“Unless our country is liberated, the Irish race will be absorbed in this country, in England and in many other places. We will lose our identity and eventually disappear from the face of the earth.” — James Stephens, Irish Republican, writing as an exile in the United States
On the 10th of April, 2017, an article by Niall O’Dowd was published in The Irish Times. It was titled “Irish America is facing an unnecessary death.” I highlight this article as it draws attention to certain contradictions in contemporary Irish discussion regarding the nature of who and what is Irish. Implicit and unspoken in this article is the practical significance of ethno-cultural ties and identification.
In the article, the author decries the certain demise of Irish America. This demise is certain as a consequence of the “lack of a replacement generation of Irish-born immigrants.”
As the impact of first-generation immigrants from Ireland fades, it becomes more important that those of Irish lineage, but not directly from Ireland, become engaged in Irish culture and community.
What does O’Dowd mean by this statement? Is he making a supremacist or racist remark? What does it matter if people of Irish descent in America lose their identity or cease to be a fixture in American life? What does it matter if they no longer replace themselves? Well, the answer that O’Dowd gives is simple. Money and power.
The importance of Irish America is presented by O’Dowd, largely in economic and geopolitical terms. The attachment of Irish Americans to a “home country” benefits Ireland. It makes us richer and more powerful than we would otherwise be. America is the bank vault in which we have deposited generations of our youth. Sad indeed if we could no longer dine out on the interest. “Irish lineage” is the extension of this relationship beyond the first-generation immigrant. “Irish lineage”, for O’Dowd, represents the monetisation of ethno-cultural ties. Ties which unfortunately are weakening.
Clear evidence of a weakening of the bonds and recent events have confounded the community in the US, however.
Chief among them was the decision to drop for 2017 the Irish birthright programme based on the Israeli programme which has brought 400,000 young Jewish teenagers to Israel since 1999.
O’Dowd draws an interesting comparison between the Israeli birthright programme and the Irish birthright programme which he tells us has now been dropped. But he leaves the implications unstated. The Israeli programme is viable, in one sense, because the Israelis are not embarrassed to make a claim to belonging on the basis of ethnicity. The Irish on the other hand have increasingly distanced themselves from an Irish ethnicity. It is over five years since our Citizen Ceremonies began and over one hundred thousand people, from some one hundred and seventy different countries have been granted Irish citizenship.
In contemporary Irish discourse, these “New Irish” have a far greater claim to being Irish than those “Plastic Paddies” across the sea. O’Dowd expresses bafflement as to why the nascent programme was scrapped in 2017, despite “incredible enthusiasm among Irish American families” who still view Ireland as the “keeper of the flame.” So where does the confusion really lie? Within ourselves? Or perhaps within our State apparatus?
O’Dowd might do better to examine the notion of homeland itself. After all, it is difficult to market Ireland as a well from which our people spring, the Mother Country of our broad diaspora, while at the same time we dispense Irish citizenship to all comers. Do we expect Irish Americans to value something that we no longer value ourselves? That something being the primal ancestral connection to a Mother Country. And let’s not forget, that was the phrase used by Michael Collins when he wanted to justify the Irish claim to a sovereign territory.
I made it quite clear that Ireland was A MOTHER COUNTRY, with the duties and responsibilities and feelings and devotions of a mother country. This simple statement had more effect on the British delegates than all the arguments about Dominion status, or all the arguments basing the claim of our historic nation on any new-found idea.
Michael Collins, The Path to Freedom
The Merriam-Webster definition of Mother Country is as follows:
1. the country of one’s parents or ancestors; also : fatherland
2. the country from which the people of a colony or former colony derive their origin
3. a country that is the origin of something
And that brings us to the headline of The Irish Times article, penned by O’Dowd or the newspaper’s editorial staff. “Irish America is facing an unnecessary death.” Indeed. The article posits that Irish America is dying, 1. because of a lack of replacement immigration, 2. because of a neglect by the Irish State and 3. because of general demographic changes in the United States.
Ireland is the keeper of the flame for tens of millions of Irish Americans, that flame will flicker and die in generations to come unless the Government and its successors wake up to the threat.
The halcyon days of the Kennedys, Clinton and Joe Biden are gone.
The lack of future emigration after the 1965 Act effectively closed out the Irish, and that has really begun to bite.
It is somewhat ironic that O’Dowd refers to the 1965 immigration act, often associated with Ted Kennedy, as a factor in the decline of Irish America. The act which led to the liberalisation of American immigration is something that we are usually taught to view positively. And if the Irish had a role to play in that, we are usually taught to view it proudly. Indeed the only people who complain about the 1965 immigration act are those generally termed “supremacists” and “racists.”
However, that is not the message of this Irish Times article. The message of the article is very cool and pragmatic. It tells us that demographic changes have consequences and that those consequences may not be positive. Indeed they may be detrimental. It also informs us that ethno-cultural ties matter and have huge political implications. Further, it reminds us that these ties extend intergenerationally and that Mother Countries make claims of loyalty and emotion on their diaspora.
The death of Irish America within a few generations is indeed a real concern. But a much greater concern is the death of Ireland itself due to similar forces. We must understand that when we project future population figures of ten or so million people and drool over the market potential of such, we are talking about the destruction of an Irish ethnos and an Irish culture, for no culture and no ethnos and no Mother Country can survive such a seismic displacement.
Want to talk pragmatism? Let’s talk pragmatism. Irish America is a resource upon which we have drawn historically. We have done so on an ethno-cultural basis. There is no other rationale for Irish America other than the belief in Ireland as a Mother Country. And if Niall O’Dowd sees fit to mourn the child of the mother, that being Irish America, then let him mourn the mother of the child on the same basis. That is if he is not too embarrassed to do so.