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What does it mean to say “I’m Irish”?

A recent discussion on a Facebook page I check in on, Pride of the Irish, inspired me to write this piece.

The page owner, who very proudly calls himself Irish, was challenged with, “you’re not Irish because you weren’t born in Ireland”. The person very quickly learned that they had barked up the wrong tree!

A flurry of replies started rolling in. Some funny, some with a touch of hostility, some from people wanting to show their connections to Ireland, and more from people who just want to join in on the ensuing banter. But almost each and every comment (and yes, I read all 400+ of them) was from someone who very proudly call themselves, ‘Irish’.

So what does it mean to say “I’m Irish”? It’s so often said by people who were not born in Ireland, or have never even been to Ireland. So when these people say “I’m Irish” what exactly do they mean? One person said “My heart is Irish and that’s what’s important to me” another noted that for her it was “a state of mind” and others indicated that to have Irish heritage was to be, Irish.

And why do Irish-born people resent it when people born in other countries call themselves Irish? Admittedly when I first came to America I found it a bit irritating that almost every time I opened my mouth and my accent was recognized, someone spoke up to say “Oh I’m Irish too”. Maybe naively, I actually thought many of them were like me, born in Ireland, but more often than not, I found that to be false. They had this affinity to Ireland, a sense of belonging to it, or it belonging to them.

These days, I fall in line with some of those Irish-born Facebook commenter’s who say things like “to see these people’s eyes light up when you talk to them of places they have only heard or read about, it’s a joy to behold” and with the ones who say “I’m just glad they love my country”. It makes me proud that so many people want to be connected with Ireland.
I certainly am not part of the “Plastic Paddy” brigade! I particularly dislike that phrase actually. Are my kids Plastic Paddy’s because they were born outside of Ireland? Why would Irish-born people want to make people feel like the lady who said “We all have yearnings to go back to our homeland, it’s a shame that we aren’t as welcome as I’d have hoped”?

But I still often wonder why people say it. And so passionately too. I mean, I don’t often hear people refer to themselves as being of other nationalities. What is it that makes people not born in Ireland want to say “I’m Irish”?

I really am hoping my Irish-American, Irish-Australian, Irish-anything, or just plain old Irish, friends can help me out. Leave your comments below.
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55 comments

  1. my father was Irish born,i lost him at 7 here in the states,he was my best friend,my teacher,made me laugh,let me dream.i know i was his pride and joy as his 1st born.i lost my way as an adult,became an alcoholic,when i cleaned up his spirit seemed to infuse me.i am who i am from what he gave me as a child,he taught me to honor my father.i hope i am,as i serve to help young children in a volunteer capacity within a greif loss group.to be Irish is to fight for ones place,ones honor,to respect others,to believe there will be better.to find ones way to share joy.

  2. I think the biggest reason I’m so proud to say “I’m Irish” is of the strength, pride and determination of the Irish. For all the challenges the people of Ireland have faced, the people remain strong, proud and determined to overcome and persevere. I also love the talent and tradition of the Irish, not to mention the beauty of the country and eons of history. I wish every day that I had been born and raised in Ireland.

  3. Both my parents are Dubliners, I have lived briefly in Dublin, At little longer in Armagh.I now live in Australia and As i only went to English schools I don’t have a Brogue, and until you ask how to say my name or where its from. you wouldnt know that i am Irish. But iam i have always said so, so why would some say I am Not. Jealousy maybe. ERIN GO BRAGH

  4. My Mom is from Ireland. She came here when she was 15. Her sister and brothers are still in Ireland. I grew up hearing stories of Ireland and fell in love with it from the get go. I visited twice with my Mom when I was younger spending 3 weeks there each time and fell even more in love. I knew Ireland as home my entire life. I love being Irish. I married a man who is of Irish decent also. His father loved being Irish also. Irish is in my blood and my kids blood and I make sure they know about Ireland. My son’s birth mark actually looks like the map of Ireland. He was born with it. He makes sure he shows everyone he meets. Being Irish is very special to me and when I win the lottery Ireland is where I will call home for real.

