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The Irish conquest of America
WHEN JOHN HEARNE, Ireland’s ambassador to Washington, sent Harry Truman a box of shamrocks on St Patrick’s Day in 1952, he could not have imagined he was launching the greatest exercise in soft power. Yet it is hard to think of a rival to the annual shamrock ceremony and its attendant rituals. On March 14th, Leo Varadkar, the sixth consecutive Irish Taoiseach to conduct them, will celebrate St Patrick’s Day by breakfasting with Vice-President Mike Pence. He will be feted at a lunch on Capitol Hill attended by Donald Trump. He will proceed with the president, wearing a green tie, possibly on the long side, to the White House for the plant handover. They will meanwhile hold the only annually scheduled “substantive” talks America affords any foreign leader.
This is great for Ireland. For the inconvenience of having to buy lots of green ties (the current ambassador has around 40), its representatives enjoy unrivalled access to the superpower. The notion that America might favour Britain over Ireland in any post-Brexit wrangle—a fear Mr Varadkar is expected to raise—is untenable. Yet Ireland’s soft-power triumph is mainly testament to the continued enthusiasm of 32m Irish-Americans for their roots, and to their equally remarkable dominance of American politics.
Besides Mr Pence—two of whose grandparents were born in Ireland—the Republican House leader, Kevin McCarthy, is Irish-American, as was his predecessor, Paul Ryan, and their Senate counterpart, Mitch McConnell. Among the many other Irish-Americans who have served Mr Trump are his sometime advisers Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, and his current and former chiefs of staff, Mick Mulvaney and John Kelly. Mr Mulvaney, whose daughter is studying in Dublin, helped organise a tree-planting on Capitol Hill to commemorate the centenary of the Easter Rising.
This is, in a sense, par for the course. Barack Obama’s administration was also full of Irish-Americans—including Joe Biden, his Yeats-quoting deputy, who is expected to announce a presidential run shortly. Mr O’Bama (geddit?) also promoted his own Irish ancestry—as did his five immediate predecessors. There are a few reasons for this Celtic pre-eminence. They include the role of the Catholic church, the English language and the relatively even gender-balance of the 2m Irish who came to America between 1820 and 1860. They helped keep Irish-American communities intact. The fact that many were, and are, in political hotspots such as Ohio and Pennsylvania also boosted their political relevance and activity. So does a propensity to talk. “We do communications, politics; Italians cook,” joshes Niall O’Dowd of Irish America magazine. Yet the most significant factor, because it says a lot about the broader state of politics, is a strong Irish-American political culture, rooted in anti-elitism, outsiderism and grievance. Generations after most Irish-Americans lost touch with the old country, it is still evident—indeed especially evident—on the right and left today.
To understand this, consider that the 19th-century hordes were not quite the naive starvelings they are often described as. They left a country already mobilised by nationalists such as Daniel O’Connell, whose “monster meetings” drew hundreds of thousands. And the heavy use Irish nationalists made of America, as a rear-base and source of funds, through to the late 20th century, nurtured that awakening. The Easter Rising was part-organised in America; a lecture by Yeats drew 4,000 New Yorkers in 1904. The discrimination Irish-Americans faced at home, as the “last whites to become white”, it is sometimes said, politicised them further.
Yet it is notable that Irish-American politicians harped on the feeling this inspired, of struggle and two fingers to the bloody establishment, long after Ireland was free and most Irish-Americans comfortably middle class. “Ireland’s chief export has been neither potatoes nor linen, but exiles and immigrants who have fought with sword and pen for freedom,” enthused Bobby Kennedy. And that mutinous sentiment is as effective today—for example to display the common touch of politicos such as Mr Biden—as it was in launching the Fenian movement or hiding the excesses of Tammany Hall. Mr Biden, who has spent half a century in front-line politics, expresses it by quoting his mother, Jean Finnegan. “Show me the guy that says something about you, Joey,” she reportedly said.
Ever since John F. Kennedy drew the votes of 80% of Irish-Americans, they have been peeling off to the right: about half vote Republican now. Growing prosperity, the demise of organised labour and the union of conservative Catholics and the religious right explain this. Yet despite switching parties and objectives, their politicians retain the same old spirit and tropes. William F. Buckley, one of the founders of modern conservatism, griped about the greedy liberal elite like a dispossessed peasant-intellectual. Mr Bannon, a former investment banker who dresses like a scruffy boyo, rails against globalisation with the same resentful fury. So does the billionaire Mr Trump—whom Mr Bannon calls the “third Irish president”, despite his Scotch-German roots.
A crock of gold
The style and themes of Irish-American politics now dominate American politics. Rival Irish-Americans even sometimes express their political differences in a parallel row over authentic Irishness. The Catholic overseers of the St Patrick’s Day parade in New York barred gay Irish-Americans until recently. Progressive Irish-Americans hammer restrictionists like Mr Bannon for betraying their migrant history. This might be considered the final stage of the Irish triumph in America: the blarneyfication of its democracy.
And as that phrase suggests, it should be viewed cautiously, because politicians like Mr Biden and Mr Bannon are not only resorting to a proud political tradition to describe new problems. They have also identified in Irish-American political methods a time-worn means of self-promotion. As a rule of thumb, the more Irish a multi-generation Irish-American politician sounds, the more scepticism he or she warrants.