve started to come to terms with the fact that you can be both at the same time, and that’s actually a good thing?
Please enjoy the beautiful rendition of The Saw Doctors N17, performed by Tolu Makay and the RTE concert orchestra.
I wish I was on the N17, travelling with just my thoughts and dreams.
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Greetings from Ireland! Beautiful post. I have never thought about the transition of Irish emigrants to America assimilating to ‘white’ before, that was very interesting to me. Your connection to your heritage is beautiful and you’ll always have a home here in Ireland (don’t mind anyone who gives out about ‘yanks’!). Lovely and interesting post, I’m glad I found your blog.
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Thank you so much for your kind comment!