It was 10 years ago this month that my parents, sister and I moved back to my mother’s hometown in Ireland.
I was 19 at the time, and the home we left in Florida couldn’t have been more different than the small town where my Irish Catholic grandparents had raised their 15 children. Our Fort Myers neighborhood consisted of cookie-cutter houses built around the community swimming pool; Birr is built around a castle where a noble family have resided Downton Abbey-style for centuries.
My sister and I had spent summers visiting family in Ireland, but when it came time to fully integrate, there was no denying that we were American kids, born and raised. Our mother was “Mom,” not “Mum” or “Mam.” We didn’t know the first thing about playing camogie, or how to recognize an Irish Traveller. We had heard some Irish music on CDs or during Floridian St. Patrick’s Day concerts, but which songs were tourist-pleasers and which were real, acceptable pub session fare?
Four months after moving to Ireland, I moved back to the United States. My time living in Ireland was less than some study abroad students spend overseas, though the cultural education I acquired was quite a bit different. Instead of a classroom, my time included a very brief stint as the only American working at a German-owned grocery chain; my mostly Polish immigrant co-workers knew me as the random American who didn’t know what rhubarb was.
I had felt compelled to move to Ireland with my family because when they decided to relocate, I was young and didn’t have a close network, ties, or real reason to stay in the United States. I thought, why not get back to my roots, try something new, and not have to be a continent away from my family? But it was almost immediately apparent to me that the opportunities and experiences I craved most were back west, and I booked a one-way ticket to New York.
Arriving at JFK Airport from Dublin — with little-to-no plan and my family settled an ocean apart — is probably the closest I’ll ever get to understanding the excitement and trepidation my mom must have felt when she moved from Ireland to New York as a young woman in the 1980s. I certainly wasn’t an immigrant, but making the same move my mother had made decades ago was definitely a surreal experience.
Plenty of Americans will tell you they can trace their family heritage back to places like Cork or Kerry, and I’ve often marveled when Americans with no immediate kin or connections to Ireland boldly claim, “I’m Irish.” If this weekend’s St. Patrick’s Day revelry is any indication, Éire holds a special place in the hearts of many Americans. And in their DNA. In 2014, 33.1 million US residents claimed Irish ancestry, more than seven times the population of Ireland.
I still have dual Irish-American citizenship, but Irishness is something I have never felt comfortable claiming as my own. It’s a conundrum that is, I think, frequently wrestled with by the first-generation children of immigrants from any country: How much of our identity is defined by where our parents came from, and how much is defined by our personal experiences? Even if the more obvious cultural niceties can be adopted over time (my sister now refers to our mother as “Mum”) there’s something more intangible that, for me, will forever be elusive; I simply cannot have the same connection with Irish culture as those who have been steeped in it, surrounded by it, living it since birth. And to my Irish relatives, my sister and I will always be affectionately considered Yanks.
For me, American culture and an American upbringing have always seemed too potent to shake off. It doesn’t envelope you completely, but it sticks with you — for better or for worse — no matter how you try to perfume it with another country’s cherry-picked amiable traits.
Irish culture is just as forceful for those born under its influence — and it’s something that Americans thirst for. When I speak with Americans preparing to visit Ireland, or with an American gushing over a recent trip to Ireland, often one of the top attractions on their sightseeing list isn’t a real destination at all: They want to chat and have a pint with real, regular Irish folk. The Irish have a reputation for being some of the friendliest, most hospitable people you’ll ever meet, and if you visit some of Ireland’s countryside you’ll find this stereotype to be quite accurate, if a bit less cartoonish. It’s a national trait that cannot be taught or acquired — something that no diet of Guinness, potato dinners, Irish dancing lessons, or “The Quiet Man” viewings can ever rectify (though you should certainly enjoy all these things!).
At least once a year, I go back to Ireland to visit my parents, sister and extended family. We go to the local pubs, and they indulge my touristy needs for a bit of sightseeing; as the Irish say, it’s great craic. Rather than trying to completely inhabit or banish an Irish identity, I’ve tried to find some middle ground. It’s a reconciliation that Americans from all backgrounds must confront. So, this St. Patrick’s Day, leave being “Irish” to the Irishmen; let us content ourselves with being — nay, celebrate being! — “Irish-American.”