Cultural Appropriation, Plastic Paddies and Irish-Americans – Who does culture belong to?

The first time I ever heard of Cultural Appropriation, I thought it was a ridiculous notion. How can it be wrong to copy another culture? What’s wrong with taking inspiration and emulating other nations? The idea that some cultures belonged to only one people seemed incredibly regressive, narrow-minded and almost racist. If some music and fashion belongs only to black people and white people can’t use it, then does that mean that there are some fashions and music that only belong to white people?

I couldn’t see anything wrong with adopting and imitating other cultures, in fact it’s impossible to avoid. All cultures have mixed with others throughout history so there is no such thing as a pure and untouched culture. Trying to prevent this is as futile as trying to catch the wind.

Take my (Irish) culture for example. There are signs of Irish culture all over the Western World, usually in the form of Irish pubs and Irish music. Many Irish writers found international renown and St. Patrick’s Day is a massive global celebration of Irish culture. Is this appropriation, should I be angry that foreigners are celebrating my culture?

Or what about in reverse? Modern Ireland is heavily influenced by foreign culture. Most TV, films and music come from America and Britain, as does our clothes and fashion. Few restaurants serve traditional Irish food (to be honest I don’t even know what that would look like) instead Italian, French, Chinese, Indian etc are far more popular. We speak English, worship at the Roman Catholic Church and our system of government is influenced by Greek and Latin tradition. Is this an example of mass theft? Do I have a right to these cultures or must I ask someone’s permission?

The racist misuse of Celtic symbols

I had considered the matter settled when I came across the link between traditional Irish culture and White Nationalists. It seems that many racists use Irish symbols to promote their hate, to such an extent that the traditional Celtic Cross is considered a hate symbol in certain contexts by the Anti-Defamation League. This deeply annoys me, not merely because they are hate groups, but because they are using my culture as a stick to beat other people with. They are twisting and perverting my culture and traditions to suit their bigoted goals.

The symbol of the racist website Stormfront

Isn’t this cultural appropriation? There is no exchange of ideas or transfer of tradition, but rather twisting traditions so that they no longer resemble the original. This is not an appreciation of Celtic traditions, but a degradation of them. Hate groups have no right to my culture.


Plastic Paddies

While most Irish people would laugh off a term like “cultural appropriation” as some American nonsense that has no relevance for us, we have our own word for something similar: “Plastic Paddy”. A Plastic Paddy is someone who pretends or tries to be Irish, but is faking it. A classic case would be someone with no connection to Ireland (or one so distant that it might as well not exist) who thinks that wearing a green hat and drinking an “Irish car bomb” (calling a drink a car bomb in Ireland is as offensive as calling one a “9/11” in America) makes them Irish. Or that an Irish tattoo with grammatical errors in a script no longer used (except by tourists), is a symbol of their deep connection with Ireland. In essence, they have no right to claim to be Irish and we mock them for it. But how do we decide who has the right to celebrate our culture?

What certainly annoys Irish people is the tendency for Plastic Paddies not to use Irishness as a source of pride but as a shield or excuse for their flaws. Nothing pisses me off more than hearing Americans use their supposed Irishness as an excuse to get drunk or start a fight. If you get drunk and then claim “but I’m Irish”, sorry you’re not, you’re just an asshole. Or presuming that Irish people hate the English as if we’re still in the 19th century or the Troubles in Northern Ireland was a fun time we all take pride in. If being Irish means nothing more than getting drunk and supporting the IRA, then they have no right to call themselves Irish. My identity is not an excuse to act like an idiot.

This shouldn’t be your first thought when you think of the Irish


Irish-Americans aren’t really Irish

To take another example, it may not be widely known abroad, but Irish-Americans are generally not considered Irish by actual Irish people. No matter how hard they try, to us they’re Yanks. When I watch films like The Departed, I’m watching Americans, even if they refer to themselves as Irish. There is little contact between the Irish who remained in Ireland and the descendants of those who left. Irish-Americans may think they have a bond with Ireland, but if they do, it’s not mutual. Many Irish people view Irish-Americans are often viewed as an overly conservative group and who didn’t keep up with the times.

