The PJ Tatler

Self-Loathing Irish-American Observes St. Patrick's Day by Loathing Self, Other Irish-Americans

That would be lefty Andrew O’Hehir in the pages of — where else? — Salon. He hates his fellow Irish-Americans and most of all he hates his own white skin. It pains me to say that this lad’s family hails from my own dear County Clare.

He starts by blaming the decline of Irish America on, of all things, the end of sectarian violence in “Northern Island,” the soon-to-be-extinct British colony carved out of Ulster province and headed for the dustbin of history:

When the Provisional Irish Republican Army agreed to end its paramilitary insurgency (and/or terrorist campaign) against British rule in Northern Ireland with the Good Friday accords of 1998, it was unambiguously a good thing for the people of Ireland and their British next-door neighbors. It’s not like everything suddenly became hunky-dory in the long and troubled historical relationship between those islands, but the peace has largely held – splinter groups and isolated sectarian violence aside – and an era of relative normalcy and increasing prosperity has followed. Given the global context of the 21st century, an intractable religious-cum-nationalist dispute between two tiny groups of white people in the northwest corner of Europe looks pretty close to irrelevant.

But the end of the IRA’s guerrilla war had a less salubrious effect on the Irish-American population, and I say that in full awareness that on the surface that’s an offensive statement. What I mean is that the last connection between Irish-American identity and genuine history was severed, and all we’re left with now is a fading and largely bogus afterlife. On one hand, Irishness is a nonspecific global brand of pseudo-old pubs, watered-down Guinness, “Celtic” tattoos and vague New Age spirituality, designed to make white people feel faintly cool without doing any of the hard work of actually learning anything. On the other, it’s Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Pat Buchanan and Rep. Peter King, Long Island’s longtime Republican congressman (and IRA supporter), consistently representing the most stereotypical grade of racist, xenophobic, small-minded, right-wing Irish-American intolerance. When you think of the face of white rage in America, it belongs to a red-faced Irish dude on Fox News.

Nice work there, buddy — all the more impressive considering that if your family had stayed in Ireland, you’d probably be out fixing my cattle fences right now instead of writing for Salon. But wait — it gets worse! There’s a riff on the 1863 Draft Riots in New York (bottom-rung Irish and blacks clashed in Manhattan repeatedly, since they were the two ethnic groups everybody else could despise), and the “rightward drift” of the Irish vote, and ends with this gem:

With Irish-American identity now split between an optional lifestyle accessory and a bunch of unappealing right-wing guys yelling at us, its social-justice component has evaporated as well.

Am I proud of my Irish heritage? Sure I am, up to a point: We’re all born with something, and I was born with a name no one can spell or pronounce, which is specific to a few townlands in County Clare. I’ve actually made it more Yank-friendly by inserting the apostrophe; my dad insisted upon “O Hehir,” and in retrospect I’m surprised he didn’t go all the way to Ó hEithir or Ó hAíchir. (As I have told strangers roughly twice a day for the last several decades, you say it “just like the airport.”) I inherited some of my Irish-raised dad’s snobbery about the hopelessly Americanized character of St. Patrick’s Day, which a serious alcoholic like him could only view as amateur hour. I don’t miss Irish-America’s dishonest relationship to Irish violence (although the worst offenders in that department were almost always the racist and homophobic old guard). But I’d put up with many choruses of “Danny Boy,” and many rounds of green-label Budweiser, to get back that feeling we briefly had of being an immigrant group that was trying to confront its history, and to see the prison of whiteness for what it really is.

Somebody send Ó hEithir a copy of Noel Ignatiev’s book, How the Irish Became White. And while we’re on the subject of names, my name in Irish is Mícheál Ó Breathnach. Try writing and pronouncing that.