Conquered by the Divide: What it means to feel Irish in America

There are a few moments in my life when I feel Irish: When I’m at wakes or funerals; when I shake someone’s hand; when I tell a story; when I wink at a loved one; when I rise with the sun. I feel Irish when my hands get dirty or when I nap outside or when I dance. I feel Irish when I tell someone the truth, especially if that truth is tragic.

The rest of the time, I merely feel Irish-American, which is to say I feel white, which is to say I feel the absence of heritage — I feel nothing. To be Irish-American is to be a box of Lucky Charms, which is to say that to be Irish-American is to let yourself become the butt of a bad joke. To be Irish-American is to be a Shamrock Shake or a green donut from Dunkin or a frat brother drinking an Irish Car Bomb or a slur sang in a Southie accent or, most disastrously, a cop. Which means to be Irish-American is to let yourself become nothing but the hate from which your ancestors escaped.

It’s also a distinction born out of place and time. I am Irish-American, born in Oklahoma, but my father is merely Irish. I’m grateful that time and generations are closer there than to here. It means I haven’t yet lost the thread. I was raised on stories of Irish families who ate grass and who died on the side of mud roads with green teeth and tongues from their fatal last attempt to beat starvation. I was raised on stories of British Black and Tan police officers lining up Kerrymen against stonewalls and shooting them while my grandfather grasped for his first breath of air in a house with mud floors just a walk down a Ballylongford road. I was raised on stories of The O’Rahilly — my own kin — and taught to hum the MacAllistrem’s March in the morning. That is to say, I was raised to understand that to be Irish is to resist against the dying of a light and to expect nothing but it. Other Irish-Americans are not as fortunate.

The misfortune means that the Irish-American has lost the historical thread, and cannot weave a present perspective that incorporates present political realities. The English first practiced their art of imperial misery and pillage on the Irish before perfecting their menace on others, and the Irish have long understood what obligations of kinship that kind of collective struggle demands. For instance, during the Irish famine of 1847, the Choctaw American Indigenous tribe of Skullyville, Oklahoma sent the Irish $150. After the Irish gained independence in 1916, their president toured American Indigenous reservations to link the American Indigenous struggle for liberation to the Irish indigenous cause of independence. It’s a bond formed against anti-imperialist mechanizations that lasts to this day: the Irish raised millions of dollars to provide COVID relief for American Indigenous peoples.

The Irish have continued to link arms with other peoples laboring in a fight against capitalist imperialism. Just this year, the Israeli government destroyed energy and shelter supplies that the Irish government sent to Palestinian refugees being forcibly moved in the West Bank. The Irish desire to support Palestine may come from the fact that they themselves still live on an island divided, and know the disastrous outcomes of capitalist imperialism in their own lives. They see that the Irish residing in the North — those still living under the rule of the United Kingdom — suffer the ancient problems of imperialism that are wrapped in modern cloths. Those Irish in Northern Ireland suffer the highest rates of suicide, drug addiction, poverty — which means they suffer the highest rate of despair — in all of the United Kingdom. This is imperialism’s legacy on the Island.

And yet there is no diasporic group in human history that suffers such dissonance than the Irish and the Irish-American — it’s a gulf as wide as the ocean that separates the two lands. While the Irish have a sense of political responsibility to those clamoring for liberation, the Irish-American has eschewed that responsibility in favor of power. One thinks of how police stations and police unions across all of the US are filled with descendants of the Island. From New York to Cincinnati to San Francisco, generations of Irish-Americans have made their living enforcing the United States’ oppressive prison-industrial-complex. This generational accumulation of political and capitalist culture, which began the moment the Irish in New York looked at the African American of New York and said “I am not your kin; I am white,” means that to be Irish-American is to actively participate in systems that oppress Black, Brown, and Indigenous people of various genders and sexualities. It means to benefit from that oppression without considering that the fear the Irish-American has long held towards Black people striving for liberation is a fear they inherited from their adopted British masters. It means to that to be Irish-American is to let oneself be conquered by the divide that dyed their ancestors’ teeth green.

There’s a difference between being Irish and being Irish-American. There’s a distinction in values, in mindset, in how one views history and how that view of history informs one’s perspective of the present. It’s the difference between knowing where one comes from and honoring that lineage and knowing where one comes from and denying it, or, more tragically, exchanging it for a Cadillac or the right to crack someone else’s skull. Or both. And today is Saint Patrick’s Day, which means many will drink a pint and a shot and feel Irish-American when they do so. Those who spend this day (and every day) linked in the struggle against all that oppresses our kin — from Ferguson to Stonewall, from Palestine to Derry — can let themselves feel Irish.

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