Who among you?

“Let’s just say, there’s a reason New York don’t have a Saint George’s Day parade, son”.  My father told me this once when I was young.  America’s largest ethnic group, those of English descent, had no huge revelry downtown in America’s largest city, most visible to the rest of the world.  But on the 17th of every March, the feast day of Saint Patrick, glorious apostle of Ireland (*crosses oneself) millions across the country and the world, witnessed live and on TV a massive form of cultural self-expression, made largely by Irish Americans several generations removed from what we call ‘the Motherland’.  Quite simply, my father would always say, ‘this is the one day of the year, where everyone wants to be Irish.  And we let them’. 

To many in Ireland, however, my father is not Irish.  I am not Irish.  While we define our Irishness in ethnic terms, or cultural terms, to many here on this island, by virtue of being raised somewhere else, and having American accents, we could never be, and have never been Irish.  And that’s fine.  I have always, when faced with those ideas, chuckled and asked ‘who died and made you the Pope of who gets to be Irish”?  And it is important to note, that to this day, the Office of the Department of the Sheriff Who Judges Who is Properly Irish, and Who Ain’t remains vacant in Dublin.  But why then, does the sense of being Irish remain so strong, comparatively, to other ethnic groups in America?  As Brendan Behan once famously quipped : “other people have a nationality.  The Irish and the Jews have a psychosis”. 

How fitting then, that in Michael S. Begnal’s article, “To be an Irishman Too”: Jack Kerouac’s Irish Connection”, he details the chance encounter between Brendan Behan, and Jack Kerouac.  Kerouac himself held a lifelong fascination with Ireland, and the Celtic identity (371).  It has to be remembered that in the 1950s, the idea of Irishness being separate from mainstream white America was not a long distant relic of the past, and that this paradoxical idea of white and not white at the same time is the exact sort of paradox Jack Kerouac, Catholic and Buddhist, Beatnik who hated hippies, would have found fascinating.  And Begnal writes that Kerouac and Behan were very compatible, speaking highly of each other afterwards (375).  The idea did cross my mind that perhaps this was a more antiquated version of I-have-a-black-friend syndrome.  However, I think that that type of cynicism is a way of people, like those self appointed deputies of the Sherrif Who Judges Who is Properly Irish, and Who Ain’t, to try to diminish the genuine sense of belonging that people get from wanting to belong to groups they somehow identify with.

Works Cited:  

Begnal, Michael S.  “To be an Irishman Too”: Jack Kerouac’s Irish Connection”.  Studies:An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 92, No. 368 (Winter, 2003), pp. 371-377)


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