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A LOOK AT…The Irish, Here and There; For Irish Americans, Peace Means Change

The Washington Post

July 19, 1998, Sunday, Final Edition



By Trina Vargo


For almost 30 years, Irish America's identity has been largely defined in one way or the other by "the Troubles" in Northern Ireland.

For many individual Irish Americans, it has been a very emotional issue. Some have sent money to the IRA and a few have even sent guns. Others have followed the lead of nationalist leader John Hume, becoming advocates for peaceful change. Others never got involved, backing away from their Irish ancestry because they did not want to be associated with violence or with a convoluted conflict they didn't understand.

For numerous Irish American organizations, influencing U.S. policy on Northern Ireland has been literally their reason for existing. If the problems of Northern Ireland do indeed get resolved, these organizations will have to adapt--or they will disappear.

The overwhelming support for the May 22 referendums on the Northern Ireland Agreement, and the success of pro-agreement candidates in the recent elections for the new Northern Ireland Assembly, has begun the process of healing Northern Ireland. The agreement, and the mood, were tested by the standoff between traditionalist Protestant Orangemen and security forces over a banned parade, and by the arson-murder of three children of a Catholic mother living in a Protestant neighborhood of County Antrim. But the sober reaction so far, compared to the violence of previous years in such situations, demonstrates that the will for peace is strong.

With the possible beginning of the end of the centuries-old conflict, Irish America is thus about to become a constituency without a cause.

The vast majority of the people of Ireland have chosen a new path for themselves and so must Irish Americans. The recent changes present a unique opportunity for Irish America to redefine and revitalize, starting with an effort to learn about--and really understand--what Ireland is today, and what it is no longer.

The southern part of the island is a modern, thriving, European country, confident about its future, sensitive to its past, and now engaged in a synthesis of the two that is producing a cultural renaissance. The internationally celebrated show "Riverdance," Martin McDonagh's multiple Tony Award-winning play "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," the poetry of Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley, the music of U2 and the Cranberries, the films of Jim Sheridan, Noel Pearson and Neil Jordan, the acting of Liam Neeson and Aidan Quinn, the books of Roddy Doyle, Patrick McCabe and Maeve Binchy--this is the culture of today's Ireland, and it reaches far beyond its shores.

The Irish republic has a booming economy--the fastest-growing in Europe--a business climate conducive to investment, and a well-educated, English-speaking workforce. Nearly 500 American corporations have already recognized the gateway that Ireland provides to the larger European market. Intel is manufacturing its next generation Pentium chip just outside Dublin and the Dell Computer Corp. is poised to become the biggest employer in Ireland.

Ireland is now the second largest exporter of software in the world. And Irish business is doing so well that it is expanding to this side of the Atlantic, with companies like Jefferson Smurfit, Elan and the Doyle Hotel Group creating jobs in the United States.

What isn't Ireland? It isn't the impoverished land of Frank McCourt's childhood years ago as described in "Angela's Ashes." It isn't seething with fierce and fiery nationalism. And the "shamrockery" of leprechauns and green beer is strictly for American tourists. Many Americans cling to the old images (as do a lot of tourism promoters) as if they don't want Ireland to grow up.

But the Irish I know recognize little of themselves in these stereotypes. And they are perplexed by a large segment of Irish America which is, if truth be told, more conservative than Ireland itself. Many of the Irish American organizations that demanded an "inclusive" Northern Ireland peace process, meaning the participation of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, have themselves long practiced the politics of exclusion--the exclusion of Protestants, women (never mind that Ireland now has its second female president, Mary McAleese), racial minorities, and gays and lesbians (never mind that gay and lesbian organizations march in St. Patrick's Day parades in Ireland).

There are 44 million Americans who define themselves as Irish in ancestry. But beyond that, the degree to which they actually identify in any real way with Ireland varies widely.

Most who are Catholic are descendants of those forced to flee Ireland during the Potato Famine in the mid-19th century. They brought with them to America an understandable hatred of the British as the source of their misery. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, many of the descendants of these emigrants learned of the unfair discrimination and brutal intimidation inflicted upon the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, and watched on television as British troops beat peaceful civil rights demonstrators.

Steeped in anti-British animosity passed down through the generations, many became fervent nationalists--believing that the solution to Northern Ireland's problems was getting the British out of Northern Ireland. Some became supporters of the IRA.

But more than half of the 44 million Irish Americans are Protestant. Most of their ancestors emigrated to the United States decades before the Famine and quickly assimilated. However, some later began to label themselves as "Scotch-Irish" in an effort to disassociate themselves from the recently arrived famine Irish who were being discriminated against because of their Catholicism and poverty. The vast majority of today's Protestant Irish Americans have no feelings of kinship with Northern Ireland's Protestant unionists, nor do they recognize triumphalist Orange marches and the Rev. Ian Paisley's hate-mongering as legitimate expressions of Protestantism.

Their interest in defining themselves today as Irish is, to some extent, a result of the phenomenon of "Roots," which sent many Americans in search of their ancestry. Ireland's cultural renaissance has also contributed to their interest in ancestral ties.

But without the opportunity to celebrate their Irishness in an Irish America that has long considered being Irish as synonymous with being Catholic, this Protestant half of Irish America has been largely invisible. Thus Irish America must reconcile its different identities just as the different identities must be reconciled within Ireland.

Views held about Northern Ireland will become less of a defining characteristic of what it means to be Irish American, just as views held about the Irish Civil War have become less of a defining characteristic of what it means to be Irish. But the tie to Ireland and the identity of being Irish remains valid and worth preserving.

Politically, there will continue to be issues of relevance involving immigration, business, nurturing the peace process and other topics yet unforeseen. But the question remains as to whether Irish Americans recognize the effort that is required to develop the kind of political constituency that Jewish Americans, Greek Americans, Italian Americans and Armenian Americans have.

Over the years, the U.S.-Ireland relationship has been taken for granted. When something needed to be "taken care of" in the relationship, the Irish and Irish Americans simply relied on a handful of individuals such as then-Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill or Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Pat Moynihan (D-N.Y.).

But the demographics of Congress are changing and it cannot be assumed that, 15 years from now, the Irish American agenda--whatever it is at that time--will automatically enjoy the priority in American foreign policy that it does today with the Clinton administration and the current Congress. A solid base--a network--of the Irish, Irish Americans, and anyone interested in maintaining and strengthening the relationship needs to be built, particularly with the next generation of leaders.

There's a vacuum in Irish America. It is a luxury that can be enjoyed briefly, like catching one's breath after a long race. But only briefly, or complacency will lead to disintegration. Irish America and Ireland must develop a dynamic new relationship which is broader than the narrow ground of Northern Ireland.

Trina Vargo is president of the new Washington-based U.S.-Ireland Alliance. For the previous 11 years, she served as foreign policy adviser to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.