Many have an outdated view of what it means to be Irish. Many Irish-Americans act as though time stood still in Ireland the day their ancestors left and are shocked to find that the country has changed since then. They have a romantic view of the Emerald Isle, where everyone is Catholic and simple peasants happily danced at the crossroads, free of the social problems and tensions that plague modern societies. The widespread support for the IRA and funding it received from Irish-Americans damaged relations and shows how far apart the two groups have drifted. To give another example of the gap, for many years pro-IRA groups were welcome in the New York St Patrick’s Day Parade while LGBT groups were refused.

There is a fundamental difference in how we view ethnicity. To Irish people, ethnicity is about where you were born and your culture and experiences. To an American, it’s about heritage and ancestry. So to an Irish person, if you were born in Ireland, you’re Irish. It doesn’t matter where your parents were born, be it Nigeria, Lithuania or China, you are Irish. Even if you were born abroad but have lived here a long time or from a young age, you pass as Irish. We don’t even do hyphens, Nigerian-Irish, Polish-Irish doesn’t really exist, you’re either Irish or not. I have an Irish and American passport but I only consider myself Irish because that’s where I was born and lived most of my life.

Americans on the other hand pay much more attention to ancestry no matter how remote it may be. It always astounds Irish people when Americans claim to be Irish-American (or sometimes they even introduce themselves as Irish) due to their  great-grandparents or other distant relatives. It confuses us that someone can claim a heritage despite never visiting the country, not knowing the history or sharing any Irish experiences. To us, Irishness is a culture that must be experienced, it can’t be inherited.

Of course, I’m writing this from an Irish perspective and how I think most Irish people view the situation. Perhaps Irish-Americans reading this will object to the suggestion that they don’t pass the test to be Irish or that they need anyone’s permission. They may decide to identify however they want, regardless of what anyone else thinks.


Can anyone speak Irish?

What do Irish people think of foreigners learning our language? Can foreign students every be considered true speakers? Opinions of this vary depending on who you ask. I’d guess that most people are positive, after all, Irish (Irish people call it Irish, foreigners call it Gaelic and pedants love correcting them) is a small declining language and needs all the support it can get. Learners abroad opens news fields for the language and helps to break the old stereotypes and negative connotations of it as a dying language.

However, I have heard people complain about it, with the issue usually being that they’re faking. Some view the language as a personal and private thing, not something to be hawked to sightseers. They don’t want to cheapen it by reducing it to just a tourist gimmick. To some, Irish is a unique way to express ourselves and deserves more respect than to be just used for a souvenir beermat. Others feel that attitudes like this are holding the language back. The language should be open to all and doesn’t require an ethnic test.


What about St Patrick’s Day?

I wouldn’t call St Patrick’s Day cultural appropriation or begrudge non-Irish participants, after all, the festival originated in America among Irish emigrants. In a way, it’s an honour that Irishness is so popular all over the world and that so many people want to claim a part of it (it’s certainly better than being ashamed of the culture). The day “everyone is Irish” reflects the Irish hospitality and openness, the Céad míle fáilte (hundred thousand welcomes).


But to be honest, I haven’t celebrated St Patrick’s Day in years. The parades are quite tedious and all the pubs are too crowded to move in. Most of the traditions commonly associated with it aboard aren’t practiced by actually Irish people. For example, it’s easy to spot the American groups in the parade, because they’re the ones wearing green. Why would an Irish person wear green? We already know we’re Irish, we don’t have to prove anything. Likewise, green beer sounds disgusting and turning the river green seems really toxic. For many people (both Irish and foreign) the day is just an excuse to get drunk.

Wouldn’t it be great if we actually celebrated Irish culture on the 17th March? Imagine if instead of just wearing green and drinking beer, people actually read Irish literature, celebrated Irish scientific discoveries (did you know that two Irish scientists have won Nobel Prizes?), learned something new about our history or even tried to speak the language?

What about immigrants?

Where do immigrants, sometimes called the “New Irish”, fit into this? A lot of the white nationalists mentioned above believe that black people can never be Irish, that they have no right to the culture. Can immigrants who haven’t been born here and don’t share the same experiences be considered Irish? This is a new question as immigration was practically unknown before the 1990s.

group at citizenship ceremony
The New Irish

Generally, people have been open and welcoming. There is certainly racism and some groups are more welcome than others. As mentioned above we don’t place much importance on heritage and blood, so they are not major barriers to assimilation. If you were born in Nigeria, but have been living here for years and have grown used to our ways, then you’re one of us. You have earned your Irishness. If you speak with an Irish accent, it doesn’t matter what race you are, you’re Irish. If an immigrant wanted to learn traditional Irish dance, sport or language, they would be open with welcomed arms and complimented for appreciating Irish culture. Irishness is not a rigid idea set in stone, it has and will change over time.


