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Irish American Culture Essay, Research Paper

Irish-American Culture andSociety

Throughout the course of time, Ireland has suffered manylosses. Ireland has been conquered, invaded, repressed, and tormented over manycenturies. Because of Ireland s isolation and separation from the rest of the world,Irish history is very rich. Although Ireland had to live apart from the world,the people prevailed as a community that was, and still is very influential tothe rest of the world. Ireland has a very interesting social culture. Thepeople and the community of Ireland are very unique. It is important to studythe history, the ways of life, and the culture of Ireland because of theinfluence that Ireland has had on the United States.


Ireland is a country in north-western Europe that occupiesthe greater part of an island lying to the west of Great Britain (BritannicaOnline). Because oceans surroundIreland, the geographic isolation has helped to develop a rich heritage ofculture and tradition that was linked initially to a separate language. Thesmallness of the country makes for homogeneity and helps explain the nation sdistinctive character (Britannica Online). The history of Ireland is one ofrepression and invasion. Even though Ireland has been invaded, conquered, andcolonized, there is hardly an ethnic distinction. Neolithic

people spread throughIreland around 3400BC, replacing an earlier Mesolithic race of hunters, andintroducing agriculture (Microsoft Expedia.com). In Ireland, Celticinfluence, beginning about 400 BC forged cultural unity: a common language, anda rich oral tradition of poetry and song: laws that reflected customs andvalues of the entire island population; and a distinctive artistic style usedin stone carvings, sculpture, and metalwork that continued to influence artiststhrough the Middle Ages (Delaney, 1989).

St. Patrick arrived in Ireland about 432, founding churchesand converting many of the Irish people to the Catholic religion (MicrosoftExpedia.com). The Vikings were intrigued by the prosperity of the Irishmonasteries and began to invade Ireland and create the first towns. In 795, theNorsemen invaded Ireland, and then in 1014 they were defeated. In 1171, therecognition of Henry II as lord of Ireland and the linking of the church to a foreignadministration terminated the independence of Gaelic Ireland and reduced thecountry to a position of subordination for centuries to come (BritannicaOnline). Henry II sent an Anglo-Norman army to conquer Irish land so that themajority of the island would be under British rule. There was an Irish revoltin the 14th century. England s Henry VIII seized control of theIrish Church and made himself king of Ireland (Microsoft Expedia.com).

Queen Elizabeth I encouraged English settlement in Ireland,and soon English and

Scottish Protestants settledin Irish land. Catholic landowners rebelled, once again, and were punished bythe British Parliament. The country was devastated in the 1940 s by The GreatPotato Famine. After the famine, many emigrated, and others revolted againstthe government.

Two Separate Cultures

The first culture is the Republic of Ireland. They are the true Irish. The Unionists of the Republic of Ireland are independent from therule of Britain. The people are nationalists, republicans, and Catholic. Thereare 3 +-4 million people that live in the Republic of Ireland. Dublin is themost important city. Dublin is by far the most important commercial andindustrial city in Ireland (Pounds). Even though English is spoken widelythroughout Ireland, Irish is the first official language. The country isoverpopulated with children, and unemployed adults. The Nationalist flag ismade up of three vertical stripes. The first stripe is green and it representsthe Nationalist culture. The second stripe is white and it represents the peacethat should be between the two Irelands. The third stripe is orange and itrepresents the Unionist culture.

The second culture is Northern Ireland.Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and has a population of 1 +-2million inhabitants. Northern Ireland citizens are considered Loyalists becausethey remained faithful to the rule of England. Belfast is the most importantcity in Northern Ireland. It is very industrially developed. Two importantindustries developed during the 1800 s were linens and shipbuilding (Pounds).Northern Ireland is known to be a very intense area. There is a lot ofpublicized violence that occurs because of the divisions between groups in thelower classes. There is also a struggle over the political future of NorthernIreland, which creates hostility.

Economy, Government, andSocial Conditions

The republic has a mixed economy. The constitution providesthat the state shall favor private initiative in industry, but, when necessaryprivate initiative is not forthcoming, the state itself undertakes essentialservices and promotes development services (Britannica Online). Manystate-sponsored bodies operate agriculture, chemical industries, mining,manufacturing, construction, and tourism. More than half of Ireland s trade iswith the United Kingdom.

