The gatekeeping of Irish culture

By Katie Boland / November 13, 2020
irish culture

Gatekeeping is never something that should be done, but especially with culture, as culture is there to be celebrated and not hidden away. To know more about how people are gatekeeping Irish culture we need to know more about the culture and history itself.

Irish culture how it was

Irish culture or Gaelic Ireland is a political and social order that existed in Ireland from the prehistoric era to the 17th century. Gaelic Ireland was originally pagan and had an oral culture with the ogham alphabet beginning in the prehistoric era. With the conversion to Christianity came the introduction to literature which preserved a lot of Ireland’s mythology. By the early middle ages, Ireland was an important centre of learning which helped give the name of ‘the island of saints and scholars’. Then in 1542 Henry VIII of England declared himself the king of Ireland and ruined all the craic. By 1607 Ireland was completely under English control which brought an end to the Gaelic political and social order.

Irish culture as we know it

Irish culture includes language, literature, music, art, cuisine, folklore, and sport that is associated with Ireland and Irish people. The majority of Irish culture as we know it came from Gaelic Ireland, with influence from Anglo-Norman, English and Scottish culture because other countries just wouldn’t leave us alone. Due to large scale emigration from Ireland, Irish culture has a global reach with festivals such as Saint Patrick’s day and Halloween being celebrated all over the world.

For being a small place, Ireland has contributed a large amount to world literature in both Irish and English. Famous examples of this would be James Joyce, Bram Stoker, Jonathan Swift and Oscar Wilde. The Irish language has the third oldest literature in Europe – after Greek and Latin – with the more significant body of written literature of any Celtic language.

Folklore is also a massive part of Irish culture with Leprechauns, Fionn mac Cumhaill, and Cú Chulainn. Irish myths and legends add to the Irish culture and are part of the reason so many travel to Ireland. The scenery isn’t bad either so that’s a bonus.

Irish-Americans

Mass emigration from Ireland leads to Irish settling in America. Irish-Americans are Americans who have full or partial ancestry from Ireland. There are about 33 million Americans that identified as Irish in 2017. Just to compare, Ireland only has a total population of around 6 million people – including Northern Ireland. This is partly because of the Irish diaspora, which refers to ethnic Irish people and their descendants living outside Ireland.

Now the reason Irish-Americans are brought up in an Irish gatekeeping article is that there is a lot of contention around them being American or Irish. Many Americans will claim that they are Irish even though it was their great-great-grandparent that was and they just have some Irish blood. This brings up the argument of ethnicity versus nationality.

Ethnicity versus Nationality

A person’s ethnicity derives from their origins; if an American person’s family came from Ireland that means that their ethnicity is Irish as ethnicity is not just origins but also language, culture, or even religion. With America being such a young country, the majority of people living there – except native Americans – are not originally from the USA, even if it is a few generations ago.

Nationality can have a few different meanings but in general, it means the country you were born and are a citizen of. This would be any current American who was born and raised in the USA. As the USA has a relatively short history a lot of them use their ethnicity rather than their nationality, unlike other people who might not care where their great-great-grandfather was from, Americans do. They state with pride that they have Irish or Italian or German blood which technically, is their right to do so. The issue with this is when the culture comes in and an Irish-American is claiming their Irish culture without knowing about it.

Gatekeeping the Irish culture

There was, for a short while, a trend going around on Tiktok with Irish-Americans claiming that the Irish were also slaves so African Americans should get over it. Now, of course, this is completely wrong, and many Irish people were quick to explain the differences between slavery and indentured servitude. It still perpetuated an image of Irish-Americans to Irish people living in Ireland. In this case, the gatekeeping was warranted as Irish-Americans were spreading false information about the Irish people to try and undercut the importance of speaking about slavery.

The reason many Irish people are seen to gatekeep Irish culture is that a lot of people claiming to be Irish know nothing about the culture or the country itself. It stems from ignorance that is not their fault. If you are not taught about other countries and their culture then to a certain extent you get to be ignorant about them. It is when you are claiming that culture for your own that you should educate yourself on it.

Gatekeeping Irish culture for the Irish is about preserving it and not seeing it being used by people to hurt others. The Irish and Irish culture has been through a lot, and it should be celebrated by those from Ireland and those with Irish blood. It is great that there are so many Irish-Americans who love Ireland as much as the Irish. Irish people should be welcoming to the Americans with Irish blood but it is also up to Americans that claim the Irish culture to know even the basic history of Ireland, instead of the romanticised version of it they know.

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About the author

Katie Boland

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