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The IRA: America's Favorite Militant Group?

Irish-American Identity and the IRA

"Ireland unfree shall never be at peace." -Pearse

I first noticed it at a Flogging Molly concert in Philadelphia: a young man wearing a tee shirt identifying himself as a sniper. I immediately understood the pro-IRA connection, and my reaction was a cross between amusement, arrogance, and pride.

I was amused by the fact that a 'sniper'might identify himself. From various reading on the topic of the Irish Republican Army in Ireland, I learned that a punishable mistake is informing, or snitching, on a member of the IRA. How odd it is, then, that one would self-identify as a sniper - and most amusing that in America, it's even possible to do that without serious (or fatal) repercussions.

There was arrogance, as well. I thought I knew better than to wear my Irish-nationalist sentiment on my sleeve, even in contemporary times in the United States. How many times, though, had I said something in jest or to be accepted among a crowd sharing my sentiment?

Lastly, I held pride as well; here was another Irish-American who, on some level, believed that Ireland was still not free. Part of me agrees.

Thus comes the complex set of feelings that many Irish-Americans bear concerning the IRA. It is in one way comparable to how we feel about pirates, in both a modern and historical/fantasy context - it's liberating to see them take some money or goods from a corrupt government, even if the truth about them is terrifying and corrupt.

In Irish-American culture, many take pride in the stereotypical rebellious nature of Irish ancestors. Rebellion is not only a trait bred by oppression in Ireland, but treasured by the post-colonial fervor present to this day in America. It's well-known that America has a proclivity for blowing things up; the Irish drink, so it's only acceptable on a level to excuse one or two explosions, especially if the targets were military police.

Americans in general also tend to care for the picturesque (and picaresque) propaganda which fuelled the Irish Republican movement from the start and continues to create tourism in Ireland today - Yeats' terrible beauty, the juxtaposition of a haunting sadness and an eternal green smile. The Irish Republican movement - whether violent or peaceful, genuine in passion or firing propaganda machine - has always used the imagery of Ireland's lure and landscape to promote its cause for the preservation thereof. Furthermore, the image of the roguish rebel seems to be one treasured ideally by many Irish-Americans.

We are also distanced from the Troubles in Ireland - by both generations and latitude. Tragedies and eight-hundred-year-old rifts are difficult to understand when one is born an ocean away from the source (even if we don't wish to admit it). It only takes one reminder to illustrate the point, though, perhaps a citizen of another country talking about the impact of September 11th.

Truthfully, though, I forgive the 'sniper' guy at the Flogging Molly concert for his ignorance and his pride, until he tries to wear that shirt on an international flight (then he's frankly stupid). As Irish-Americans, we struggle for identity just as any other ethnic group in the melting pot, and as a result, sometimes we try to emulate what we perceive as true "Irishness." Hard to identify ourselves as a true 'minority,' most of us just check that Caucasian box, knowing the term doesn't even begin to cover it.

Here's a drink and a toast to prove it: Erin go bragh.

Tara Meacham is the Philadelphia Irish-American Community Examiner.


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