On March 17 every year, Irish heritage becomes a point of pride for people across the United States and beyond. Particularly in the U.S., where almost everyone has immigrant ancestry, there’s a certain dignity gained through the ability to identify percentages or surnames of relatives that indicate Irish ancestry. Having lived in Ireland briefly as a child, and having a mother who emigrated from there, have earned me social points for as long as I’ve been in school in the U.S. Since kindergarten, people have been excited to hear of my experiences and to share their relevant family background. The care that people take to preserve their Irishness seems almost inversely proportional to other immigrant groups (at least in their public images), who are often strongly encouraged to assimilate. Does this seem at all hypocritical?
An article by Gregory Rodriguez, published in The Los Angeles Times in 2007, titled “Illegal? Better if you’re Irish,” details the relative luxury enjoyed by contemporary Irish illegal immigrants compared with those of other nationalities. He explains that “Irish illegals do have a slight advantage. It’s all in the stereotypes — race-based, language-based, class-based.” This hasn’t always been the case, however. In 19th century Detroit, some shops had signs stating “No Irish Need Apply,” but there were fewer signs here than in the eastern states. In those days, the T-shirt slogans so common nowadays, “Proud Irish,” “Irish Princess” and “I’m so Irish I Bleed Whiskey,” to name a few, would have been absurd. Comparatively, while it’s possible to find “Everyone Loves a Latina Girl” T-shirts online, the concept isn’t nearly as common as to become cliché, like Irish-American pride has become.
The fact that Irish heritage is respected so much in this country means that it’s relatively inoffensive to equate Irish culture with stereotypes that would otherwise have negative connotations — they’re often thought of as traditional and superstitious, easily agitated, and above all, drunk. If they didn’t enjoy such high social status in our culture, then joking about negative connotations associated with the Irish wouldn’t be acceptable; if there were a “drunk Arab” stereotype, joking about it would still be unacceptable (or would at least be enormously disrespectful). Maybe part of the reason that it’s acceptable to joke about the Irish has to do with their longstanding establishment here in the U.S.
Historic discrimination may be a source of respect now. People are proud of the fact that they come from a long line of people who have worked to get their family where it is now. The “my family has worked hard for generations to get me where I am today” line gets used to excuse people from empathizing with modern immigrants, whose ancestors may not have contributed directly to the development of this country — though with modern globalized political and economic networks, people’s actions affect foreign nations more directly than before. However, ancestral labor shouldn’t be used to create a cultural hierarchy; if so, then we would become like the societies of old, with aristocracies based on history, rather than wealth based on labor and innovation.
Many of the Irish immigrants came here before social security and food stamps and Medicaid and before labor standards prevented them from being used as cheap labor. The U.S. needed people to build railroads; the Irish needed jobs. Is it modern labor standards that have changed our attitudes toward immigrants (or rather, caused the difference between our retrospective opinions of our ancestry and our current stance on immigrants today)? Though immigrants are still often exploited for their willingness to work for low wages, the practice isn’t as socially and legally accepted as it was in the days of the Irish potato famine. Furthermore, once immigrants acquire a Green Card, they’re eligible for social security, financial aid for higher education and other benefits.
Though there are differences between current immigration to the U.S. — and the Irish immigration trends of the late 19th and early 20th centuries — we shouldn’t forget their similarities. Both groups have been viewed as second-class citizens. Both are pursuing some sort of American dream, living out the hope which composes a central part of our national identity (just ask President Barack Obama about that). And finally, both groups of immigrants are a crucial part of U.S. culture. We must not forget that, in taking pride in our heritage, it’s this nation’s history of immigration that we celebrate.
Anna Clements is an LSA junior.