Last night at dinner, I was asked a question: why do Irish-Americans still care so much about Northern Ireland? Why do people two or more generations removed from Ireland still give money to the IRA?
My family never has given money to the IRA--in fact, we may be the only Irish Americans who donate to the SDLP. Nonetheless, I offered an opinion.
For Americans, I said, the Troubles never ended. Their families never experienced building their own, Irish state; they never lived in an Ireland that wasn't ruled by the British. And so the last thing they had of Ireland was the terrible memories of whatever forced them to leave. And in many cases, the memories were terrible; I have met people who had relatives killed at Croke Park or were otherwise terribly victimised by the Black and Tans. Their other memories were of being terribly poor--a friend's grandmother actually grew up cooking on an open fire that vented through a hole in the ceiling--and rightly or wrongly, they blamed the British for this.
Moreover, the ones who stayed on the coasts, in Boston and New York and Philadelphia, felt herded into ghettoes by Protestants only marginally less bigoted than the ones they'd left behind in Ireland. I'm not sure that my friends who have rechristened themselves progressives understand just how much of that movement was an explicit revulsion against Catholic immigrants, and the political power and structures that they had built.
My great-grandfather's generation was economically, politically, and socially quite constrained by this discrimination; my father's generation experienced it regularly; and even I occasionally stumble into its echos. The St. Patrick's Day party I attended in the Main Line, where the expert eye of the fifty-something hostess immediately picked me out as the only Irish person present, and introduced me to the guests accordingly. Or the seventy-something woman at a hotel I worked at who rechristened me "Millie" after some Irish maid they'd had in the twenties, and when her companion corrected her, grandly declared (I swear, I'm not making this up) that "The Irish don't care about things like that." Obviously, I do not feel that my life has been in any way affected, much less blighted, by anti-Irish discrimination. But when I run into things like that, I think I can understand how I would feel, if that sort of thing were a feature of my everday life, rather than a thrillingly anachronistic hint of a forgotten past.
All of this is true, but I think it is too kind. There is another reason that Irish Americans give to Gerry Adams and his merry band of Marxist maniacs, which is that it is all very far away. Irish Americans can, at relatively cheap monetary cost, purchase social status, solidarity, and the exciting feeling of striking a blow for Ireland! They suffer not one whit from the cycle of violence that they help sustain.
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