There are estimated to be over 40 million Americans of Irish or (in most cases) partly Irish origin. Of these, rather more than half are descended from Irish Protestants. But very few of these think of themselves as Irish. Being white, Protestant, and English-speaking, they were eligible to join the long-dominant WASP club in American society and they duly joined it. They stressed their Protestantism to the exclusion of their Irishness, for the simple reason that Protestantism was advantageous in America, Irishness disadvantageous. Irishness was especially disadvantageous from the midnineteenth century on, when it came to mean “famine Irish.” So in America, as in other parts of the English-speaking world, Irish came to mean Catholic Irish, exclusively.
Of the 20 million or so Catholics who are of Irish or partly Irish (and often mainly Irish) descent, most are no more than vaguely and intermittently aware of the Ireland of today. Few are actively sympathetic to the IRA. But many are conditioned, by the Irish Catholic folk-memory, to believe a large part of the IRA’s case, whenever they happen to think of it. They can readily believe that anything bad that happens in Ireland is caused by the British. And they are conditioned not to believe that the reason why Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom is that this is what a majority of the population of Northern Ireland want.
The more sophisticated, among those who take much interest in these matters, know the politically correct Irish-nationalist answer: Northern Ireland is an artificially created entity (unlike the island of Ireland) and therefore has no right to exist. The less sophisticated (among those who know the facts of the matter) have a less complicated and more honest answer: that the people who want to remain part of the United Kingdom are Protestants, descended from settlers, and so have no right to be in any part of Ireland in the first place. A white American might find that argument a bit incongruous, coming from people who are themselves descendants of settlers. And as it happens, the ancestors of the Ulster Protestants settled in Eastern Ulster at about the same time as the first whites settled in North America.
Other nationalist interpretations of Northern Ireland are available. Near the beginning of the present troubles, in the early Seventies, I heard the New York lawyer Paul O’Dwyer offer one such, in a radio interview. He had been going on, at first, in an accustomed vein: that all the deaths in and around Northern Ireland, including those inflicted by the IRA, are “caused by British imperialism.” Then his interviewer’s line of questioning led him to break some new ground. “What,” the interviewer wanted to know, “about the Ulster Protestants?” “What about them?” said Paul. “The Ulster Protestants are fine, hard-working people who can make a great contribution to a united Ireland.” “Why aren’t they making it, then?” the interviewer wanted to know. O’Dwyer’s answer was: “The British won’t let them.” Paul O’Dwyer is an…
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