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Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition

   Beyond Riverdance, Green Beer

By MaryAnn Matthews and Tom O'Brien

(As published in the Hartford Courant on March 17, 1999)

We tip our hats to Maureen O'Hara as she leads the Irish up 5th Avenue in their annual celebration of the green. She represents well the Ireland of fond memory. We wonder though if Americans of Irish heritage are marching as well to celebrate present day events in the "Old Country"?

On this side of the Atlantic all things Irish are fashionable. Irish literature, dance, and music abound and influence much American entertainment. In New Jersey and other states, the study of Ireland's Great Famine is now part of school curricula. Even Irish food products are available in some suburban supermarkets alongside other ethnic food specialties.

We're glad ,too, that visas are available to Irish who want to work in America even while more Irish choose to work at home.

Across the Atlantic, the new Ireland's per capita gross domestic product is on the verge of exceeding the rest of the British Isles. The Celtic Tiger has grown beyond old images. Leprechauns and shamrocks have given way to U2 and computers. And the political achievements in Northern Ireland have been called "an inspiration for many people in other divided lands" by Kofi Annan. We salute the Irish Peace Accords and hope that continued American involvement will strengthen that process.

As Ireland moves forward, a new literature pays tribute to the African American Civil Rights Movement for its contribution to the advancement of Civil Rights in Northern Ireland. Brian Dooley's fine book, Black and Green, documents the shared history of the two groups. Among many significant connections that Dooley discovered, one of the most moving is the use of African American freedom music. Fifteen thousand Northern Irish stood on Craigavon Bridge, Derry in 1968, singing "We Shall Overcome" to demonstrate their right to free assembly. Today, Americans who visit Northern Ireland see pictures of Martin Luther King on classroom walls. Africans Americans who have been to Northern Ireland tell us that the Irish have a keen knowledge of the Civil Rights struggle in America. This was confirmed when John Hume received the 1999 Martin Luther King Peace Prize in Atlanta.

This shared history is not strictly a recent phenomenon. It spans centuries. The oppression of the Irish by the English for over five hundred years is not the equal of American slavery and Jim Crow, but many similarities are evident: Eviction or bodily removal from native lands, indiscriminate abuse, transport on infamous shipping vessels are the history of both. Irish immigrants and freed slaves experienced stereotyping as apes and discrimination in jobs and housing. But, for today's Irish in America, this is a faded memory, or a forgotten history.

Some wonder why 19th century Irish immigrants didn't join hands with African Americans in their fight for freedom. In How the Irish Became White, Noel Ignatiev suggests that Irish immigrants quickly learned to ignore common history as the price for acceptance in American society. Others think the Irish had particular advantages in a monolithic Church and a separate school system.

The history of Irish success in America is tangled with the struggle of African Americans for freedom and acceptance. For many Irish Americans, this history is discomfiting - not the stuff of parades. Others of us think that learning more about this history may create better understanding. The gift to America from the new Ireland can take us beyond Riverdance and Fifth Avenue. It can help us restore our common heritage and unite our still divided nation.