Last Tuesday, while looking for special treatment for the undocumented Irish in the States, Enda Kenny got called out for playing the “Irish Card” by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. Jamie Goldrick takes a look at the notion of Irish exceptionalism and asks why do our politicians feel they can ask for special treatment.
In one sense this episode can be seen as typical of the parish pump politics that we’re so well used to here in Ireland, yet in another sense it is Enda Kenny playing the ‘“Irish Card”. That mostly tacit, but sometimes explicit phenomenon that most Irish who have ever travelled to the States in recent times have experienced. What is this “Irish Card”? Where does this notion that we are “a great bunch of lads” and deserve special treatment originate, and what does it mean today?
The Irish American Story and the American Dream are closely intertwined, in fact the Irish American story is the embodiment of the American Dream; to arrive destitute fleeing from an brutal colonial power to an almost infinite land where almost anything is possible.
Today Irishness is white America’s ethnicity of choice, it becomes loaded with a moral authority that other European identities such as Germanic, English or French ancestry do not possess.
It ambiguously allows the bearer to latch onto 800 years of oppression yet also to maintain all the benefits of whiteness in today’s society. Examples par excellence being Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly of Fox News who frequently make reference to their Irishness as a rhetorical device which dampens their divisive and xenophobic rhetoric.
In sum, it is ethnicity – with benefits.
Depictions of Irishness as having a heightened sense of morality and fairness abound right from representations of Irish characters right throughout the American media. From the Quiet Man to Ryan’s Daughter, right up to the more recent Rescue Me TV series and Bridesmaids. Contemporary America conjures up a mystical ideal of a motherland which is central and gives meaning to it’s foundation myth.
Conversely Ireland has constantly looked to America. Apart from the obvious legacy of emigration there is the impact of American media output on this small island. RTE’s first Director General of choice was Irish-American Catholic Eric Roth, who came from the world of commercial networks in the US.
Roth’s preference for importing Cold War subsidised American shows at the expense of indigenous material was indicative of the financial struggles and lack of confidence within the new station. By 1980 RTÉ was showing more imported programmes than any other broadcaster in the European Community. The continued obsession with Garth Brooks and local lad done good Nathan Carter is a nod to the romance and allure of the frontier, a romance whose foundation was laid over 50 years ago.
Take for example the Paddy’s Day Parade, its inception in North America was as a day to celebrate Irish heritage Up until the 1970’s all the pubs were closed on St Patrick’s Day here in Ireland.
Halloween, a pagan tradition travelled over the Atlantic from here and returned with a distinctly American character. One we all celebrate today. Leprechauns (and their hats) of whom there is minor reference to in our folklore, achieved fame only after Disney’s Darby O Gill and the Little People and a certain brand of American breakfast cereal – now appear to be the de-facto symbol of Irishness at parades up and down the island today.
Ireland is in a somewhat unique position of having a diaspora far greater than that of its population here. In today’s global hyper-mediated landscape it’s a numbers game. A diaspora of 80 million peoples (however rudimentary) notions of Irishness, trumps the actual lived experience of those that live here.
In the end we all end up wearing tatty Leprechaun hats, celebrating our Irish roots – in Ireland.
Like it or not, America is a part of us, just as we are part of America. If Ireland symbolises America’s past, then America symbolises Ireland’s future.
In this light, are the actions of Enda Kenny looking for special treatment for the undocumented Irish not just a diluted version of American exceptionalism?
American exceptionalism is the idea that America is inherently different to most nations. The idea of American exceptionalism was first coined by American socialists who argued the United States was immune to what Marx thought was an inevitable move of capitalist societies toward communism by means of violent struggle.
In recent times the term is used in the context that America is somehow superior to other nations and used by JFK, right through to Reagan, Obama (“I believe in American exceptionalism with every fibre of my being”) and of course Trump today.
There may be a number of reasons for this misclassified moral superiority, ranging from the frontier spirit the and appropriation of America’s great natural resources not yet touched by Old World technology, or a number of other historical or geographical factors.
Yet today this self congratulatory attitude also permeates Irish society, the idea that we are “a great bunch of lads”, that we also deserve special treatment shows us how much of the American story we also embody.
This attitude allows Kenny go over cap in hand to Trump, to talk about America as the land of “shelter, compassion and opportunity” and allows him to overlook the hypocrisy of his words towards the plight of the undocumented here in Ireland without the slightest hint of introspection.
Not only so, but this idea of Irish exceptionalism and construction of the Irish as pure, fair and having a heightened sense of morality hides an uncomfortable truth within. It serves to obscure the dirty underbelly of Irish society and has no doubt influenced our reluctance to deal with issues here at home.
Where to start? Since the formation of the state, to our tendency to incarcerate those in institutions that have not fit into the predominant idea of what it means to conform to Irish society. The unfolding horrific events in Tuam are but a recent remainder of this. Our treatment of the Travelling community and only recently our recognition of Travellers as a distinct ethnic grouping 17 years after the UK and after calls from regional and international monitoring bodies for human rights and equality including the Council of Europe and the United Nations.
Private companies run direct provision centres for asylum seekers at huge expense to the taxpayer. Ireland and Lithuania remain the only countries in the EU that do not allow asylum seekers to work while their case is being reviewed which compounds the suffering of asylum seekers, who are left in the system for sometimes up to ten years. Despite our legacy of emigration from this island, we are today not so keen accept those that do make it to these shores. Stay here for over two weeks and the renowned cead mile failte dissipates and our penchant for hiding the vulnerable and unwanted out of sight becomes apparent.
Still such a great bunch of lads?
Check out our piece on “the myth of the Irish slaves” here.