  5. My father was born in Ireland and moved to the states with his parents when he was all of 8 y/o. I am Irish by blood, and Irish by love, I treasure Ireland in my heart, though we’ve never been. I’m Irish in look with my auburn hair and green eyes, I’ve been told. Ireland has called to me for as long as I can remember. When I say “I’m Irish”, I encompass my blood, my heart, my thoughts and all of me that is Irish.

  6. Jinny Kelly_Donohue

    Being Irish is not just by birth, it’s a matter of heritage to me. Being Irish brings with it a sense of pride, the stamina of a warrior (I am a Kelly after all!)

    My ancestors put their children on boats never to be seen again during the Great Famine to come to a New World where they were met with prejudice and distain, they worked hard to survive in a world that was just beginning, raised their children with a pride of the Old Country.

    Being Irish means being a survovor!

  7. Does it count that, while I am only 2 generations removed from being born in that wonderful country of Ireland, my heart sometimes heart? I yearn to visit, but I am also afraid to. I’m afraid I will get there and say “Send my things, I’m home”

  8. Being Irish is not just meeting the arbitrary rules of citizenship promulgated by a government. Those are instituted to control immigration. They can change at anytime to allow anyone to claim Irish citizenship for themselves and their children. Blood never changes. My blood is as Irish as that of my ancestors who emigrated and as that of my cousins born in Ireland. Ask them. They will tell you.

    • Dave
      Interesting what you say about the rules of citizenship. I had actually thought about including a link for anyone that was interested in researching those. You can find all the information on eligibility and becoming an Irish citizen here.

  9. Linda Flannigan Stanley

    I grew up on the East Coast of the U.S. in New Jersey, in my neighborhood you were either Italian or you were Irish. There were many, many 2nd and 3rd generation Irish in my town. We were taught Irish traditions and recipes, told stories about family members that came to America from Ireland, and that we were to be proud to be Irish Americans. I am drawn to all things Ireland whether it be music, dance, the beauty of the Country, the language, and the folklore. After my Dad passed away 3 years ago I started doing genealogy as a way to help me through and the greatest joy is going to be going to Ireland to follow up on my research. My entire family identifies with being Irish and we would have it no other way…..

    • Linda it’s great to hear that Irish traditions are passed on like that after generations have passed. I hope I can do the same for my own children and grandchildren some day

  10. I love honoring my Irish Lineage because my family surnames are so old loved and hated depending on which flag you fly outside your home. From the first Irish Kings to the sons of the mist, I’m very proud to say most of my family fought to keep Eire and Scotland free. I cant begin to understand the strife that divides the north and south or the catholics and protestants. But what I can tell you is we stayed as long as we could. I’m not sorry that my families left Eire, you see had they stayed, I could never have been born. On that side of the pond, they were enemies. One family red headed or blonde, the other black haired with beautiful pale skin and blue or green eyes…one side catholic, the otherside, protestant. I love the ancient history of a people who were their own. we had all that is needed to define a people as their own. there is a beautiful spiritual kinship that is as old as time itself. I laugh when I tell people I’m french enough to be a stuck up know-it-all and I’m Celt enough to ask you if you want to fight about it.!

  11. I think of the “I’m Irish” as been a state of mind, a status that very little other nationalities embrace. Having traveled extensively and encountered this, i love it.There is a small number of very resentful people who think that not been born on the emerald isle makes you not Irish. Well i for 1 totally disagree.Anyone who attends the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann will see most of the entrants are 1st or 2nd generation Irish from all over the world. They embrace their irishness unlike the moaners that get to call Ireland their home. To all i say “Éirinn go Brách”

    • Thanks for your comment Eamonn. It’s interesting what you say about the Fleadh Cheoil. I could definitely see how many of the participants are generations removed. I’ve seen the love of Irish music many-a-time in the pubs of America.

  12. 3rd generation American here and for me, now 41, growing up in the 80’s – 90’s in the suburbs of Philadelphia having an identity means everything. Someone complaining that their not welcomed in Ireland BOOWHO! We weren’t welcome in Ireland than and sure as we’re not welcome here. My grandmother, born here, explained to me how hard she practiced her accent so as people wouldn’t know she was Irish so she could work. We celebrate holidays, birthdays and funerals like they do in Ireland. Psychoanalyst is still of no use to us by the way and thanks. Weather you are living here or there when you say “I’m Irish” instantly everyone knows you are quick to fight, quick to love, quick to help and quick to work. My name is David and I’m Irish.

