Stumped by Trump’s ‘Irish American’ Cabinet?

It has not gone unnoticed that the Trump administration features many Irish Americans. The Independent has catalogued some of them.

I see two questions being raised by the article—first, what are Irish Americans doing joining this administration, and why do these Americans see themselves as ‘Irish’? Or, more broadly, why do Americans cling to such ancestral ethnic or national identifications? As far as the first question is concerned, this story in the Independent could probably be written, or have been written, about each new US administration. The Obama administration had several Irish and Irish American members. Chief of Staff McDonough, Obama’s CIA Director Brennan, and his UN Ambassador, Susan Powers, are just some of the Irish Americans who served in the last administration. Powers was born in Dublin and lived there until she was nine. And, as we learned, the 1st African-American president was descended from ancestors in Moneygall, and Kilkenny, and Trinity College Dublin.

In the case of the Trump administration, the interest in this topic has to do with the current cohort differing so radically from the political drift of their ancestral country. Irish Americans serving in an administration whose populism has an anti-government strain might be confounding, and confusing, for Irish observers. After all, Ireland, even after the troika, remains committed to the international, or, in US terms, “federal” project of the European Union.

A possible explanation for the difference on this side of the Atlantic might be found in the April/May 2017 issue of Irish America which contains an interview with novelist Sebastian Barry, on the occasion of his Costa-Book-of-the-Year-Award-winning Days without End, a novel about a Famine-era emigrant to the US. Asked what he considers to be ‘distinctly Irish’ about his novel’s protagonist, Barry says the lead character is ‘carrying his traumatic history with him and trying to divest himself of it.’ The important implication here is that Irish immigrants brought a difficult legacy with them to the US.

Of course this is true for other immigrant groups as well, but the idea that Barry would be saying it to Irish America magazine is a helpful complement to the Independent’s story on Irish Americans in Trump’s cabinet. Be it the Great Hunger, the evictions later in the nineteenth century, the civil wars, the relatively closed, paradoxically Calvinist society of the Republic in the 1950s, the undocumented migration from Ireland to the US in the 1980s, or the more recent emigration after the end painful end of the Celtic Tiger, waves of Irish immigrants arrived, and among them they had different, recurrent reasons for being suspicious of central government—the English, the landlord, the other side, pro- or anti-treaty, the de Velara vision of a self-sufficient Ireland, an unwelcoming America, or an unforgiving EU. Imagine generations of Michael Morans, from John McGahern’s 1990 novel, Amongst Women, arriving in the New World. One can anticipate Irish emigrants then passing on a traumatic history with national governments, or international government, a suspicion that is apparently now baked into the Trump administration’s outlook on the world. An outlook that is, ironically, international in its own way.

A big part of the US immigrant experience is what we might call cultural lag, a delay in catching up to the political situation in the land of a family’s embarkation. We see this temporal delay, for example, among the conservative Boston Irish who oppose the participation of gay Irish-Americans in the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day parade, a lag with both their own current country and their ancestral homeland—and in both cases, they aim to uphold a dual (or triple) identity as Irish American Catholics. This temporal lag has the effect of being conservative, in both senses—retrograde, and in preserving the (imagined) old ways (in this case, of a now-changed nation thousands of miles away).

This political a-synchronicity informs the complicated legacy of Anglo-Irish-American history. What reads as a conservative strain among America’s self-described Irish Catholic public intellectuals can also be related to their ancestors’ experiences in an Ireland not yet independent. That is, one way of understanding the Irish-American Catholics who populate conservative media outlets in particular is that they are parroting the anti-British attitudes of their grandparents, but directing the complaint now toward the US federal government. The idea that, in fact, their idiom of opposition to the federal government might repeat, say, the secessionist arguments of the Confederate States of America one hundred fifty years ago may be the furthest thing from their minds; in a way, they are not even making a case regarding the US situation. Instead, they are taking a position in an inter-island conflict in which their forebears participated.

Those Irish Americans are not necessarily thinking of Ireland. They are instead informed by it, or, by their ancestors’ experience of it, and they let those experiences (which, by the way, are often not their own experiences in the United States) inform their own political positions. With a little tweaking, one can credibly imagine these sentences: ‘Oh, those Brits in Washington need to leave us alone’; ‘oh, those over-educated Trinity College Democrats don’t understand us’; and, ‘oh, those university professors with their liberal opinions about global climate change or their silly monitors showing increased C02 and decreasing polar ice are the Black and Tans of the intellectual isles.’

