Authenticity of Irish Identity


Having an authentic “Irishness” implies that there is a pure core element to the culture which is simply not true. The concept of Irish identity and culture is constantly changing, therefore making it impossible to establish one true definition of Irish identity. Another obstacle that stands in the way of establishing an explanation for what it means to be truly Irish is the rigidity of the rules  set in place. At most, a person could only have a sense or feeling of Irish identity, but not have a true grasp on it.

Authenticity played a large role in Irish American gang life. The formation of gangs in the United States was greatly based off culture and ethnic background. Those who were not of Irish descent were not allowed to be involved in the Irish gang life. The selectivity was based on heritage because people identified more with those of the same culture. They were able to connect with each other on a deeper level because of the shared customs, traditions, and values. 

Irish-American gangs also formed due to the treatment of the Irish immigrants by the Americans. Like the Irish, the Americans also had a sense of pure “Americanness” which also had requirements, to be born in America. With this “pure” American identity, the Irish, along with other immigrant groups, were viewed as “the other” and therefore not truly American. The pure link that each group felt led to a struggle in the power dynamic between the two. This posed the question, which was more powerful? Who truly controlled the streets of New York? Rivalries between the Irish and the Americans grew intense and resulted in dozens of brawls and murders.

The authenticity of the culture was very important to the Irish-Americans because it was important in their home country. Memories of their previous lives and the longing for the old Ireland led to the search for an authentic Irish culture ; but the truth is that this “true” Irish culture does not really exist. Instead, the essence of Ireland is found in sublime objects and landscape. The feeling of “the essence of Ireland” is fleeting and can never be grasped entirely. Perhaps that played a part in the dismantling of these organizations.

Despite its dynamic nature, there are some key elements of Irish culture that emulate what it means to be truly Irish. Some of these core ideas include Catholicism,  and the patriarchy. Although these elements were more relevant during the late 19th and early 20th century they are less important to Irish culture today due to social changes in society.

American Views on Irish Immigrants

The Irish people have been viewed in a negative light by people of other nations, particularly Great Britain, for centuries. The political cartoon above was drawn by Thomas Nast, known for anti-Irish cartoons featured in Harper’s Magazine. This particular cartoon mocks both the Irish mafia and Irish immigrants in general. The ape-like man is often used in anti-Irish political cartoons, implying that they are uncivilized savages. He is sitting on top of a barrel of rum, implying that alcohol is the foundation of their lifestyle and they are dependent on it. However, he is wearing finer clothes which suggests that he is putting on a costume and pretending to be something that he is not, a civilized man, and therefore cannot be trusted. All of these qualities portrayed in this particular cartoon confirm the degrading Irish stereotype which originated with the British.

The picture painted of the Irish by the British was an uncivilized, filthy, uneducated, drunkards. Irish people immigrated to America in hopes of escaping the insulting labels placed on them; however, the stereotype of the Irishman trailed closely behind wherever they went.

The Irish were the most impoverished group of immigrants in the United States, the lowest of the low in New York City; which did not help to disprove the British stereotype (Anbinder 149). In response to facing the prejudices from Americans, Irish immigrants decided to band together and support each other and have a sense of unity among themselves . They formed social clubs, mostly just for men, in order to bond over their common troubles in life such as living conditions, economic situations, and discrimination by Americans. These clubs eventually evolved into some of the first gangs of New York City.

The Americans greatly disliked the Irish for several reasons, but mostly because of the inaccurate stereotype that they knew so well.  Their information on the Irish was mainly from British sources and , therefore, biased. They did not want to associate with the Irish because they believed that they were superior to the immigrants (Harriot). The Irish were viewed as “the other”, not assimilating into American society well due to the insulting stereotype.

This is a cartoon drawn by Thomas Nast of rioting at the St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1867.  This was not the first brawl between the metropolitan police and the Irish and it would not be the last due to cultural and political  differences.

Although conditions have improved some, immigration is still a heated topic that is heavily debated today.  Even today immigrants are still viewed as dangerous and the “other”. The United States faces the same issues in the 19th century as it does today; but these debates have been going on for centuries and probably will never come to a conclusion. In both time periods there are people who fear immigrants are taking too many jobs, who believe immigrants are corrupting society but politics in particular, which is what Thomas Nast believed (Herb), and many more negative associations with immigration. However, society generally has become more accepting of foreigners as opposed to the 19th century.

Works Cited

Anbinder, Tyler. City of Dreams: the 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New           York. Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.

Harriot, Michael. “When the Irish Weren’t White.” The Root,                                       ,                                                                                                                                 17 Mar. 2018,                                 1793358754.

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