So what’s the conclusion? I’m not sure if I have one. Questions about culture are quite abstract so there’s no way of knowing for sure how other Irish people view them. I could be completely mistaken in my generalisations. The question of what it means to be Irish is one that many writers much more talented than me have struggled with for a long time, so I doubt I’ll have any blinding insight. I don’t consider cultural appropriation to be a major problem, yet I hate to see my culture misused. I think Irishness should be open to everyone, but don’t want to see it used as an excuse for being a jerk. Irish culture is open to everyone so long as they treat it with respect.

22 thoughts on “Cultural Appropriation, Plastic Paddies and Irish-Americans – Who does culture belong to?”

  1. I am a quarter Irish by descent, which is a strange concept, as if culture could be inherited genetically. (I think this is a throwback to when “Irish” was considered a “race.”) What I object to and consider cultural appropriation is clumsy, stupid, awkward copying of “traditions” of other cultures to make a money (only). Wearing fake indian clothes at an archery range (popular in the 1930’s in the US) or supposing all Irish should be “wearin’ the green” on Saint Paddy’s day … gasp!). I do not think it is appropriation so much as cultural smearing. For this reason I do not mind the name of the Atlanta Braves baseball team. A brave was a warrior, a bravo, whose primary characteristic was bravery, a positive thing. But the name of the Washington Redskins I find offensive as the term “redskin” was not a term used in indian culture, but a term of denigration, like darkie and smoke were applied to African-Americans.

    I also find it amusing that pop artists who take traditional songs from other cultures and turn them into hits are criticized for this. But I consider any folk song that is old enough to have been shared widely to be, in effect, in the public domain. A song in a folk style, written recently, is protected from even sampling by copyright laws.

    Maybe you have the beginnings of an idea. Maybe we should all abandon our cultures and adopt Esperanto as our milk tongue and do away with all of this cultural heritage idiocy. The whole purpose of “tradition” was to not lose abilities to the tribe. Tradition is just another way to say “the way we have always done things.” If we prize these things above all others, then there is no progress to be made, actually no change at all.

  2. What you’re describing sounds much more like the alternate view here that anyone who wants to come and live by American rules qualifies as American. But that view has always jostled and struggled with American=white.

  3. I think that you could simplify things by separating identities as Irish by passport or geographic location (for those who just immigrated to Ireland), Irish by blood or heritage (someone who is born to Irish parents by blood), and Irish by culture – maybe who grew up in Ireland listening to Irish music, reading Irish writers, following Irish news, but isn’t necessarily Irish by blood or passport. And, of course, one can be a combination of two or all three categories.
    As someone whose passport, heritage, and cultural upbringing each identify me with a different country (none of them Ireland, though :), I can completely understand why Irish Americans whose families haven’t been to Ireland in generations can still identify as Irish while being 100% American 364 days of the year. 🙂

  4. The PIRA were freedom fighters. With nationalism in vogue once again, Sinn Féin is rising in popularity, especially among the younger generation. The PIRA will be remembered as the freedom fighters they were, and not as terrorists as the British and hypocritical Anglophiles would have it.

    1. If your interpretation of “freedom fighters” is a sordid gang of psychopathic murderers, then PIRA were indeed freedom fighters.

  5. Americans are far from the only people who believe ethnicity can be inherited. Mainland Chinese have a concept called “overseas Chinese” that applies to anyone with Chinese heritage no matter how distant. Yet, they also have a concept of the “Chinese nation,” that applies to all 56 different ethnic groups living within the borders of modern China. Thus, to be Chinese embodies two separate identities – an ethnic sense based on heritage and a national sense based on citizenship. It seems that modern Europeans deny the existence of ethnicity as a meaningless or racist concept, but why so? Why should I not want to feel a connection to my ancestors, their stories, their ways of life? As a self-proclaimed Irish American, I have no problem acknowledging that the son of a Nigerian immigrant who was born and raised in Ireland has a much stronger claim to Ireland than I do. I would also hope nobody would deny his right to explore and embrace his own ancestral heritage alongside his nationality.

