I was talking to a friend in Limerick, who’s particularly well networked (virtually and in real terms) with the Irish diaspora. One of the things he suggested is that that the troubles plays a much larger role, certainly within the Irish diaspora in the states than is often appreciated at home, to the point where there are some profound disconnects between the diaspora and the reality on the ground, ‘back home’.
As Richard McKibbin found recently, whilst those attitudes may be somewhat two dimensional, they are also as sincerely and felt as intuitively as though they were still ‘at home’. He recalls a recent incident in the US:
It was a wintery Chicago day last year when I was stuck in the “Windy City” for a few days on my way home from Texas due to snow on the runway at Heathrow Airport. On the day my rescheduled flight was going I went to an “L” station to get a train to the airport. Being the hopeless tourist that I was I was wearing a cowboy hat. All of a sudden an older man strikes up a conversation asking if I had been out West and I explained I was there to see my then fiancée (now wife) and my flights had been cancelled due to bad weather in London. I explained I was from Northern Ireland and he said “I’m Irish too.” “Really” I replied “What part?” I asked. “My parents are from Kilkenny but I have never been to Ireland” he said and then asked “do you say Derry or Londonderry” I dodged the question by explaining it depends who’s asking and whereabouts I am standing at the time, after which he said “I say Derry” and walked away.
I was shocked to be asked that question outside Northern Ireland frankly, but then I realised I had encountered a Plastic Paddy. Now don’t misunderstand me, not all Irish Americans are really that political when it comes to the Ireland question, but there are some who I refer to as “Plastic Paddys” are more ardent than most dissident republicans.
Yet it the post Troubles Northern Ireland religious affiliation is playing a less important role in how people vote. Yet poll after poll states that 25% of the Roman Catholic population support the union with the United Kingdom. Yet the majority of “Plastic Paddies” seem to believe that religious affiliation sets someone’s political views on Northern Ireland in stone.
The issue may seem trite, on transient. But for me it indicates a deeper problem. The Diaspora is a huge asset (as opposed to resource) to Ireland, north and south. But there is clearly a lot of yardage to be made up between the larger interests of the island now and where it might have been, say, ten or fifteen years ago.
Upping the quality of that engagement not least at a time when the globalisation process is shifting, albeit unsteadily, from the west to the east is critical. It’s not enough to blame Irish Americans for not taking the trouble to understand ‘us’ properly; rather we need to take more trouble to get to know them.