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Irish Families In America

By 1930 almost 5 million Irish people had emigrated to the United States. No other country has given up a greater proportion of its population to the States. Even second and third generation Irish-Americans are recognisably Irish in their attitudes and behaviour. Psychologists working with Irish Americans in therapy offer those who remain in Ireland insights into the Irish/Irish-American temperament.

By Monica McGoldrick  
  But being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
- W.B. Yeats

What follows is a greatly simplified outline or paradigm within which to consider Irish-American families. The characterisations may or may not be accurate in any individual instance, and we hope it will be read in the spirit of providing a new provisional hypothesis to help therapists understand their Irish families. Describing ethnic patterns necessitates using cultural stereotypes or simplified pictures of the culture. There are obvious disadvantages to this, and these generalisations are meant to serve only as a framework within which to expand clinical sensitivity and effectiveness. The paradigm in this chapter is used not as "fact", but rather as a map which, although covering only limited aspects of the terrain, may nevertheless provide a guideline to an explorer seeking a path. This focus has meant emphasising certain characteristics which may become problematic and ignoring certain others, such as the Irish people's great hospitality and charm, which are not problematic. By no means is it meant to add to any tendency toward negative labelling or stereotyping of the Irish.

The Irish are a paradoxical people. There is a saying: "The Great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad, for all their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad." There is a striking charm, joviality, and clannishness when the Irish band together for a cause (especially a moral or political cause), and yet they seem to suffer from a sense of isolation, sadness, and tragedy. As Patrick Moynihan observed after President Kennedy's assassination: "I don't think that there is any point being Irish if you don't know that the world is going to break your heart someday" (Duff, 1971). The Irish will fight against all odds, and yet they have a strong sense of human powerlessness in relation to nature (Spiegel. 1971a, 1971b). The culture places great value on conformity and respectability, and yet the Irish tend toward eccentricity. Their history is full of rebels and fighters, and yet they tend to be compliant and accepting of authoritarian structures. They place great stock in loyalty to their own, and yet they often cut off relationships totally. They have a great sense of responsibility for what goes wrong, and yet they characteristically deny or project blame outward.

The paradigm outlined here draws on historical Irish traits, some of which are more obvious in the culture of modern-day rural Irish (Scheper Hughes, 1979) than in Irish-Americans. Recent clinical experience with Irish-Americans indicates that perhaps as a result of Vatican II much of the guilt and rigidity that plagued the Irish for so many years is rapidly diminishing. The folkways, values, and family patterns of American-Irish Catholics will be discussed as they pertain to the Irish in therapy. The description is based on clinical experience over the past six years, ethnicity seminars, review of the literature, and discussion with colleagues.

Acculturation affects ethnic groups in various ways; there have naturally been many changes in the Irish in America as a result of intermarriage, upward mobility, and geographical relocation. However, this chapter will focus on the cultural continuity: the ways in which Irish-Americans retain the cultural characteristics of their Irish heritage.

The Paradigm

The Irish in Context

Extreme poverty was the rule in Ireland; there were few natural resources and those there were were controlled by the British. Rapid population increase, continual subdivision of the land, and exorbitantly high rents contributed to the overdependence of the Irish on potatoes. For many years the potato was almost the only food of the Irish, leaving them extremely vulnerable to the frequent failures of the potato crop. Even though during the years of the famine more than enough other foods were produced to feed the population, these foods were exported by the British, and the Irish, without their main staplethe potatocame into desperate conditions of starvation (Woodham-Smith, 1963). This was the major precipitant of the massive Irish immigration more than four generations ago that led more than a million Irish peasants to immigrate to the United States in less than two decades (Woodham-Smith. 1963; Sowell. 1981).
The culture places great value on conformity and pectability, and yet the Irish tend toward eccentricity.
Although immigration subsequently declined, by 1930 almost 5 million Irish had arrived in this country, and even today some continue to come (Bernardo, 1981). In fact, no country has given up a greater proportion of its population to the United States than has Ireland (Munch, 1980).

Many in the original immigrant generation that came in the 1840s and 1850s wanted to forget the hundreds of years of English oppression they had endured and the desperate poverty they were fleeing. Although many continued to demonstrate concern for the fate of Ireland, the majority of the next generation thought of themselves primarily as Americans and gradually intermarried with other ethnic groups, but mostly of Roman Catholic religion. Their Irishness was a sentimental part of their lives, and often they knew little of their heritage.

Even when they lack self-awareness, the Irish seem to retain more of their cultural characteristics than most other ethnic groups (Greeley. 1977. 1981; Greeley & McCready, 1975). Perhaps this is because 1. their assimilation did not require them to give up their language, 2. parochial schools run primarily by Irish nuns and priests transmitted Irish cultural values to generations of Irish American children, and 3. Irish values, strongly influenced for many centuries by British domination, permitted the Irish to assimilate without giving up their own deeply rooted culture.