The Irish Republic is a parliamentary democracy (BritannicaOnline). The president, who is elected by direct vote, is the head of the stateand the first citizen. The two houses are very similar to the houses of theUnited States. The Senate elects people to represent different economic,vocational, and cultural interests. The Government is the executive power ofthe state, and is headed by the Prime Minister. The political parties that areprevalent in Ireland are also very similar to the parties that are known to theUnited States. Irish law is based on common law as modified by subsequentlegislation and by the constitution (Britannica Online). Like the UnitedStates, there are local courts and higher courts. There are no police in theRepublic of Ireland. Instead, Guardians of the Peace serve as ministers of thejustice.

Schooling is compulsory for nine years(between the ages 4 and 15) and about two-thirds of all children continueschooling thereafter (Microsoft Expedia.com). The government provides freeeducation in primary and secondary schools, and it grants rewards for childrenattending religious and other private schools. The Higher EducationReformation was established to deal with the problems of education (BritannicaOnline). Like education, health care is promoted in Ireland. Healthexaminations, child welfare clinics, and the treatment of tuberculosis andinfectious diseases are available to all free of charge (BritannicaOnline). Other than those severeconditions, the cost of health services depends on the patient s means. Peoplewho cannot afford to pay are assisted and others are given prices according toneed.


In 432, St. Patrick,the patron saint and national apostle of Ireland brought Christianity andspread it through Ireland. Although there is freedom of religion in Ireland,95% of Irish are Roman Catholic. The Catholic Church has played an integralrole in Ireland s cultural history (Microsoft Expedia.com). The primarycultural force and the national unifier of the Irish was the Catholic Church.Religious loyalty became closely tied with the Irish desire to recover theirland and heritage (McGoldrick, 312). The Irish Roman Catholic Church wasbanned by England and was isolated from the world. After the church was notaccepted by the world, Catholicism became stricter. They possessed a grimtheology, became rigid, authoritarian, and moralistic. The Church s control wasincreased by holding the key to salvation in a land where this life has offeredso little. (McGoldrick, 313). The Catholic Church kept a universal impact onthe lives of children through parochial schools. The rigidity of the Church ledto a moralistic vision among the Irish and a tendency to righteousness (McGoldrick). In the Catholic religion, divorce and abortion are both illegal (Microsoft Expedia.com).

Enthusiasm for Christianity was leading Irishmen to devotethemselves to a most austere existence as monks, as hermits, and asmissionaries (Britannica Online). The monasteries of Celtic Ireland betweenthe 7th and 9th centuries produced skillful metalwork, including plates andbowls etched with Biblical scenes, but they are best known for theirilluminated gospels (Microsoft Expedia.com). Irish monasteries illuminated initial letters on the manuscripts withintricate ribbons and zoomorphic designs (Britannica Online). Monks were veryscholarly and monasteries became centers of learning and were responsible forstudies and mythology. The Irish Catholic monasteries had a profound effect onthe Irish language. The Irish culture had uttermost respect for priests andmonks because they were very close to God.

The Great Irish PotatoFamine

The Potato Famine was devastating to the people of Ireland. In the Irish countryside, the family was the unit of production and survival (McAllister Swap, 9). In order to produce enough food for their families on thesmall owned plots of land; cultivation was limited to potatoes. Poor citizensof Ireland lived very badly. Because Ireland was such a poor society, there waslittle opportunity for employment. To keep the poor oppressed, higher societyused force such as violence to keep the poor in their class. There were manyreasons that led to disaster. Agriculture was hard work, and the population wasgrowing at a tremendous rate. By the early 1840 s, much of the Irishpopulation, Especially the poor, were entirely dependent on the potato fortheir diet. Reliance on one crop made the Irish peasant family vulnerable:fourteen potato famines struck Ireland between 1816 and 1842 (McAllister Swap,9). In 1845, there was a partial crop failure because of unusual weather and anew fungus disease.

By 1846, disaster in the potato fields of Ireland wascomplete. About 1,100,000 people died from starvation or from typhus and otherfamine-related diseases because there was no medical advancement to cure them.The number of Irish who emigrated to North America and Britain during thefamine may have reached 1.5 million (Britannica Online). The Irish died whilethe British watched (McAllister Swap 10). There were people that asked forhelp from the English government. The Viceroy in Ireland was denied. In lessthan five years, Ireland lost more than 2 + million of its population.