  13. I’m Irish born & bred & some of the lineage traces back to 1600’s (or so I’m told). I’m proud to be Irish, but reading the comments, I’m humbled because I know I’m one of the lucky ones in many ways to still be in Ireland despite the economics & in a truly beautiful area full of history – Rosscarbery boasts the smallest cathedral in Ireland & is ancient while Skibbereen, just over the road, suffered the greatest population loss during the famine & there’s more. I’m surrounded by history & it keeps me grounded.

  14. Wow! You all have such a great story to tell. I’m enlightened by each and every one of you. It’s wonderful to see that a mix of people from first generation to many generations removed, can feel such a strong connection to Ireland.
    Liam

  15. I would love to say that I’m Irish, but I’m American, and so have my ancestors been for 300 years. But originally they came from Ireland, and for what reason that long ago, I cannot imagine. Though I don’t say that I’m Irish, when I visit the Emerald Isle for the first time just a few weeks from now, I will say “I’M GOING HOME”. For that is where my heart already is, and I don’t doubt that it will stay there.

    • Haviland

      I guess that’s the point some people try to make – after how many generations do you stop being Irish, and call yourself the nationality of your birth.
      Many Irish-born people have ancestors that trace back to the Scandinavian countries, and further afield, but only call themselves Irish.

      I don’t have the answer….. 🙂

      Liam

  16. Hi Liam, Great Post!

    It really does make for great debate. I find this notion of identity fascinating.

    I have had the opportunity to live in Australia and America. Both continents have been home to many Irish emigrants in the past and now once again.
    From my own personal experience,in Australia, those with Irish heritage are fiercely proud of it but consider themselves first and foremost Australian.
    In America, those with Irish Heritage consider themselves Irish first and foremost even if their is a huge generational gap from when their family first arrived in America.
    It really makes my heart swell when I hear people with so much heart talk about our country. The good feeling for our small nation and people should never be under-estimated.

    If someone feels Irish and identifies with our culture then so be it. In fact, it is often those outside our country that appreciate our culture and traditions far more than us who live on the Island.

    Surely it shouldn’t matter where you originate from but where your heart lies.

    Ems

    • Ems

      That’s interesting about you highlight the difference between Irish-Americans and Irish-Australians. Maybe that’s true of other countries too then?

      Having lived long enough in the states now, I can wholeheartedly agree that it’s often people from outside Ireland that appreciate our culture and traditions more. I know I do now that I’ve been away for so long.

      Cheers!
      Liam

  17. I am an American, my ancestors were German, English and Irish…but in my heart I’m Irish. My mom’s Granddaddy lived in West Virginia and when he’d go for a drink everyone would beg him to dance a jig! Mom says her memories of him are like Darby O’Gill from the Disney movie. Mom and I finally got to visit Ireland last September, as the plane banked to approach Dublin airport and we could actually see the green our tears were flowing and we hugged each other declaring we had finally made it “home”! I can’t adequately explain why I love Ireland so much, but we enjoyed every moment of our “dream trip” and if we could come back again, we’d sure jump at the chance!

  18. I find it incomprehensible when someone who is clearly not, tells me they are Irish. If you go back far enough our family history is Scottish but I would never dream of walking up to a Scottish guy and saying “Hi Im Scottish too.” Adding a layer of hypocrisy, some people get pissy when I ask “Have you ever been there?” which makes absolutely no sense. If they already know me some I usually say “You’re not FECKING IRISH” with a laugh. I once asked a guy why everyone wants to be from somewhere else, no one says “Hi Im an american but I have Irish roots” and he got so mad he wouldn’t talk to me.

    So tell me you have Irish roots, or ancestry, or you’re saving up to visit, but if you say you’re Irish you better be able to answer 20 questions on geography, history, politics, football, soccer and how excited you are about the sequel to The Commitments!