    To put things in perspective, let’s apply your perspective of being Irish to Nigeria. Nigeria is a multiethnic country with many different distinctive cultures – Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, and many more. Nigerians that I’ve met take pride in being Nigerian and take pride in their various ethnicities. This is the case in many multiethnic countries. Being proud of being Nigerian and being Igbo at the same time isn’t contradictory, it’s akin to you being proud of your hometown, your alma mater, your family. Maybe it’s a difficult concept for Europeans to grasp because the basis of most modern European countries is the mono-ethnic nation-state of the 19th and 20th centuries that divided multiethnic countries like the Holy Roman Empire into separate countries for Germans, Czechs, Hungarians, and so on.

    Americans who call themselves Irish Americans are usually aware they’re not the same as Irish citizens from the Irish Republic. We acknowledge the concept of being Irish to be twofold – one based on citizenship and one based on heritage, and the latter sense is much bigger than your island. It’s an identity that marginalized us for many years yet also inspired us and kept us alive.

  6. As an American born citizen I identified with my Irish ancestry. Since we are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants culturally most Americans identify and bond with our ancestors nation of origin. Until reading this article I had no idea how native Irish viewed Americans or shall I say “Yanks.” Whatever the hell that means? Maybe the author of this article thinks most Americans are simple. As an American I don’t think I will travel to Ireland after all. It does not sound as if most native Irish like Americans all that much…so be it. If you are not America’s friend, you are our enemy as far as this “Yank”is concerned. The Irish can stay on their island and we Americans will stay in America

    1. Right? I felt the same way after reading this article. They don’t want us? Fine. Sounds like the culture is no longer Irish there anyway. I’ll keep what I can alive while they bury who they are.

      1. Irish culture is by definition the culture of the people of Ireland. Irish culture wasn’t identically the same 2000 years as it was when your ancestors left the Island, culture evolves.

        Also I guarantee there is no way the current Irish-American culture is the exact same as what it was when the first immigrants started arriving. All american cultures were heavily shaped by advertising throughout the 20th century.

    2. Yes, please stay away from Ireland. It’s your attitudes William Morris and Mw that give Americans bad names in the rest of the world, and probably within your own country.

      1. I am an American that has lived in Ireland for 18 years. I have seen it change dramatically, and not for the better. Your comment illustates how far up your own arse your head is. Your comment embodies much that has gone wrong with Ireland.

    3. We just hate Americans who laugh at our culture and act as if we are some mythical people. You are welcome to Ireland, as long as you are respectful 🙂

  7. Plagiarism is basic to all cultures. In a dynamic cultural mix like the United States, Britain and now Ireland, We appropriate those things from other cultures we find useful (or God forbid fun) like food, arts, political and religious organization, idioms, and even celebrations and often when this occurs, the original cultures get insulted by the reduction of their culture to a stereotype. (how many sombreros did I see on the streets this past May 5? Answer: too many.) As one who is happy to identify with an Irish American moniker, I have traveled enough to Ireland, met countless cousins on both sides the pond and made many friends there and I would not for a second claim that I am “Irish” within the borders of that nation, I am an American of Irish Decent. What the citizen of Ireland seemed to be confused by is the affinity that Irish Americans still carry for Ireland. While our vestigial cultural practices seemed old-fashioned and occasionally ridiculous (they often are,) these cultural touch points frozen in time are not meant to be offensive but an attempt to find our place in the larger culture. A culture that rejected our forefathers and only begrudgingly accepted us once we assimilated into the greater fabric of America. Albeit a fabric with more than a tinge of Irish.

    The problem that our friends in Ireland have understanding this affinity, and the Irish American need to hold onto a cultural touchstone, is they have never experienced this separation. They don’t understand the hyphenation because they don’t see this need for the relatively small population of immigrants coming to Ireland to do the same. But should the number of Nigerians, Pakastani and Eastern Europeans reach the astronomical proportions that their Irish cousins did in America, we will see how long that magnanimous feeling lasts among the native Irish and how soon their immigrant populations feel the need to differentiate themselves with the monikers, Nigerian Irish, Pakistani Irish and Polish Irish

  8. I’m curious how the writer sees people who are born abroad to Irish parents but then “return”. I have hear Saoirse Ronan refered to as “a yank” because she was born in US and has dual nationality, yet her parents are both Irish citizens.