By 1930, almost 5 million Irish had arrived in the UnitedStates, and even today some continue to come. In fact, no other country hasgiven up a greater proportion of its population to the United States than hasIreland (McGoldrick, 312). The Irish came to the United States wanting toforget the oppression that they had suffered in the past years and the povertythey were fleeing from. The majority of the next generation thought ofthemselves as Americans and gradually intermarried mostly into the RomanCatholic religion. It was easy for the Irish to retain most of their culture…. because (1) their assimilation did not require them to give up theirlanguage, (2) parochial schools run primarily by Irish nuns and prieststransmitted Irish cultural values to generations of Irish

American children, and (3)Irish values, strongly influenced for many centuries by British domination,permitted the Irish to assimilate without giving up their own deeply rootedculture (McGoldrick, 312).

Immigrants from this time period of Irish history came to theUnited States with few reserves or skills (McAllister Swap, 10). They werepeasants who needed a quick entry into employment. Like the English, the UnitedSates looked upon Irish as being on the lowest labor status in industrialAmerica. The Irish-Americans had to work very hard to attain high socialrespect. The Irish became the builders of America. They worked on railroads,bridges, and canals.

They also took up other occupations forwhich their heritage prepared them: saloon keeping, the priesthood, policework,politics, civil service, and, as they moved up, the law. Irish women becamedomestic servants, factory workers, boarding house keepers, and, later, nursesand teachers (McGoldrick, 312). I

Irish-American Culture

Acculturation affects ethnic groups in various ways; therehave naturally been many changes in the Irish in America as a result ofintermarriage, upward mobility, and geographical relocation. The culturalcontinuity focuses on the ways in which Irish-Americans retain the culturalcharacteristics of their Irish heritage (McGoldrich, 310).

The Irish are a very paradoxical people. There is a saying: The great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made and, for all their warsare merry, and all their song are sad. There is said to be a charm andjoviality when the Irish band together, and yet they seem to suffer from asense of isolation, sadness, and tragedy. The Irish will fight against allodds, and yet they have a strong sense of human powerlessness in relation tonature (McGoldrick, 311). The culture places great value on conformity andrespectability. Irish history is full of rebels and fighters, but they tend tobe compliant and accepting of authoritarian figures. They are very loyal totheir own, yet they often cut off relationships.

In historical context, sex, not surprisingly, has been called the lack of the Irish (McGoldrick, 314). The Irish viewed sex as extremelydangerous. They also avoided tenderness, affection, and intimacy. Members of anIrish family are often isolated from each other. The Irish culture could bedescribed as cold, frustrated, sexless, repressed people, with little emotionalflexibility and practically no capacity to give themselves in intimaterelationships. Emotions are kept under control by internal guilt feelings andexternal ridicule (McGoldrick, 314). The traditional Irish jig reflects therepression of bodily experience. A skilled dancer moves his or her feet quicklyand precisely while keeping the rest of the body as motionless as possible.

The greatest resource of the Irish was their verbal talent.The poet has always been the most valued member of the community. Poets werethe only citizens allowed to move freely around Ireland, and like the Church,they contributed to the cultural unity of the country (McGoldrick, 314). Irishlove the poets views on life because of the constant struggle between realityand dreams. The Irish tend not to believe that their dreams will come true (Arensberg and Kimball, 219). Although the Irish do not always believe indreams, they value them more than reality because they fear that truth willuncover how bad they are, but dreams are fantasy, so it is acceptable to havethe thoughts. Although the Irish have a reputation for being bombastic,belligerent, and sentimental, (McGoldrick, 316), they have a great sense ofhumor. Humor is one of the greatest strengths and offers then one of their fewavenues for expression of disallowed feelings (Arensberg and Kimball, 237). TheIrish form of joking says one thing and means another. Teasing and ridicule isespecially common in Irish family and relationships.

The Irish came to operate on the basis of personal loyalty andrespectability. They pursued their political causes with passionate conviction.The Irish have been the most political of All-American ethnic groups(McGoldrick, 317). To this day, Irish families will exhibit a strong desire tobe liked and accepted and are very concerned with appearances. They will makeevery effort to avoid drawing attention to themselves through deviant behavior(Arsenberg and Kimball, 320).

The Irish-American culture is very susceptible to emotionalproblems. They seem to be most emotionally distressed because of maritalproblems, anxieties, phobias, or obsessive-compulsive problems. Alcohol isconsidered to be a cure-all for many problems, especially emotional ones. Inany event, alcohol has been their universal disqualifier and solution. It dullsthe pain, keeps out the cold, cures the fever, eases the grief, enlivens thecelebration, allows them all manner of expression, and even cures a hangover (McGoldrick, 318). The Irish drink alcohol at every occasion, and to someextent, is considered a substitute for food. The pub was the center of Irishlife (Britannica Online). Pubs were very important to the Irish people. It waswhere they could sit back, relax, enjoy a few good stories, and share a goodtime with others. Alcohol abuse has thus become a serious problem for theIrish and the cause of much family disruption (McGoldrick, 318). Therefore,alcoholism is tolerated as a

good man s weakness. Themale alcoholic cycle in an Irish family revolved around the cycle of sin,guilt, and repentance. Although alcohol hardly produces many good effects, anindividual is able to express feelings and emotions that are not usuallyexpressed (Arsenberg and Kimball, 300).

