Irish Americans: The Plight of the Plastic Paddy

Irish Americans: The Plight of the Plastic Paddy

Breanna Reynolds, Writer and Head Political Contributor

Every family has a story, mine goes back to Ireland. Eight generations ago, Charles Finley traveled to Massachusetts from Antrim, Ireland and fought in the New York militia in the Revolutionary War against the British. My family typically married with other Irish immigrants or descendants of Irish immigrants until the 20th century with little outliers. 

The United States has a long history of Irish immigration. There are more people in the U.S. who claim some sort of Irish ancestry than there are people currently living in Ireland. This Saint Patrick’s day, I want to look at the history and cultural impact of people with families like mine. 

The image of a sign saying “HELP WANTED No Irish Need Apply” is well known among those who have spent any time studying American history. Why did people hate the Irish? 

Irish immigration reached its height during the Potato Famine in the 1840’s. The Irish brought Catholicism to a majority Protestant country. They were poor and uneducated. They were seen as taking jobs away from people born in America. They were different from the highly skilled Scotch-Irish who came to the Americas during the early colonial days. 

Most anti-Irish sentiment revolved around anti-Catholic views. Philadelphia in 1844, an anti-Irish mob torched homes and churches, earning it the name “The Bloody Bible Riots”. Mass conspiracies about what these strange Catholics were doing spread like a west coast fire. People believed that women were forced into nunhood and that priests would frequently rape nuns, killing any children that may come from it. 

Despite all of this, the Irish-Americans managed to integrate into American life fluently. Some believe that this is because of the amount of people that were coming in at once. Some have theorized that the Irish were put on a pedestal in society because they were willing to punch down. The Gilded Age was an age of division between groups within the U.S. and the Irish were in direct competition with African-Americans in the workforce. Many solved this with trying to prove that they were more “American” by doubling down on racism. This is still very prevalent in Irish communities, the rampant racism in cities like Boston is a good example of this. 

Along with historic racism, Irish-American history has become a popular scapegoat among white supremacists. If you’ve ever seen an edited picture of children mine workers with the caption “The First Slaves In The Americas Were Irish”, that is a white supremacist myth. Indentured servitude was an awful thing, but the Irish were never slaves the same way African-Americans were. They were never legally ⅗ of a person or owned as property. This is a talking point used to try and discredit complaints coming from African-American communities. 

but the Irish were never slaves the same way African-Americans were. They were never legally ⅗ of a person or owned as property.”

The cultural heritage that came from Irish immigration is a wide topic. Unfortunately, we have some stains such as a strong relationship with racism but we also have Saint Patrick’s Day, potato candy, symbols like the celtic knot becoming popular in jewelry, and more. My biggest question when researching this was, why do so many people still consider themselves to be Irish-Americans even if they’ve never had a living family member that’s lived in Ireland? 

My answer is simple: I grew up with Irish music and folklore, my family has tried to get me to learn the Irish language multiple times, and as a child my bedtime stories were the stories of my ancestors’ journey to North America. There’s also the fact that America has a strong focus on ethnicity and, since I’m in no way Native American, I don’t feel comfortable simply calling myself “American” when asked about my identity. 

When I looked through some articles trying to figure out what others thought about the subject I heard many similar answers along with one I didn’t think of, DNA tests. The more I looked into it the more blood quantums seemed to be an American phenomena. Instead of tracing their family back through names and birth year, they’ll just take a DNA test and go off of that. I don’t think this is a major problem, but it is flawed.

DNA tests like 23andMe and Ancestry compare your DNA sample to the DNA samples of other people from around the world. It shows you what percent of each country/ethnicity matched with your sample and as more samples get added to the database your percentage will change. Beyond that, just because you got a decently large percent of a certain ethnicity doesn’t mean that you have any direct or close relatives who have lived in that country. Ireland and Britain have been so close to each other for so long that someone who lives in England and has had just an English and Germanic family for generations can have Irish show up on these tests. They can help you start figuring out where to look but they’re not the most reliable nor are they a replacement for tracing family trees.

The “plastic paddy” is a phrase used to refer to people born outside of Ireland who claim an Irish identity while relying on stereotypes or being ignorant to things actually happening in Ireland. For example, someone who complains about how they hate the English (in a non-joking manner) because of their oppression of the Irish while not knowing who Michael Collins is. Or someone who will go on and on about the Troubles in Northern Ireland like they’re some kind of expert while knowing next to nothing about them. 

The Irish have a rich history inside this country and out of it, I barely even scratched the surface. With anti-Irish sentiment being a thing of the past in North America everyone is invited to take part in St. Patrick’s day. I recommend encouraging your friends and family to make this day about more than a tacky leprechaun costume and alcohol. Explore some old celtic mythology, watch something composed by Bill Whelan, listen to Irish music, learn about Irish history, read some Irish poetry (Ireland has had a wealth of great writers), or learn about things happening in modern-day Ireland. 

 

Sources;

 

Elton, Catherine. “How Has Boston Gotten Away with Being Segregated for So 

     Long?” Boston Magazine, 8 Dec. 2020, www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2020/12/08/ 

     boston-segregation/. 

 

Ignative, Noel. How The Irish Became White. Routledge, 1995. 

 

Klein, Christopher. “When America Despised the Irish: The 19th Century’s Refugee 

     Crisis.” History, 14 Mar. 2019, www.history.com/news/ 

     when-america-despised-the-irish-the-19th-centurys-refugee-crisis. 

 

Letzter, Rafi. “How Do DNA Ancestry Tests Really Work?” LiveScience, 4 June

     2018, www.livescience.com/62690-how-dna-ancestry-23andme-tests-work.html. 

 

Stack, Liam. “Debunking a Myth: The Irish Were Not Slaves, Too.” The New York 

     Times, 17 Mar. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/03/17/us/ 

     irish-slaves-myth.html.