Why the Irish Love America
Congress’s most outspoken Irish-American reflects on his heritage
By Mark Hemingway
National Review Online
March 17, 2009
The Irish have a long and proud political tradition in the United States. In the land of opportunity, a willingness to take on hard work, a natural-born sense of community, and a cultivated way with words go a long way toward winning elected office. Perhaps no contemporary politician is a better proof of this than Long Island congressman Peter King (R.).
King’s office, festooned with such notable pieces of décor as a large Notre Dame Fighting Irish rug and a framed poster for the Liam Neeson Irish revolutionary biopic Michael Collins, will quickly put you in the mood for a Guinness. The day before St. Patrick’s Day, National Review Online dropped by to talk about what it means to be an Irish-American.
Though just one generation removed from his immigrant grandparents, King didn’t grow up seeing any difference between what it meant to be Irish and what it meant to be American.
“I didn’t think of myself as having an immigrant upbringing,” he said. “My father put a flag up and down in front of the house every day until he went in the hospital and died. It was old-fashioned patriotism. Even among my grandparents during the Depression, there was this real feeling about not going on welfare. All of the traditional American values were imparted to me. But I thought everyone was like that.”
It wasn’t until he got older that he realized how small an enclave he’d been raised in. Some years ago, he met a woman who had grown up in the same Brooklyn neighborhood — just two blocks over. She was Jewish, and he realized they had two very different impressions of the neighborhood. “She didn’t know any of the Irish people, and I didn’t know any of the Jewish people,” he says, incredulous.
As he grew older, King also learned more about his ancestral home, and he began to see why his parents and grandparents and so many other Irish immigrants so appreciated America.
Both of his father’s parents hailed from Inishbofin, a remote island off the coast of Galway. The island is now known as a rustic writer’s retreat, but when King first visited in 1981, he was taken aback by how harsh a place it was.
“There was only one car on the island; the nurse had a jeep. There was no electricity; they had battery-operated radios. There was no pasteurized milk; they went out and milked the cows. There were maybe 150 people living on the island,” he recalls.
As a result, his grandparents didn’t have “these loving memories of Ireland.”
“They were nice people, but they knew life could be harsh,” he says. “They didn’t expect much. Every day was survival. I think if you’d given them $20 million, they still would have thought every day was survival.”
His maternal grandparents brought more of a conventional Irish perspective. His mother’s mother was from Limerick city, and she married a protestant Welshman who converted to Catholicism and didn’t always see eye-to-eye with the rest of his Irish family politically.
That’s in part because Irish republicanism was a big part of his grandmother’s family. After leaving when she was 15, his grandmother and her brother returned to Limerick once in 1922, with King’s mother, only five years old, in tow.
“There was actually an Irish civil war going on at the time. And my mother used to tell this story — I used to take this for granted; I never even thought about it — about how at night they used to put pillows in the windows and go out in the morning and get the bullet casings,” he says. His grandmother’s brother eventually spent time in jail after being captured as a member of the IRA.
Eventually, King began to see how the Irish in America were already enjoying the freedoms they’d spent generations fighting for back home.
To illustrate the point, King refers to another beloved Irish politician, former New York City Council president Paul O’Dwyer. “O’Dwyer was a liberal Democrat, but he said that America gave the Irish real opportunities to develop themselves,” King said. “If you do believe that different groups have different talents and skills, the Irish like to talk and to write and to dream. America really fulfills all that.”
King himself emphasizes that the Irish have been successful in America because, culturally, they tend to value freedom over feelings of entitlement. Asked why mercurial wit and artistic inclinations so define Irish culture, King pauses.
“It’s amazing the little things you learn over the years to sound intelligent at various times,” he said. “The British historian [Thomas Babington] Macaulay said back in the 19th century that the Irish are characterized by the qualities that make a man interesting rather than prosperous.”
As for his St. Patrick’s Day plans, King explains that he’s not going to the parade in New York (he was the grand marshal in 1985). Instead, he’s meeting the Irish taoiseach (that is, the prime minister) Brian Cowen at his hotel in the morning, and the two will head over to a private reception at the White House with Pres. Pres. Barry O’Bama to mark the occasion. The three may discuss what to do about the recent outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland — and for what it’s worth, King says he’s been encouraged by the restraint on both sides, and the denunciation of the violence by former Provisional IRA head Martin McGuinness.
The Congressman may have let slip his high-profile plans, but he is terribly sensitive about coming off as a name dropper, lest he commit a cardinal sin of the Irish — “identifying with the ruling class,” as he puts it. Try as he might to not identify with them, King is the ruling class — but it seems doubtful that his fellow Irish-Americans will hold that against him.