    • Gerry
      There’s gonna be a sequel to the Commitments! I’m jumping up and down hahah 🙂

      Do you not agree then, that when someone who is clearly not Irish-born says “I’m Irish” that they are trying to maintain a connection with their ancestry. Is it more of a figure of speech?

      Thanks for your comments
      Liam

      • I am Irish born.
        There is nothing wrong with wishing to trace your roots but they are NOT irish.
        If anyone can say they are Irish because of roots from generations ago, then what does my birth rite (being born in Ireland) offer me? Where can my pride to be Irish lie when I being born here or not has no relevance. If my great great great grandfathers cousin , went to the US on the famine ships and married an American woman years ago.. Can I claim to be American cos of my roots in the US..NO I cant. In saying that though, I believe those who have an Irish parent can claim to be Irish.

        Now I have admiration and would welcome anyone trying to trace their Irish roots, and am proud that they wish to identify with Irish, but some here have to admit, that there are those who take it over board to the max. Some even try to feign Irish (stereotypical) traits into their personality.. saying stupid things like :
        Don’t get me angry, the irish temper is about to come out, and you don’t want to see the Irish temper.. (cos their great great great grand aunts cousin was irish u see so that’s dangerous)
        Or
        I need a point of Guinness quick.. (like we all go around swigging pints on daily basis)
        Or
        (by far the worse one) top o da mornin 2 ya..
        We don’t even feckin say that !!!!!!!!!!
        Or
        The irish witches are out, and some pathetic eejit of a woman wud comment .. im an irish witch and proud of it..
        Wow.. if someone called me an irish witch(based on my nationality) id attempt to crack his skull ..
        I cant make sense of it.. You are welcome to come here but don’t take the piss..we love that u have irish roots.. but ur not Irish.. let me be proud of where I was born.. for god sake.. we have had a lot taken from us in History, don’t be taking or fecking birth rite aswell ..

        • Haviland has the most perfect Mentality in this issue.. Knows her identity, she claims to be american but is proud of her Irish roots.. I would welcome her with open arms and show her around and give her a good old irish time !!

        • A very passionate response – no less than I’d expect from an Irish woman 🙂
          I’m sure a lot of people will side with your views – especially Irishborn people.
          Maybe it’s the stereotypes that you give examples of that makes Irish people go a little crazy. Afterall, like you say, we don’t say any of those things, but foreign-born “Irish” seem to think we do.

          Thanks for stopping by, and a big thanks for airing your feelings
          Liam

  19. Bridget Ferrell-Bonito

    My Father’s Great Grandparents from both sides were Irish Immigrants. My mother’s Family can trace most of her Heritage back to Ireland with some Portuguese and Hawaiian. But mostly Irish. I consider myself 85% Irish if you look at my genealogy. I was always proud that as an American, I knew where most of my family came from. I Love the folklore and the music. I would dearly love to go back and visit towns that I have only heard in stories. I am Irish Bred, American Born… and Proud Of it!!!!!

  20. I am 100% Irish. I am 100% American. My fathers family that come from Longford Ireland and my mothers family that comes from Cork Ireland would also say we are Irish. The thing about America is that everyones family comes from somewhere else. (unless you are a Native American Indian.) I have friends that familys are from France, India, and the Philippines. So just because they were born in American they are not French-american, Indian-American and Filipino- American? They still have their culture.

    My brother-in-laws cousin immigrated to Ireland a couple year ago with his wife from the Philippines. Their first born daughter is to be born this year. Since she is being born in Ireland does that make her no longer Filipino? Does that make her more Irish than someone that has the blood but not the place of birth on their birth certificate?

    Just because I do not have an Irish accent and a birthplace on the island does not mean I am not Irish. I am Irish-American. If I was to go over and visit would i not be accepted? I have Family there that I would love to meet and they have never in all out letters and conversations made me feel less of an Irish person.

    I know being born there give you the privileges of being Irish that i do not have from your government. I do not want that. I just want my heritage and culture that i have know since birth and no one can say that I dont have a right to claim it.

    American by birth Irish by the grace of God.

