Two recent Irish Central columns by Irish-Americans about their experiences of their ancestral homeland – one by a young female exchange student bemoaning the ways of young Irish males and the other a repeated column by an Irish-American venting about the things he found annoying in Ireland on his first trip “home” – were in turns funny and maddening. Some criticisms I found entirely valid and others profoundly misguided. But each author’s words prompted me to reflect on my own experience as someone who’s seen life first through American eyes and, now almost equally, through Irish eyes. Three rather simplistic truisms emerged.
First, Ireland and America are different. Ireland’s relatively tiny size, both in terms of population and geographic area, has myriad consequences. In particular and despite recent improvements, infrastructure here just can’t be compared to what exists in the United States. Of course, the reality that Ireland was never an economically prosperous country until quite recently is also to blame for deficits in infrastructure. Both because of a paucity of funds in the government coffers and because a significant percentage of the population could be counted on to emigrate, what was regarded as sufficient government investment in roads, public transit, health care and school building historically has proven inadequate to meet the needs of Ireland in the twenty-first century.
Moreover, the reality that Ireland is an island country with a limited population means that the cost of goods and services is inevitably going to be higher than in the continental United States. I’ve witnessed the disgust of many Irish-Americans at the prices being charged for food, drink, clothing and other necessities. While this disgust is due as well to some of the well-documented price gouging that emerged during the Celtic Tiger years and to the very high level of VAT (value added tax), there is no doubt that the need to import so much of what is bought and sold in Ireland makes everything more expensive. It’s a bit like Hawaii without the good weather.
On the flip side, Ireland remains more of a social democracy than the United States. Most Irish people accept that they will pay higher rates of taxation and more for goods and services because they expect a great deal more in terms of services from their government. Social welfare, across a number of different categories, is more generous than what is provided in the United States. Though much maligned, there is a public system of healthcare pursuant to which uninsured Irish people can expect much more for a tiny fraction of the price than their American counterparts.
And lastly, perhaps the most pronounced difference is the cost of higher education. It is interesting and entertaining to listen to Irish emigrants with college-aged children in the United States speak to their brothers and sisters at home with children of the same age. Both may complain about costs, but even the most obstinate parent here in Ireland will be forced to concede that €2,000 for Irish university “fees” is nothing compared to the $50,000+ in tuition traditional bastions of higher education for Irish-Americans like Boston College, Notre Dame or Holy Cross now charge!
Second, Irish people, unlike Irish-Americans, are not necessarily “US-centric.” Most Irish-Americans have their first experience of Irish people in the United States. As long-time residents who’ve built lives and livelihoods in the new world or as recently arrived emigrants chasing the American dream, they typically have nothing but praise for America and, often times, nothing but disdain for the country of their birth. It can prove an extraordinary culture shock to arrive in Ireland and discover that there are many Irish people without the slightest interest in the United States. Whether out of genuine ideological opposition or ignorance, some Irish people disdain Uncle Sam and aren’t afraid to say it to Americans. This can take some getting used to – it takes a lot longer than most vacationing Irish-Americans have – and it can especially hurt those of us who proudly identify with Ireland that some of those who we would have regarded as “our” people don’t welcome us.
It is important to note that, since the unspeakable events of 9/11, there is no doubt but that American foreign policy has provoked much of this hostility. Whether one concurs with the Bush doctrine of “pre-emptive war” or with America’s unwavering, increasingly lonely fidelity to Israel, both enrage a substantial percentage of the Irish citizenry. There are certainly many justifications for taking issue with American foreign policy of late and harsh criticisms have been articulated within and without the United States. But one key point to note is that Irish people have a fundamentally different starting point. They see the world through Irish eyes, not American eyes.
Third, and most importantly, there is far more that unites our countries and people than divides us. While no one could mistake Ireland for the 51st state, the ties that bind our countries and people are incredibly strong. Hearing the litany of Irish surnames called out at the recent ceremony at Ground Zero honouring those who died on 9/11 is testament to these ties. President Mary McAleese spoke movingly about “our friends and family” in the United States at a ceremony in Dublin to commemorate the tenth anniversary of what was an awful day in the history of both countries.
Moreover, as those who’ve travelled in continental Europe in recent years would readily recognise, America and Americans have far more in common with Ireland and the Irish, and vice versa, than with continental Europeans. Ireland is a part of the European Union and has benefitted from closer ties with Europe in myriad ways. Yet culturally, whether consciously or unconsciously, Irish society has turned to Boston, not Berlin.
In the end, these three truisms are offered as “macro” musings that, I hope, provide some context for the positive and negative “micro” points made in the two recent columns on this site. While I both agreed and disagreed with the observations made in the two columns, I respect both authors for undertaking in a thoughtful fashion what is vital for all those who describe themselves as Irish-Americans and want to fully comprehend their cultural identity: a trip “home.”