A huddled mass…

To be Irish in America is generally to enjoy a free pass. It’s like being a low level celebrity or having big breasts. People are irrationally nicer to you. Somewhere between the ‘no dogs, no Irish’ signs and Colin Farrell getting Britney in a friendly headlock we became the coolest ethnic minority of all, “the niggaz of Europe”, as Roddy Doyle had it.

Since I arrived in New York I’ve seen this first hand. People are openly thrilled when they find out I’m not American, as if being born somewhere else was some kind of hip, nonconformist statement. As if I am personally descended from JFK and here to save them.

This is especially the case if they consider themselves “Irish too.” They’ll talk at length at how their aunt on their mother’s side was born in Kilkenny, or maybe it was Clare. There’s a particular expression of inquisitive interest you have to wear as they go through this lineage and you have to bear with them while they ask you “Cu*t, is a thaw too?” They’ll urge you to go to their favourite Irish pub – because that’s why you’d be in America, to sit by some fake log fire and drink “Irish car bombs”. They might even look slightly forlorn at you and tell you that it’s 8 whole months until St Patrick’s Day. They imagine that you are pining for the taste of Denny sausages and would be willing to travel to some far flung deli to get said contraband. And probably better to stick to living in Queens, where you’ll be living amongst your own kind.

Then there’s the accent. Every time I say something like “grand” or “yer man” or “shite” (as in: “this Guinness is shite”) they are delighted. I’m treated like a toddler who can barely speak American. My name, composed of two of the most primitive sounds in the English language, is regarded as wonderfully exotic. Depending on the company, I’m variously known as Danelle, Downal, or Dan-ale. People introduce me and add that I’m “fresh off the boat” in case my authenticity were in any doubt.

But there is a price to pay for all of this friendliness. I’ve found that I’m expected to embody the Irish brand, to be innocent and naive and amazed at how expensive everything is – Borat meets blarney. Sometimes I don’t have the heart to tell them that most things cost more back in the oul sod, that getting fleeced for something makes me feel like I’m at home. New Yorkers are invariably disappointed at my rounded south Dublin vowels which are continually pronounced “too American.” My lack of red hair has also been a bone of contention, with one person telling me my freckles “will just have to do”. And getting anything less than legless drunk every time I go out seems to be viewed as a betrayal of people who came here on coffins ships.

The temptation then is to ham it up and start becoming the Irishman of their ‘Far and Away’ fantasies. Like, most of the time I sound like my usual suburban West British self but if a rubber glove is produced at immigration or I’m trying to score someone I all but become the Lucky Charms leprechaun. When people ask me if I actually speak Irish I nod wearily as if I would if I only got the opportunity more. I’m starting to fear that far from getting a yank twang I’ll ‘do a Colin’ and come back with a stronger accent than I left with.

This is even more likely because Americans think the Irish are sexy. It’s true. Despite our lab rat pale skin and questionable fashion sense we are now considered studly. Remember that creep in ‘PS I Love You’? Lisa’s boyfriend in ‘The Simpsons Movie’? “Nobody wants Italians any more,” a writer friend of mine told me. “Red hair and an accent is paydirt”. I’ve been running all over town writing my number on napkins with a little happy shamrock in the corner.

Which is all fine until things swing back the other way and it starts become uncool to be Irish again. America is fickle and already there are signs that the yanks are finding us less magically delicious than before. We’ve lost our glamorous poverty and they’re slightly resentful that we have more money than them. There is even, I’ve noticed, the odd trace of actual anti-Irish sentiment creeping back in, especially from those ethnic minorities currently less popular than ourselves. Already since arriving here I’ve already been the victim of a hate crime. And for no other reason than being born a “mick”. I was out in a bar the other night, cheerfully playing the paddy card when a Jewish person tells me “why don’t you f*ck off and bomb a coffee shop?” I was like, “pubs. It was pubs we bombed”. But inside I was crying. And trying to think of a really mean holocaust joke.

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~ by Donal Lynch on October 2, 2008.

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