Because of the suffering that was endured during theoppression in Ireland, Irish-Americans possess a feeling of personal guilt thatoften leads them to assume that their suffering is deserved (McGoldrick, 319).The strict Catholic religion leads them to think that they are offering pain toGod to be forgiven for their sins. Irish tend toward confusion and inaccuracyin describing their pain and they are silent and uncomplaining about theirsuffering even to close family members (McGoldrick, 320).

Family life in Irish families is usually very strong.Usually, extended families live near each other and gather for holidays andjoyous occasions (Microsoft Expedia.com). Irish women traditionally dominated familylife. The Irish wife was the brains, the manager, the savings bank, therealist for the notional and unrealistic husband… The Irish women had ahardy spirit, an undaunted courage, and, in asserting herself, an uninhibitedbrass (McGoldrick, 321). Women found their social life through the church.Irish women have always been considered morally superior to men. Because ofdifficulty expressing feelings, the Irish place less emphasis on marriage thanother cultures. Partners tend to resign themselves to an emotionally distantrelationship (Arsenberg and Kimball, 366).

The Irish tend to view people moralistically: good or bad,strong or weak, villain or victim (McGoldrick, 323). Irish families oftenlabel children by their behavior and role in the family. The position of theparents is one of extreme superordination, that if the children of extremesubordination (Arsenberg and Kimball, 59). Children are rarely praised bytheir parents and are often punished through ridiculing, belittling, andshaming. Because of the lack of closeness between the parents, the closestaxis in the Irish family is the mother-son tie (McGoldrick, 324). A mother shighest hopes would be for her brightest son to enter priesthood to save hissoul and get an education. Most of

the time, the bond betweenmother and son is so strong that Irish sons have a compulsion to please theirmothers in order to get affection. It is very difficult for Irish families toget along because of tension and anger that builds up over time without resolution.As children grow older, they have a more independent, active view ofthemselves.

The Irish-American has a strong background in arts andliterature. Irish music is loved the world over, and has influenced a gooddeal of the folk and country-western strains of American music (MicrosoftExpedia.com). The harp is a national symbol of Ireland, and was the instrumentof choice for bards who traveled the Irish countryside reciting poetry andlyrics to music in the great houses. The most familiar Irish music consists ofdancing tunes for reels, jigs, hornpipes, polkas, and waltzes. The Irish have avery deep respect for literature. The Irish of the past honored their poets assoothsayers and sages; in more recent years, they founded the Gaelic League topreserve and promote Irish language and culture. Among the best-known Irishwriters who were quite at home in London to make a fortune were poet andsatirist, Jonathan Swift, playwrights William Cosgreve, Richard BrinsleySheridan, Oscar Wilde, and the poet and essayist Oliver Goldsmith (MicrosoftExpedia.com). Some of the best 20th-century influential writers have been ofIrish descent, playwright George Bernard Shaw, novelist James Joyce, and poetsW.B. Yeats.


There are many different societies throughout the world. Each culture isinteresting and important to the people that abide by its norms and mores. Inorder to understand how a culture works, all of the society s history must betaken into effect. It takes years upon years to create a culture that is asrich and fascinating as the Irish-American culture. Even though the societybegan in a different land than the one they now call their own, it is importantto take into account everything that happened to a group of people to be ableto fully understand them. As the Irish became Americans, they did not losetheir heritage. They only became more exciting and significant.

Arsenberg, Conrad and Solon Kimball. Family andCommunity in Ireland. Cambridge,

MA: Harvard UniversityPress, 1968.

Delaney, Patrick. Early Irish History.Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1989

Ireland. Encyclopedia Britannica. 1998. BritannicaOnline. Online. Britannica

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Ireland. 1998. Microsoft Expedia.com. Online.Microsoft Network Inc.

McAllister Swap, Susan and Jean Krasnow. A Sagaof Irish-American Achievement:

Constructing a PositiveIdentity.Boston, MA: Center on Families, Communities,

Schools, and Children sLearning, 1992.

McGoldrick, Monica. Irish Families. WhitePlains, NY: W.W. Norton & Company,


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