Ireland's view of Irish America must go beyond stereotypes

Irish New Yorker and resident in Kerry during lockdown, Eugene O'Driscoll, ponders Ireland's perceptions and preconceptions of Irish America, in a bizarre summer for tourism
Ireland's view of Irish America must go beyond stereotypes
A US flag flying

Driving into the town of Tralee one day on the 4th of July weekend, I noticed a massive American flag waving outside of a hotel on the edge of town. The flag, impeccably fresh and clean with its bright red and white and blue colours bursting forward, dwarfed the Irish tricolour next to it, its size something you’d expect in a gas station in Texas and reminiscent to me of one flying at a Trump-owned golf course in a prominent riverside location in New York City. 

At the time, I assumed the massive flag was flown especially for the American Independence Day but it remained standing as of last week.

The size of the American flag, next to its counterpart, is striking for a few reasons. 

First, the fact that it was larger than the tricolour, and was flown as the centerpiece in an array of flags, indicated some sort of precedence, a clear top spot in the pecking order – a situation which would draw ire and even uproar if the roles were reversed, and a tricolour flew higher or larger than an American flag within the US. (The US is a country where you might expect the police to show up if an American flag is hung improperly.) 

Secondly, it is peculiar for it to be hung this particular summer, in which American tourists in large numbers are not expected and at this stage, are unwanted. 

What was the logic behind hanging the large flag? Was it purchased before the pandemic and therefore the owner wanted to just put it up anyway? Was it meant to attract and welcome American visitors who are foregoing the conventional wisdom not to travel abroad?

In any case, the flag is symbolic of the continued importance of America, and more specifically Irish America, to tourism in Ireland. An Irish Times article last weekend focused on summer tourism down the road in Killarney over the weekend centered just how harmful the absence of American visitors is to the local economy, headlined “36 Hours in Killarney: We’re Missing the Americans”.

Yet of course, the largest headlines surrounding American tourists in Ireland this summer the past few weeks are to do with the presence of incoming tourists, rather than their absence, with flights coming in from American Covid-19 hotspots to Dublin Airport.

The hysteria, while seemingly exaggerated by anecdotes and news reports, is in my eyes justified, as all it takes for the virus to spread are a few people bringing it in, and both the government who permits such travel and the individuals who put the Irish public health at risk must be called out and the threat itself must be thwarted.

But certain articles, radio talk shows with callers-in, and social media discourse which has ensued have taken this opportunity to criticise and ridicule Irish America more generally. 

Calls to reduce and restrict the procedures in which Americans of Irish descent are issued Irish passports have long existed but presenting some far-fetched scenario where millions of Americans holding Irish passports suddenly relocate the island in the upcoming months is just fear mongering. 

The diaspora citizenship opportunities are routinely ridiculed, and often questioned in ways which are often counterintuitively, unintentionally and ironically nativist.

The irony of all of this is this is that people within Ireland often stereotype Irish Americans for their perceived stereotyped views of Ireland. The other trope which is regularly invoked is the portrayal of Irish America as some sort of hellish, conservative backwater.

Over the past few years, Irish social commentators who reach wide audiences have routinely cited the “divergent” political directions of Irish America and Ireland, claiming that as Irish America allegedly becomes more racist and conservative, Ireland has become a more tolerant and open society. 

On Twitter, it seems as if there is a viral tweet almost weekly which garners hundreds and even thousands of likes bashing Irish Americans with more popping up frequently in recent weeks, as if the group is some sort of idiotic, ignorant ethnic monolith.

This well-worn view completely ignores the political realities of the United States and the pronounced and polarized generational schism between older generations and younger ones which is taking place in America - as it is globally - as the left becomes more and more popular with the youth. 

"Irish America and Irish Americans must be talked about in ways that go beyond the hackneyed and comfortable tropes and lazy stereotypes of racism, conservatism, naivety, ignorance and sentimentality."
"Irish America and Irish Americans must be talked about in ways that go beyond the hackneyed and comfortable tropes and lazy stereotypes of racism, conservatism, naivety, ignorance and sentimentality."

Moreover, this cliché helps to gloss over the reality of the simultaneously casual yet pervasive blatant and vitriolic racism, xenophobia, and homophobia which does indeed exist in rural villages up and down the country here in Ireland, presumably because as a country, Ireland has thankfully avoided an electorally nationalist backlash like that in the US or England.

While the outspoken minority of Irish Americans who do things like support Trump and perpetuate the Irish slave myth should indeed be challenged at every opportunity, people must understand that many Irish Americans can and do understand their own heritage and harness them for progressive causes, and that they are capable of forming emotional connections with this island beyond the “Quiet Man”-style sentimentality and ignorance.

The portrayal of Irish American visitors, and American visitors generally, and the ways in which tourism in Ireland function, are deeply interwoven. The tourism industry in the Irish Free State was in no small part set up in order to cater to Irish American sentimentality and transgenerational longing for home, and as a result, the performative act of Blarney and Killarney that Ireland sells to tourists across the globe lives on. 

Decades of treating tourism as a cash cow industry in the country, and treating Irish Americans as the actual cash cows have led to this. If many American visitors have a sentimentalised view of Ireland, this is in no small part because that is the Ireland that the country is selling to them. Isn’t this act which is sold to them also unfair to the local residents as well? 

Why can’t tourism be reimagined or limited to be beneficial and educational to both those travelling, including those in search of the heritage, as well as locals?

Over the past few months, questions over Irish inbound tourism and “salvaging the tourism season” have habitually featured in news headlines. The questions always asked are what can be done to help the industry and the areas most affected, and when some sort of normality can be resumed, but never why the country is so dependent on tourism in the first place and how tourism can be reimagined in ways that benefit both Ireland and its visitors.

Why is Ireland’s economy, particularly in the west, so heavily reliant on tourism in the first place? Historically, this reliance is rooted in the perpetuation of the image of an idyllic, rugged, uncorrupted land of untouched rural beauty. Tourism has long served as a means of propping up local economies without any long-term alternative development plans. 

Of what value is tourism to rural communities that are inhabited, outside of the cash flow to the few beneficiaries and the propping up of people with jobs? Any semblance of “cultural enrichment”, which advocates of mass tourism would argue comes from human-to-human interactions, is becoming fainter and fainter over time, as interactions becoming more and more commodified, with pubs and famine cottages and beehive huts being reviewed on TripAdvisor as part of some sort of tourist playground.

To be sure, with a recession and climate change looming, a long-overdue societal reckoning with American and global racism, and Ireland’s own domestic crises of housing and inequality, there are much more pressing issues facing Ireland, the US, and the globe. 

But the volume of discussion generated from the presence of smaller groups of, and from the larger absence of masses of, Irish American tourists this summer, is indicative of both the continued, unseverable ties of Americans with Irish descent to the country and their historical importance in the development of both nations. 

Ireland’s history of emigration and its large diaspora means that these conversations, even in the face of the pandemic, are not going to go away anytime in the foreseeable future. 

If people in Ireland are going to continue to write articles about and discuss Irish America, and its visitors to the island, Irish America and Irish Americans must be talked about in ways that go beyond the hackneyed and comfortable tropes and lazy stereotypes of racism, conservatism, naivety, ignorance and sentimentality.

Eugene O'Driscoll is a historian of Ireland and its diaspora and is an Irish New Yorker who resides between the two places. He can be found on Twitter under the handle (@theresonly1geno).

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