    • Thank you for your comments Theresa. Sounds like you have a very strong connection to Ireland. I hope you get to visit some day soon 🙂

      Liam

  21. I am Irish-American and damn proud of that! For many of us who’s families have been here for generations know what the Irish went through here throughout history. Many were indentured servants who were beat, raped, starved and more. And then after they earned their freedom they were still considered the lowest of the low for many many years. And treated so poorly. No one would hire them and they were not welcomed much here in America. But they banned together to create communities and to fight to stay here. It was also during that time that the bad blood between the Irish and the Italians was created, which is still there today. The Irish created the unions as well as many other things here in America. Hell, they made America great! For those of us who’s families have been here for a long time we know all of this because our own families went through it. And we have always been told these stories and that it is our Irish blood that gives us such great will, great strength and great pride. And no matter how many times we may fail or fall we have to get up and try again with our head held high, because we are Irish and it’s in our blood. We were also taught that it’s in our blood not to bitch and whine like little babies. But for those who are Irish-Americans we are not only proud that we have roots that steam back to Ireland but we are more proud of what our Irish did here for us and we are grateful for it as well! So sometimes when we say we are Irish and proud we are also talking about the above.

    I would also like to add I had the pleasure to go to Ireland shortly after 9/11 and I thought it was a beautiful country with some of the nicest people. When we were on a train, in a hotel or just out and about and people realized we were Americans they came up to us and hugged us and would want to talk to us about 9/11, which I really didn’t but I let them talk, but many kept saying how New York is so important to the Irish. Now I always though that was sweet, and I know for Irish-Americans New York has history for us. But after reading some of these comments about how you feel then I have to ask why is New York important to you guys?

  22. I’m gonna try not to piss anyone off. I’m Irish-American and in proud of it. I’d love to go see Ireland and see what it’s like. I like the music and the history. Their fight is why I won’t give up.

  23. Well, I wasn’t born in Ireland nor my father or his father and his father before him but even so we have maintained our love and loyalty for our ancestry and even have books dating back many many years on our own family and clan. I may have been born in The States but in my heart and blood I am an Irishmen and will gladly defend that statement till my bones turn to dust!

  24. Hello, I realize that I’m rather late to any of this yet I felt it necessary to say something. I happen to be in a rather unfortunate situation of knowing very little about where I come from or what makes me, me. All I have to operate on is the red hair and freckles, thus, Irish. Very little else is known, and casts me into an uncomfortable lot of people with no real heritage to claim. Yet it seems like Irish is as good as any to choose, though I knew little of what it would mean to be ‘Irish.” Of course there are plenty of stereotypes to go off of (we all like to drink, and fight, heavily catholic, etc.) but not a lot of truths. From what I can gather strong family values are important, great!, we didn’t seem to have much love for education for awhile, boo!, but our musical history is rich with quite a bit of passion behind it, awesome! We’re a people who went through plenty of oppression that made us quite hostile to anyone claiming to be made of the same stuff, hence the Plastic Paddy thing, and quite like to let others know the history of our land. Lots of this I got from lovely people such as yourselves (thanks), Irish songs (lots of history in those things), and some other responses I’ve revived from other websites.

  25. Sarah Gough Bordenet

    To be Irish…I could say many things, so many opinions of mine. I proudly say “I’m Irish,” though I hear I’m not supposed to when I arrive in Ireland for the very first time in less than two months. But you know what? I’m Irish. My ancestors were from Ireland. They came here a long time ago, but they did not leave their blood and heritage and culture in Ireland. They brought it with them and from that, down through the generations, I came to be. My blood is Irish. My heart is Irish. My number one dream in the world, my entire life, has been to plant my feet in Irish soil. And my husband told me he had a surprise for me – my dream was coming true. I got chills, I started bawling and laughing and singing and dancing. To have that much love and pride and desire to see the land from which one sprung, that, to me, is Irish. I want to go there. I want to see it. Feel it. Touch it. Smell it. Hear it. Everything-I-possibly-can it. If my blood is from Ireland, my heritage is from Ireland, how am I not Irish? Yeah, I’m American. But America is made up of Native Americans, of which I have some blood, and many other nationalities. It’s a melting pot for people from everywhere. But we can all trace our roots back to somewhere. And mine trace back to smack dab in the middle of the island I have waiting 33 years to see. So knock it if you will, tell me I’m not, whatever. But I know, at the end of day, where I came from and who I am and what I’ve been taught to love, respect, cherish, take pride in, and everything else. The Catholic Church, my heritage, my family, my pride. That is what matters to me. And I do believe those are pretty damn Irish things.