Although they had been farmers in Ireland, their fondness for company led the Irish to cluster together in the Irish neighbourhoods of Boston, New York, Chicago, and other major U.S. cities. They became, as did later immigrant groups, the builders of the America of their time. The men worked on the railroads, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Erie Canal. They also took up other occupations for which their heritage prepared them: saloon keeping, the priesthood, policework, politics, civil service, and, as they moved up, the law (Potter, 1960). Irish women became domestic servants. factory workers, boarding house keepers, and, later, nurses and teachers.

The Church

Just as in Ireland, the primary cultural force and national unifier of the Irish in America was the Catholic Church. Early missionaries such as St. Patrick had established a strong Church in Ireland, which became a cultivated religious tradition and the main source of high culture for continental Europe from the eighth to tenth centuries. Later, amidst the struggles with the British, religious loyalty became closely tied with the Irish desire to recover their land and heritage. Although the Irish had been a homogeneous cultural group for 2000 years, there had never been an Irish nation; Irish national unity developed on loyalty to the Church and hatred of the English.

Jansenism, a French mystical movement that had been expelled from France, dominated the Irish Church. The Jansenists emphasised personal holiness and condemned the evil nature and untrustworthy instincts of human beings. The Irish Roman Catholic Church, banned by the English, isolated from external influences, and possessed by a grim theology, became rigid, authoritarian and moralistic. The Church's control was increased by holding the key to salvation in a land where this life offered so little. The Church also offered the only institutional protection in the face of political oppression. Priests came to exercise extraordinary authority, more so than in France, Italy, or Spain.

Through parochial schools, the Catholic Church in America continued to have a pervasive impact on the social and cultural training of Irish children. More than other ethnic groups, the Irish struggled with their sense of sin and guilt. Irish schizophrenics, for example, are commonly obsessed with guilt for sins they may not even have committed. In contrast, Italian schizophrenics often act out their fantasies and impulses without subsequent remorse (Opler & Singer. 1957; Singer & Opler, 1956). Italians, though also Catholic, tend to place responsibility for their problems outside of themselves; their experience of guilt is limited primarily to violations of family loyalty.
Recent clinical experience with Irish- Americans indicates thatperhaps as a result of Vatican IImuch of the guilt and rigidity that plagued the Irish for so many years is rapidly diminishing.

Basic to the Irish character is the belief that people are bad and will suffer deservedly for their sins. The myth of badness, related to the concept of original sin, is the unquestioned conviction that no matter how hard we try to be good, we will fail because it is human nature to be evil and prone to sin.

The rigidity of the Church led to a moralistic vision among the Irish and a tendency to righteousness. Their love of dreams and mystery reinforced the power of the rules of the Church. For generations the parish, rather than the neighbourhood, defined the family's context. The Church demanded absolute obedience to its rules and no right thinking Irish Catholic dared to question its decisions nor those of its representatives, the local priests.

For these reasons the changes created by Vatican II are profound. Now, for the first time, people have the option of deciding issues for themselves. This has been very stressful for many Irish Catholics who were raised with the security that there was a clear, definite source of authority in their lives. Once anything about the Church could change, their whole foundation was shaken (Wills, 1971). It is important to learn where the Irish stand in relation to the Church since they are unlikely to be neutral about its meaning in their lives (Wills, 1971). The struggles of Catholics to make sense of religion and to fit its rules and structures into their lives cannot be minimised. A priest-counselor, particularly one with moderate views, can be an ideal resource for Catholics struggling with Church values.


In this historical context, sex has, not surprisingly, been called "the lack of the Irish"'s (Messinger, 1971). The Irish viewed sex as extremely dangerous. As a consequence of sexual repression, they also avoided tenderness, affection, and intimacy. Members of Irish families are often isolated from each other; when things go badly, the family atmosphere may become sullen, dour, and puritanically rigid. Messinger, a contemporary anthropologist who studied the cultural patterns of a remote Irish island community, described them as one of the most sexually naive groups in the world "(they are) a cold, frustrated, sexless, repressed people, with little emotional flexibility and practically no capacity to give themselves in intimate relationships. Emotions are kept under control by internal guilt feelings and external ridicule" (Messinger, 1970, p. 276). This group of islanders is far from the norm, but there is perhaps an element of truth even in this extreme example.

Even the traditional dance, the Irish jig, reflects and indeed caricatures repression of bodily experience: the skilled dancer agilely moves only his or her feet while keeping the rest of the body as motionless as possible. This contrasts boldly, for example, with Greek dancing, where the physical suppleness and contact between dancers reflect very different attitudes toward the body.

Talking and Dreaming

The greatest natural resource of the Irish was their verbal talent. For 2000 years the poet has been the most valued member of Irish society, wit its greatest art form, and satire its most penetrating mode of attack (Colum. 1967). Poets were the only citizens allowed to move freely around Ireland, and, like the Church, they contributed to the cultural unity of the country (Chadwick. 1970). (Even today writers are the only members of Irish society exempt from paying taxes.) The splendour of the ancient epics, in striking contrast to the relative simplicity of life indicated by archaeological remains (Chadwick, 1972), indicates that the Irish have always used creative imagination to elaborate where the gifts of this world were lacking.

