Pearse Doherty was born in Scotland, yet he’s heavy favourite to win the Donegal South-West by-election coming up later this month. William Norton, who died last month, was an outstanding Hollywood screenwriter of Irish parentage. He requested that his ashes be scattered in Ireland. In his book Irish on the Inside, Tom Hayden tells how his family and education in the US told him nothing of his Irish heritage, and how he had to struggle over a number of years to first discover and then recover it.
What is this thing that draws people back to their Irish roots? Whatever it is, not everybody shares it. In his play Philadelphia Here I Come!, Brian Friel has the old Donegal schoolmaster urge his former pupil to not look back when he emigrates to the US, to face the future only and become 100% American. Unionists like to mock Irish-Americans, with their dream of an Ireland closer to something out of Finian’s Rainbow.
So who’s right : those who value their Irish background and work to strengthen those links, or those who choose to shuck off the dead skin of the past and face the future? Certainly there’s a lot of boozy nostalgia associated with Ireland, especially in the US. There are Irish-Americans who wouldn’t dream of returning to the oul’ sod but like to sing and sentimentalize their lives away. On the other hand there are those who feel slightly ashamed of their Irish background, who suspect they’ll not be fully accepted by their new friends and new country until they prove themselves by abandoning the interests, the customs, the religion and even the accent of the place from which they’ve come.
It’s a nice balancing act, to value what your past has given you – to accept with Tennyson’s Ulysses that ‘I am a part of all that I have met’ – and at the same time remain open to the gifts of your adopted country. The easy judgement is to say that some Irish err too much on the side of maudlin mavourneenism. The truer judgement is that more Irish people try to amputate their past and mortally wound themselves without knowing it.