Words by Evan Harms
In the collective unconscious, we tend to think of the Midwest as what is truly “American” (i.e. working, middle class caucasians). That take is clearly flawed, and was addressed a few weeks ago, but the point remains: many of the original European immigrants who flocked to the region largely esconded their old world heritage in favor of a cohesive identity and desire to be accepted in their new home.
For example, my great-grandpa, a dark-skinned man born in Czechoslovakia, spoke no Slovak around his home in America, but basked in polka dancing activities across the states. His specific heritage (Slovak) gave way to a broader European activity (the polka), an Americanized expression of Eastern European heritage.
When we look at our stereotype of the Midwest, even the apparently homogenous block of white people have pretty differing backstories as far as heritage and “otherness” go. Specifically, I’d like to look at the history and state of Irish-Americans in the Midwest.
The seed for this idea was sprouted over the weekend when I gathered with my majority Irish family for a little St. Patrick’s Day dinner of corned beef and Colcannon. There are a few fellows in our extended family who enjoy poring over old photographs and family documents (myself included), and we’ve been able to narrow down that the Cahill part of our family (my Grandpa’s mother was Grace Cahill, an Irish immigrant) hails from County Tipperary in Southern Ireland.
The interesting part of this is that thousands of people across the Midwest have nearly identical stories. Sure, Boston and New York City are rightly credited as the hubs of Irish-American culture, but Cleveland and Chicago put on some of the largest St. Patrick’s Day parades in the world.
This map points out that the East Coast is dripping with folks from the Emerald Isle. Get off the boat and you plant yourself and your family in the closest place where you can make a living. As we know, that meant living in squats throughout the industrializing Northeast. This standard of living was pretty comparable for most immigrants entering the U.S. at that time, as well as blacks, only relatively recently have being freed from the threat of slavery.
Those with a little more bravery, foolishness, money or family might have wandered out to what we call ‘the Midwest’ today, starting up fascinating little communities in Cleveland’s West Park, Detroit’s Corktown and St. Louis’ Dogtown neighborhoods. The stories and tropes (and yes, stereotypes) in Irish-American history are canonized by families across the Midwest.
As any student of history knows, xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric flows in cycles in America. Irish, Eastern Europeans, Italians, Germans, Asians and, most recently, Latin Americans and Middle Easterners have all been met with negative attitudes throughout our history. As a European mutt myself, I think it’s important to hold on to our respective cultures as we migrate to new places — that’s how we end up with amazing, quirky holes of intrigue poked in our collective identity.
We should be thinking about our identity as immigrants always, not just on St. Patrick’s Day. The Midwest is in dire need of a rebranding, and our history and culture points towards new immigrants as a source of change and cultural metamorphosis.