  26. my grandparents are from ireland and im proud to say that i love the heritage and the country alot. i love the people and the coustoms too

  27. Hi,

    I’ve read through these comments, it’s interesting to hear all the points of view.

    In my case I was born in the England. My grandparents on my mum’s side were both from the west of Ireland and my Dad is a mix of Irish and Scottish, although I really don’t know very much about his side of the family because my Dad was pretty much estranged from them all in adulthood, but none of my grandparents were from England. It’s interesting growing up with this dynamic because I often have found myself questioning who I am and where I belong.

    I find that in character and tradition there are some distinct differences between me and many ‘English’ people. Mind you, there are also differences between me and those born and raised in Ireland. I am, however, very much influenced by the Irish side, being mainly around my Mum’s family growing up. I also always felt a part of it as well. I have an Irish passport and have visited Ireland more times than I can think, to see relatives etc., first time when I was seven. I am a musician and as well as other things, I have played many Irish music gigs for various Irish communities in Britain, attend sessions and even been roped into a few set dances lol. I even have one of the oldest Irish names.

    With that in mind, it is a little upsetting when people take one look at you, hear you speak, and lump you into the ‘English b**tard’ camp without knowing anything else about you. I do think some people amplify their ‘Irishness’ out of proportion to any other aspect of themselves sometimes, which I think is a little ridiculous if you have never even met your Irish family because they were alive 150 years ago.

    I do think, though, that in different parts of the world different Irish immigrant communities have probably developed in different ways depending on environment, circumstances, etc which has led to people forming their identities differently. I understand it must sometimes be insulting for Irish born to hear some people who have had totally different upbringings and experiences invite themselves to your group, however I think with many, they genuinely feel Irish and have genuinely been influenced in this way by their upbringings etc.

    National Identity and ethnicity is a difficult question to answer at the best of times, but it is less black and white than many think I believe. We all need somewhere to belong, and some of us feel like we don’t belong anywhere. But it is equally insulting to me to hear an Irish person attempt to take away my right to the historical narrative of my ancestors because of my accent and place of birth, and yet retain this right for themselves, as it is for someone who has a drop of Irish blood many years ago tell an Irish person they are the same as them.

    Apologies for the essay, but sometimes I think it would really need an essay to explain it all lol.

    All the best.

  28. Irish born, Irish bred, 100% Irish, live in Ireland and love Ireland, no matter where you are in the world if there’s a drop of Ireland in your blood you are Irish, come back home and visit us for a pint of Guinness and some ceoil agus craic

  29. Top o’ the morning to you! Irish born, Irish bred, Irish blood? Does it really matter? It’s a state of mind,, an identity that sets you apart. There are four types of Irish: those who are (the lucky ones), those who aren’t (the unlucky ones), those who are but wish they weren’t (the deniers) those who wish they were (the potential future in-laws!)….
    What is striking about being Irish is that those who ‘leave’ the island (north & south) developed an Irish consciousness that they would never have done if they remained. (Or certainly not that ‘hi, I’m Irish’ greeting they meet you with!) the fact that so many identify with Ireland tells us that despite the reasons for leaving it there were as many reasons for staying. they brought with them everything that was important, their sense of: culture, values, family and community.. Community: that sense of belonging and being wanted, of being a part of something greater than the individual…. An identity….. Well being Irish really….
    Being ‘Irish’ gives you a spiritual home…. The home you take with you where ever you go… And while you’re Irishness may not be everyone’s , it’s important to you and by default to your Irish family… We aren’t know for our Cead míle fáilte for nothing! (Irish is a broad church and all are welcome, once you respect your family!)
    Enjoy it!

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