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.

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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.

st-patricks-day-clip-art-134110
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).

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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.

Conclusion?

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.

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6 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.

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