There once was a time when it was mandatory for any US president to dig out proof of Irish ancestry, to demonstrate that he possessed some Fighting Irish spirit. It began with John F Kennedy, who actually was Irish, but it had become standard by the 1980s. Most famously, during his 1984 visit to Ireland, Ronald Reagan spoke movingly about the connection he felt for the Tipperary home of his great-grandfather, Michael Reagan. Subsequently, Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama all made the trek to the Emerald Isle ritually to pronounce their Irish heritage. In Obama’s case, this involved a visit in 2011 to an Offaly village where his great-great-great-great-grandfather made shoes.
The motivation to boast about one’s green blood was obvious. To be Irish is to be a funny, spirited, big-hearted rebel. Rebellion against British tyranny is intrinsic to the American story, so it was logical to co-opt a comparative narrative from a nation that had not only suffered under the yoke of the British, but had sent so many of its sons and daughters to America. It’s also simple politicking. The Irishman in America is a kind of all-purpose immigrant, and by pointing to their Irish roots, American presidents were making a play for ethnic-minority votes.
To be an Irish-American in the late-20th century worked on a similar internal level. It placed you in contradistinction to the dull, hypocritical, moneyed WASPish class, the hegemony of yesterday. Such a clash was epitomised most evidently in the 1997 film Titanic, in which we have free-spirited, warm, poor-but-happy Irishman Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) ultimately pitted against the arrogant and snobbish Pittsburgh steel industrialist Cal Hockley (Billy Zane).
By the time that film was released, the global fashion and voguishness for all things Irish was at its height. The 1990s was the decade of Irish theme pubs, Riverdance, Eurovision, the Celtic Tiger, Father Ted, Enya, the cult of ‘Celtic spirituality’, the decade in which all of a sudden everyone wanted to discover their Irish roots.
Irishness appealed to the late-20th century fetish for all things ‘spiritual’, while the 1990s was also the decade that saw the blossoming of the cult of lachrymal victimhood. As they put it in the 1991 film, The Commitments, the Irish were ‘the blacks of Europe’. Everyone wanted to be a plucky, proverbial Titanic victim – so much so that in August 1998 presidential candidate Newt Gingrich made a desperate pilgrimage to his ancestral homeland, only to be told that he had no Irish roots at all.