I’m not endorsing such lines of argument, and, to be clear, I haven’t heard anyone say these things on any of the self-described conservative media outlets so likely to feature Irish Americans, but the general thrust of the analogy is there. It’s hard not to see ‘the auld stories’ informing the new experiences. The sense that someone else is running their lives, and trying to get something over on them, is always there, and makes it sound like they’ve come out of a nineteenth-century hedge school, except with a greater suspicion of authority. I know people who have said in Ireland that ‘we were the Indians here; when we got there we became the cowboys.’ Unfortunately, these prominent Irish American Catholics still see themselves as victims of a central government, of a London, so to speak, rather than the beneficiaries a federal system, which they clearly are. And this aspect of the Irish American experience is well established now. More than one commentator has drawn an Irish-Catholic line from Fr. Coughlin’s radio shows to the Hannitys and O’Reillys of today’s cable tv. (It’s worth observing, by the way, how the discourse of Christianity in the US has converged on Catholicism, in ways that apparently no longer trouble American Protestants).

On the second question, about ethnic identification in the US, it goes unremarked in the Independent article, but Bannon, Conway, Pence, Ryan, Spicer, and others are all of the multicultural generation, i.e., young adults in the early ’90s in the United States. Their ‘Irish’ references, e.g., Paul Ryan’s hurley, may very well be part of how they have negotiated multiculturalism. In this they are not unusual, ethnicity being an elastic, caricaturable, but clear presence in the American immigrant experience.

The impression—that Bannon, Conway, Pence, Ryan, Spicer, and others are dealing in stereotypes, both of the Irish, and now of other new immigrant groups—suggests to me that they did not grow up in immigrant communities. Their Irish identity seems to have arrived pre-fabricated for them—Guinness (not Pioneers); shamrock trousers; hurling (not GAA football, or handball, or, even, soccer, etc.). The problem, I can imagine readers saying, is in the article’s profilees work with a wall-builder, and a border-closer as president. Life in an immigrant community in the US offers its residents a parallax, to use Sinead Morrissey’s term. She defines this in the opening of her poetry collection of this name by describing parallax as ‘apparent displacement, or difference in the apparent position, of an object, caused by actual change (or difference) of position of the point of observation’.

In its immigrant settings, Ireland is diverse, even on this side of the Atlantic. It is also overlooked in the current US immigration discussion that migration also means losing immigrants (see Tóibín’s Brooklyn). In my own neighborhood outside Boston, a then-young Irish couple across the street from my childhood home decided, at the height of the Celtic Tiger in the early 2000s, that they’d better get back to Ireland before the bubble made the move impossibly unaffordable for them. A high school classmate of mine, a first-generation Irish American, now lives in London, and thus turned his family’s arrival in America into a brief one-generation detour in a familiar expatriation pattern. The idea, that is, that immigrants might seek opportunities elsewhere that they find better to those on offer in the US seems also not be part of the administration’s Irish American, or immigrant experience.

And if one did not grow up in an immigrant community, and yet, crucially, identifies with a relatively recently immigrant community, there are other attendant risks now playing themselves out nationally. In short—one does not know immigrants, immigrants of one’s own generation. If immigration is something that came before, and happened only in the old way, one will miss the continuities in the continued immigration, even of different immigrant groups.

With the recent census confirming that the percentage of foreign-born population in Ireland stands at 17% (higher than that in the US), this last point, the question of continued ethnic identification generations after immigration, is a topic that Ireland itself is soon going to be living with. One fifth of the population in Ireland already has an identification with another country, nation, or place. How they, and especially their children, feel about Ireland will be an important political challenge for Ireland in the not so distant future. In the US, there is a contingent of concern that ‘hyphenated Americans,’ such as, say, Irish-Americans, threaten to weaken the social fabric of the country, if only by their dual affiliations. However, the hyphen allows for a range of diverse identifications, including, it should be noted, the ‘–American’ part. If all goes well, maybe Ireland will develop a culture of hyphenated identities. Not only might there be the children of immigrants—serving as Taoiseach, even —in the Dáil and the government; prominent newspapers in their ancestral locales, might profile the hyphenated Irish who’ve made it in a new country. Well, I hope so, and think that Ireland’s success in absorbing the new immigrants bodes well for Ireland’s future. At least, that’s the hope.

Lee Morrissey

Lee Morrissey, Professor and Chair of the Department of English at Clemson University, is a native of Boston, Mass. He taught English at NUI Galway in 2010–2011 as a Fulbright Scholar.