    I’m interested in this question quite a lot as I was born in England to Scottish and English parents. My brother was born in Scotland (just to complicate it, my Scottish grandfather was born in Egypt!). I am “English” for the sake of a few hundred miles.

    Another question of “appropriation” is that I sing Irish songs. Hmmm nasty tan stealing Irish songs? I’m not so sure. I grew up around people listening to Scottish and Irish music, including diaspora Irish. I listened to it on the juke box in the pub where the Irish drank (with an Irish landlord), I went over to Ireland and lived and played with some hardcore musicians. I atudy the history behind the songs.

    I don’t try to be Irish but I sing the songs and promote the culture.

    I hope nobody is offended.

  9. The Irish are borderline Celtic. The culture was brought to them. That said, cultures change with the people who adopt them. For instance, not many people in Northern Italy, Southern Germany, Switzerland, etc identify with being Celtic anymore. Germanic peoples moved in and the locals absorbed their culture and genetics.

    Cultures continue to change and adopt new things over time. That’s something I don’t need to point out to anyone.

    There’s really no point in obsessing over it.

    1. I hope I ca explain this to you properly, and educate you on why our culture is so important to us. 900 years ago, England came and decided to take our land. They also decided to rename the place names and to convert the whole people into English people. They banned our language, our sports, our music, and later, religions. Over time they started to get more aggressive and quite literally cut off our tongues if we were caught speaking our own language. They refused to let children into schools if they weren’t of the same religion as the current monarch, and became awful landlords. If the tenants didn’t have enough money to pay rent, they would take crops, furniture or burn the house down. When we fought against them they sent us off to Australia in a prison ship. Then in the 1916 Easter Rising, they gathered all the leaders and shot them dead. One of them was engaged, and the night before the execution, they let them marry in the prison cell, and the girl, Grace, never married again. There also was a man with an injured leg, he couldn’t stand up so they blindfolded him, strapped him to a chair and riddled him with bullets. The only leader they didn’t kill was Eamon De Valera, because he was born in America.
      When we finally got our independence, England would only let us go if we let them keep Six out of our 32 counties, which caused a civil war between to good friends, losing many lives.
      Now after all this, barely ayone could remember how to speak Irish, and English was and still is our main language. The only places our culture is actually remembered is in certain rural areas, very small populations.
      To see people mock our culture and trauma on a day meant for celebration is extremely hurtful, especially those who have family members dead because of the IRA and english troops (The Black and Tans).

  10. My kids have a great grandma half Native American. She was treated so badly by full blooded Natives (as a kid) she said she didn’t want her grandkids to have anything to do with it.

    This seems like that. This “you’re not Irish enough for us” is the same spirit of bigotry. From Ireland, Irish descended Americans get “your ancestors left so we’re going to debate on whether or not you have the right to even so much as learn Irish. You’re Americans! Not Irish!” then condemned for not being native to America, not being indigenous, therefore not real Americans.

    My impressions of Ireland weren’t realistic, they were of quick witted Irish blessings and beautiful, the kind of people I imagined who would even come up with saying something like “a face without freckles is like a sky without stars”. Ideals of everyone in a country being friendly, welcoming, and gregarious aren’t realistic, but the judgementalism, cultural stinginess, and undercurrent of anger toward Americans from Ireland I’ve viewed online (away from the sites that teach Irish) has been surprising to me. So all in all, I’m disappointed in this reality, but here’s hoping for a friendlier outlook, a few generations from now.

  11. I find myself on a proverbial fence here. my entire family except me was born in Ireland. that was on purpose. I was born in the 70’s and my parents parents didn’t like each other and so forth. so, four months before I was due, my parents came to America. nevertheless, I spent four months of each year in Ireland and speak…not well…but decent enough to have a brief conversation or read some signs, Irish. but I wasn’t born in Ireland. so am I american? I think I kind of am. but I feel a heavy disconnect with much of american culture today. and my whole family is in Ireland and I’ve migrated back off and on. I don’t know. but I will agree that most of what americans take for Irish are….caricatures of someone nobody wants to be.

  12. Really interesting read! My family has been in America for 400 years, I have no cultural identity. I strongly believe that no one should voice an opinion about another country or culture without first understanding. The types of Americans who have posted saying they would not want to go to Ireland now that they have read your page… Probably the same ones who got upset when sport team mascot names were changed to make them less offensive to Native Americans.

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