Side by side with the belief in sin, and partly counterbalancing it, is the Irish belief in dreams. One Irish novelist has described the Irishman as "struggling, through century after century . . . seeking a synthesis between dream and reality . . . with a shrewd knowledge of the world and a strange reluctance to cope with it" (O'Faolain, 1949,p. 17). For hundreds of years the Irish lived an impoverished life on a misty island, which had very few natural resources and was dominated by a foreign oppressor. Probably their ability to weave dreams was crucial to their survival. Historically, they have valued fantasy and dreaming more, perhaps, than any other Western European culture. Even third-generation Irish-Americans have been shown to turn to compensatory fantasy more than others when frustrated (Stein, 1971).

The Irish tend not to believe that their dreams will come true. They may, however, value them more than objective truth. Life is organised around one's dreams. For example, when accused of being an inveterate liar, a character in a recent Irish novel explains: "It's a poet's way of reaching for truth" (Flanagan, 1979, p. 166). Their dreams and the sense of innate sinfulness seem to reinforce each other (McGoldrick & Pearce, 1981; Pearce. 1980). Together they give the Irish character a many levelled complexity, as intriguing as it is puzzling.

As a character in a play by George Bernard Shaw said:

Oh, the dreaming! the dreaming! the torturing, heart scalding, never satisfying dreaming . . . An Irishman's imagination never lets him alone, never convinces him, never satisfies him; but it makes him that he can't face reality nor deal with it nor handle it nor conquer it: he can only sneer at them that do . . . and imagination's such a torture that you can't bear it without whiskey. . . You nag and squabble at home because your wife isn't an angel, and she despises you because you're not a hero. (Shaw. 1975, p. 909)

Yet, while the Irish know the hopelessness of their dreams, they do not speak of it openly. We might call this "denial", but it is more like the experiencing of separate alternating realities. As part of acceptance of the dreaming mode the Irish show a much greater tolerance for nonrealistic thinking and language than do, for example, the Jews, who value correct thought (Wylan & Mintz. 1976 Zborowski & Herzog, 1952). The Irish are not fond of the truth because they often fear it will reveal how bad they are. So the therapist who assumes that the love or truth will carry therapeutic work along is likely to be disappointed.

The paradox of the general articulateness of the Irish and their inability to express inner feelings can be puzzling for a therapist who may have difficulty figuring out what is going on in an Irish family (Spiegel. 1971a. 1971 b). Family members may be so out of touch with their feelings that their inexpressiveness in therapy is not a sign of resistance, as it would be for other cultural groups, but rather a reflection of their blocking off inner emotions, even from themselves. Thus, although the Irish have a marvellous ability to tell stories, when it comes to their emotions, they may have no words.

The Irish often fear being pinned down and may use their language and manner to avoid it. The affinity of the Irish for verbal innuendo, ambiguity, and metaphor have led the English to coin the phrase "talking Irish" to describe the Irish style of both communicating and not communicating at the same time. Some have suggested that, in the extreme, this style of communication is responsible for the high rate of schizophrenia found among the Irish (Murphy, 1975). It is likely that their tradition of verbal obscurity was at least in part due to their history of oppression by the British. (Black Americans are another oppressed people who developed verbal mechanisms to disguise meaning.)

Scheper-Hughes (1979), who studied families in modern rural Ireland, describes group conversation as characterised by "double-talk, obfuscation, interruption, and nonsequiturs." Family therapists may be familiar with this ambiguous and mystifying communication of many Irish-American families.

Monica McGoldrick works in the Psychiatry Department of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, and in the Community Mental Health Centre of Rutgers Medical School, Piscataway, New Jersey; her faculty is the Family Institute of Westchester, White Plains, New York

According to the Census Report of 1971 nearly 7% of Americans (13.3 million people) claimed Ireland as their ancestral home (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1971). It seems however, that the actual numbers are much larger since the Census did not provide a way to list multiple ethnic origins. The Census did not break ethnic groups down by religion but it appears that the Protestant Irish constitute a fair percentage of this group (Blessing, 1980) However, today the Protestant Irish do not tend to think of themselves as Irish. The Catholic Irish peasants were a group far apart in culture and values from the Protestants and Scots Irish, who had begun immigrating in fair numbers to this country before the revolution. The Protestant Irish have the lowest rate of endogamous marriage of any ethnic group, and their sense of ethnic identity seems to have largely disappeared (Fallows, 1979). Thus we will confine this piece to Irish of Catholic background who do, in fact, form a distinct ethnic unit, although, of course many Anglo-Irish influenced Irish culture (Shaw, Swift, Wilde), and many even played a major role in the revival of a sense of Irish culture through the arts (Yeats, Synge, Lady Gregory, Douglas Hyde) and politics (Wolf Tone, Emmet, Constance Markievicz and Charles Stewart Parnell).
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