Saturday, March 10, 2012

Turning green

It's almost St. Patrick's Day, which means the city of Boston is turning green. We already have a basketball team named the Celtics and a low-cost insurance company called Celticare whose ads feature people of color. Apparently “Celtic” is supposed to invoke Boston itself rather than an actual race or ethnicity.

By far, most of the “Irish” people in Boston have never seen Ireland and are five or six generations removed. And most by now are of fairly mixed ancestry – Italian, English, German, and whatever else. Those English and German ancestors in Boston were burning Irish convents and so forth 130 years ago. If you could pass for Anglo-Saxon at that point, it was probably very tempting.

And yet today, Irish is the most common ethnic identity in the state. Most of the country is has a plurality of self-reported German ancestry, but Southern New England claims to be very Irish.

To be fair: Boston does have actual Irish people. I have a classmate from County Mayo who spent the 90s in Boston associating only with other actually Irish people. And Boston did get a lot of Irish immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century.

Of course, if your family is recently from Nigeria, Laos, or anywhere else, your ethnicity is more than drinking green beer once a year. And many long-time Americans had their ethnic languages and cultures stolen from them by slavery. (See Mary Waters' ”Optional Ethnicities: For Whites Only?”)

Looking at children's names, Celtic names are in – Sean, Caitlin, Liam, and Maura are not just for Irish kids anymore. More obscure ones like Maeve and Callum might be for families who have some Celtic ancestry, but not necessarily. Even though most white Americans have German ancestry, nobody's naming their kids Klara or Emil. Lots of Boston-area residents have an Ashkenazi background, but those names are right out. Even people who originally had Yiddish names didn't keep them - Moishe, Schmuel, and Chavele became Morris, Sam, and Eva upon arrival on American soil.

"Celtic": not just for Celts

So why is Irishness so popular? It can't be the food.

They do have beer, but so does all of Europe and North America. They do have a firm pub culture, which might actually do a lot for a sort of ethnic identity.

Enough Irish came to Boston that they had a kind of critical mass here. It's more fun to be Irish with 3,500 of your friends than, say, Welsh with two of your cousins. And it's more worth it to open an Irish bar or dance studio.

The Irish as a whole haven't done anything too embarrassing lately (except decades of terrorism, which Americans didn't notice). German ancestry became a lot less popular with Americans after the world wars.

The Irish do have great music. Riverdance seems to have popularized Irish music and dance, albeit a quite stagey version. People seeing English traditional dance for the first time often ask me if it's Irish, maybe figuring that a cultural activity involving white people and fiddles must be Irish. And people who stare blankly when you say you like “American traditional music” smile and nod if you describe it as “Celtic” instead.

They speak English and have what's considered to be a cute accent. It's unclear whether there's something inherently appealing about an Irish accent. If only we had a way to find out if Bostonians in the era of “No Irish Need Apply” thought it was cute.

They have a body of myth, which appeals to aforementioned arty kids. But so does Scandinavia, and there's no craze to embrace your Norwegian heritage (unless in the Midwest?)

Anyway, I can't see any harm in this genealogical fad. I've been tempted to find some Irish ancestry for myself, but the best I could turn up was a lot of English people and one Scot.


T said...

there's also the fact that (the republic of) Ireland is a country Americans can see themselves safely visiting (as you pointed out..Belfast is probably not in their vocabulary) and has a reputation for friendly, talkative people. I also suspect that the English language has a lot to do with it, the Irish traditionally do not look down on Americans AND you don't have to learn a new language to do your genealogical study.
(btw, the Irish tend to think Americans love them not just because they're friendly but also because they think the Irish excuse a lot of things in the name of being drunk without the label of alcholism.)

Jeff Kaufman said...

I really doubt there's anything inherently appealing about any accent. I think if we went looking through writing from the 1830s-50s we could find lots of examples of anti-irish sentiment taking the form of criticizing the accent.

(It looks like "no irish need apply" was very rare: