Ever since 9/11 the anti-immigrant movement has been gaining strength, he says. Now, “stories are filtering back to families [in Ireland] that immigrants are afraid right now. There’s a sense that with every raid that happens on a work site that they could be next. People are telling friends and cousins at home that the atmosphere is more hostile than welcoming.”
The effect of such stories in Ireland has been chilling. “For many people living in a small village in Donegal, they have more friends and relatives living in Boston than in Dublin,” Keown says. “I grew up thinking that Boston was the face of Irish America, not New York. The Irish culture has always been so strong and thriving here. Now it’s weakening.”
Of course, Irish culture and Irish-American culture are very different things. When Peter Quinn studied in Galway years ago, he went, like so many Americans do, expecting a sort of homecoming. Instead, it was then “when I first realized, ‘Oh God, I’m an American.’ ”
His lukewarm reception had something to do with opposition to American foreign policy. (Consider the outrage neutral Ireland feels now about Shannon airport being used as a refueling spot for US war planes.) But it also had to do with puzzlement toward the somewhat ersatz American embrace Irishness.
“I remember one time in Galway, the pipe and drum corps of the New York City fire department came to perform,” Quinn says. “The students thought it was hilarious. These guys wearing Scottish uniforms with Scottish bagpipes? We were drinking pints, and they were all laughing. It kind of annoyed me. I said, ‘Y’know, you really don’t have the right to laugh at them. These are the people who couldn’t stay here, and left. This is their attempt to stay bonded to this culture.”
Where the heart is
The emotional ties are still strong. In fact, they may be stronger than ever, because, in many ways, emotions are all there is left.
Times have changed. The urgency has faded. And many of the Irish have moved away from Boston. As Quinn writes: “The hard edges of the Irish-American urban experience — the struggle against prejudice, sickness, poverty, the conflicts with other races and ethnic groups — have been softened by the sepia tint of nostalgia and selective memory.”
It’s a trend that started decades ago, beginning with John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960, which, Quinn writes, “signaled the end of any significant barriers to Irish-Catholic entry into the American power structure. The need for internal cohesion and discipline in the face of a common enemy had disappeared.”
Case in point: when Flynn ran for mayor of Boston in 1984, 80 percent of the people voted, he says. “Now you have people running for office unopposed, and 17 percent of the people come out and vote. People don’t have the same dependency on politicians that they once did.”
At the same time, however, Irish culture has become “more a part of America than ever before,” Quinn says. There’s music and movies and piles of books, of course. Three flights leave for Dublin from both Boston and New York every day. And you can barely walk three blocks in either city without passing an Irish pub.