On St. Patrick’s Day, The Irish Times ran a thoughtful piece by Liam Kennedy, director of the Clinton Institute for American Studies at University College Dublin.
“There is a wide perception of a decline in Irish-America,” Kennedy writes, before adding, “and yet there remains a potent sense of identification with Irishness among millions of Americans.”
Added Kennedy, “The truth is that Irish-American identity is evolving, reflecting social and political changes in the U.S.”
Days after Kennedy’s thoughts went out to the Irish diaspora, a group of those with what you might call an “evolved” sense of their Irish identity rolled over to West Broadway in South Boston and hung a large banner on the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade route.
The “Keep Boston Irish” banner could have been taken as a strong dose of Hibernian pride. If not, that is, for this twist, as reported on Boston.com: These paradegoers “wore masks with the number 131, a calling card for the Nationalist Social Club, which has been identified as a neo-Nazi group by both the Counter Extremism Project and the Anti-Defamation League.”
You have to wonder about a group of folks who show up at a parade about Irish pride. Who want to maintain the identity of a historically Irish place. And decide that the best way to go about this is to hide behind masks, concealing the very identities they claim to be so proud of.
Why couldn’t these guys take their masks off and carry signs about killing British soldiers, like everyone else?
Sadly, it’s not the first time Irish identity has been co-opted by folks with nastier things on their minds. It won’t be the last.
One of the things that make American life so vibrant, but also so challenging, is what Kennedy wrote about: a never-ending process of change.
Call it evolution. Call it assimilation. Either way, it can cause whiplash.
Not long ago, an elected official in New York City stood before a cheering crowd and denounced certain changes in certain neighborhoods.
"I'm a New Yorker…I have a right to put my voice in how this city should run," the speaker said.
And to outsiders moving into certain neighborhoods, he added, "Go back to Iowa, you go back to Ohio. New York City belongs to the people that were here and made New York City what it is."
That guy is the mayor of New York City now.
We can tell, in part, because Eric Adams didn’t hide his face behind a mask.
Surely, some of these “Keep Boston Irish” guys would whine that it’s not fair that “they” get to complain about certain things. But “we” don’t.
Okay. Though that also requires some willful ignorance about who faces more adversity in the world and who faces less. But I have no doubt such willfulness could be mustered among the NSC 131 crowd.
Too often, people with strong opinions about this stuff – people who might proudly identify as liberal or conservative – don’t appreciate that Irish Catholics in America are one of just a few recognizable social groups who have shifted from less to more powerful.
One faction likes to believe that adversity is no match for hard work and a firm tug of the bootstraps. And that’s how the Irish did it and “those people” should just do the same thing.
“They” might like to. But once the Irish shifted from a “they” to a “we,” they were not all that interested in helping out, well, “them.”
But that, in part, is because a bigoted elite forced the Irish to create that “we.”
This brings us to another faction for whom all things are structural. And at the top are pale faces, and it doesn’t matter if those pale faces have billions in the bank or no bank account at all.
White privilege is white privilege. White folks are white folks. And that’s that.
One of the many terrible things about those NSC 131ers on West Broadway is that they’re making that very flawed idea seem true.
(On Twitter: @TomDeignan)
*This column first appeared in the April 27 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral.