By Sean Dunne
Monday May 23 2011
PRIOR to his visit, Barack Obama’s Irish heritage has been largely, and perhaps unsurprisingly, ignored by the American public.
But his time here can’t only open up the ways in which he is perceived by other Americans, it can also challenge the narrow definitions often employed when we discuss what it means to be Irish-American.
It is impossible to ignore the significance of his speech to the Irish public, where he will address an audience within close proximity to the statue of the great ‘liberator’, Daniel O’Connell. An American president, with Irish and African heritage, is in many ways a vindication of many of O’Connell’s arguments against racial oppression in the US. Obama can today build off of those arguments.
In 1963, John F Kennedy began what has become a tradition among American presidents when he made the first presidential trip to Ireland.
Kennedy’s visit was significant for Irish-Americans and Ireland, as his Irish Catholic identity was a significant element in both the support and criticism he received.
He won the presidential election less than 100 years after some states granted Irish-Americans the right to vote, and his election was viewed as a symbol of achievement and hope.
Now Obama also has the potential to make significant contributions to the discussion of what it means to be Irish-American.
The identity of Obama has been subject to challenges during his political career. Many questioned whether he was even a US-born citizen. This frenzy resulted in the president releasing his long-form birth certificate last month.
It is instructive to place the questions surrounding Obama’s identity in the context of how an American has been defined.
Noah Webster’s dictionary in 1828 defined an American as “a native of America; originally applied to the aboriginals, or copper-coloured races, found here by the Europeans, but now applied to the descendants of Europeans born in America”.
The opportunity to become “real” Americans was extended to the large numbers of Irish immigrants in the 19th Century, when the Democratic Party recruited them.
The Democrats reached out to the Irish community and promised that they would be treated similarly to other Europeans. In return, they were asked to support Democratic politicians and the racial discrimination that aided their party. O’Connell implored the Irish in the US to reject this arrangement. Many ignored O’Connell’s pleas, but not all of them did.
In the 1870 Federal Census, it was reported that 12pc of the African-American community in New York City defined themselves as Irish-African-American.
This level of intermarriage between the Irish and African-American communities portrays how diverse the Irish diaspora had become. However, this statistic should also reflect how the Irish heritage of large numbers of Irish-Americans is ignored, as many are simply defined as “black”.
For Obama and his mantra of “change we can believe in”, this is a change he can accomplish.
Sean Dunne of Holmdel NJ, is an author and academic, is a member of the US Democrats living abroad in Ireland. This article was published prior to President Obama’s historic visit to Ireland online @ Independent.ie