by Alison Benney
Published in Irish Eyes, March 2005
Is it for nostalgia, identity or just good craic that encourages so many Americans to claim Irish heritage? There are barely156,000 first-generation Irish residents in the US, yet the 2002 census reported over 34 million persons claiming Irish ancestry.
It seems to be an issue of cultural distinctiveness, like identifying as an Italian American or Polish American. An "Irish Parisian" I spoke with wondered whether it is more a question of status on some ethnic social ladder, which would make quite a change from the attitudes of racism and prejudice that first greeted Irish immigrants until almost a hundred years ago.
Back then solidarity was a matter of survival. After all, the first St. Patrick's Day parade took place not in Ireland, but in either 18th-century New York or Boston, depending on the source. In 1962, Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley (third-generation Irish) was the first to famously dye the city's river green for the occasion. Yet it wasn't until 1996 that Dublin organised its own parade.
What in fact defines a "real" Irish American? A list of the renowned include Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok, Mickey Rooney, Errol Flynn - but none of them had Irish roots, at least not within seven generations. Dancer Gene Kelly, on the other hand, moved with real Irish panache, thanks to his mother from Co. Clare; Grace Kelly's parents were born in Co. Mayo; and Maureen O'Sullivan, Tarzan's unplain Jane and mother of Mia Farrow, was born in Boyle, Co. Roscommon, as was her childhood classmate, Vivien Leigh.
Lassy Maureen O'Hara came from Ranelagh, near Dublin, and is especially cherished for her role in The Quiet Man - which may soon be dubbed into Gaelic for the first time. Her leading man, the legendary John Wayne, had 5th generation Irish blood, going back to ancestors born in Co. Antrim. In good diasporic synchronicity, Quiet Man director John Ford, born Sean Aloysius O'Feeney, also directed Stagecoach, the film that kick-started John Wayne's career.
Despite the sometimes slight birthright, imagine the US without the irreplaceable talent of the Irish community. What would "White Christmas" have sounded like if Bing Crosby (great-grandfather from Co. Cork) hadn't made it a hit? Ditto for "Over the Rainbow", sung by Judy Garland (grandmother Fitzpatrick from Dublin), whose popularity in Ireland was so great that the song "It's a Great Day for the Irish" was written especially for her. In fact, "Danny Boy" was popularised first in vaudeville by Irish Americans, and Chauncy Olcott (Irish mother) wrote the classics, "My Wild Irish Rose", and "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling".
And the list goes on, from Walt Disney (Irish grandmother), comedian Jackie Gleason and Art Carney (Irish parents), writers Eugene O'Neill (Kilkenny) and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to boxing champs Jack Dempsey (Kildare) and John L. Sullivan; from industrialists Henry Ford (Cork) and Louis H. Sullivan, father of the skyscraper, to the socialist and labour agitator who helped create the IWW, Mary Harris "Mother" Jones (born in Cork).
Everyone has their favorites - these are just a shortlist from a period of only 50 years or so. As Merle Haggard (uber-American) wrote, some Americans are proud to be an Okie from Muskogee. But like 34 million others, I would love to be a Benney from Kilkenny.