It could be argued that the Irish American identity is an endangered species.
Why so, you ask?
Because of the changes in the flow of permanent immigration from Ireland to the US.
Gone are the days when the first order of business for an Irishman or Irishwoman, upon reaching early adulthood, was to find the money for a one-way boat or plane ticket out of Ireland. England was the most likely initial destination, but America was the one most aspired to. Today, when people emigrate from Ireland, they are not getting pushed out by the need to make a living, at least not in any great numbers.
These days, the Irish abroad have become sojourners. They do not feel they can never return to live in Ireland. So why leave at all? A stretch spent living in another country can enhance careers and networks, provide broader work and life experience, and satisfy an ancient wanderlust. And the choice to return to Ireland is always in their back-pocket, folded neatly inside their Irish passport.
Through the lens of Ireland's modern, global perspective, America is no longer one of a small set of desired destinations. Now it sits on a much longer list, though still near the top, if not at the top.
Which is just as well, since it is almost impossible for an Irish person today to immigrate permanently into the US nowadays, given its hugely restrictive immigration laws. And this is true for many other nationals too, especially those who leave their native land as young single adventurers, the traditional modus operandi of the Irish migrant.
But identities and communities form in unison. Without steady, future flow from Ireland–the kind that sticks around for a lifetime, as is no longer the case–how, you might wonder, will Irish communities continue to form in America? And without settled communities, what is to become of the Irish American identity?
The answer is not clear, but there are indications Irish America is adapting.
In January this year, over 800 young Irish x-pat men and women, living in New York, rallied in Central Park around an emotive cause, violence against women, which is now at epidemic proportions anywhere you can think of, even Ireland. The event, a charity 5K run, which raised over $32,000 in aid of increased education and awareness for the problem, was borne of a terrible, horrible tragedy–the murder of Ashling Murphy.
The crime that took Ashling's life had been committed only ten days before. The event in response to the crime was organized by three twenty-something highly-educated Irish ladies, living their young free lives in the big city: Sarah Cosgrave, Amy Brett and Niamh Reilly.
It usually takes weeks of planning, if not months, to attract a crowd that large. And yet, the turnaround from idea conception to implementation was barely eight days. It had all the makings for a flash mob, a sample of a much bigger population, the tip of an iceberg.
By rights, the community that showed up to honor and remember Ashling should not even exist, but such is the deep connection the Irish have with America, and in this case, New York, that none of the aforementioned factors have prevented young Irish arriving on these shores in significant numbers.
By rights the event at Central Park should not have happened, but happen it did.
Those that attended are in a pipeline that is constricted but not closed. They may sling themselves from one visa category to another, just to retain legal status, and they may decide not to stay for more than a few years, but they are here and they are a community.
And with community comes identity.
The Irish no longer enter the American pipeline in their youth and move along in it till they're old. They enter the pipeline in their youth, and leave it before their youth leaves them. Maybe we need to see the pipeline as horizontal in time, across its youngest, not vertical, spanning age groups. In this way, maybe we can be creative about how the Irish American identity can be sustained.
The only thing America guarantees is optimism. Everything else, you're on your own. Well, that's my thinking. So I choose to be optimistic that Ireland's connection to America will continue to be strong and the Irish American identity will be sustained. It'll just look different. And a crucial part of it will look like the crowd in Central Park last January
Niamh, Amy and Sarah
Lining up to run at Central Park
Be sure to have a listen to CenterPieceNY's conversation with Amy Brett for more food for thought on the topic of the Irish American identity.
pef May 2022