As I traipsed around the Emerald Isle this past week, I couldn’t help but notice that its culture and people have quite a lot in common with my own place of origin in the American South. This should probably come as no surprise given the interconnected histories of these locales, largely due to the Irish diaspora of the 18th and 19th centuries. Irish and German are the most common ancestries in the United States; in fact, the number of Americans claiming Irish heritage is about seven times greater than the entire population of Ireland! My own family has always told me that we were Irish somewhere way back (though my European peers are endlessly amused by the American fascination with our ancestry). Apart from lineage, however, both Southerners and the Irish share histories of agrarian economies, strong religious traditions, and various other cultural affinities. Before I remark further, let me begin with a couple of quick disclaimers. Firstly, I don’t intend to trace routes of transmission here (it’s always more of an exchange, anyway), only to acknowledge linkages. Secondly, I won’t be getting into the Irish-Irish, Scotch/Scots-Irish, and Anglo-Irish distinctions of nomenclature; I’m using Irish as an umbrella term for the sake of simplicity and brevity. So, here goes!
It’s not hard to find literary links between Ireland and the South–between theme, subject matter, setting, author, et cetera. Margaret Mitchell’s southern classic Gone with the Wind is full of them: the O’Hara family is Irish and their plantation, Tara, is named after the Hill of Tara in County Meath–the former spiritual and political centre of Ireland, seat of the High King of Ireland, and location of the legendary Stone of Destiny. In Finnegans Wake, Irish novelist James Joyce is constantly riffing off of Missouri-born Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (for starters, “Finnegan” = “Finn again“). The character Miss Anna Livia of the Liffey, for instance, is at one point referred to as “Mississliffi”–a play on the names of the rivers Mississippi and Liffey, which run through Mississippi and Dublin respectively. (For more on this notoriously difficult tome, see Joseph Campbell’s fascinating Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake.)
In her book Transatlantic Renaissances: Literature of Ireland and the American South, Kathryn Stelmach Artuso claims that much of the thematic overlap between Irish and Southern American literature is rooted in a common need to prove something: “The impulses that fired the Southern Literary Renaissance echoed the impetus behind the Irish Literary Revival at the turn of the twentieth century, when Ireland sought to demonstrate its cultural equality with any European nation and disentangle itself from English-imposed stereotypes. Seeking to prove that the South was indeed the cultural equal of greater America, despite the harsh realities of political defeat, economic scarcity, and racial strife, Southern writers embarked on a career to re-imagine the American South and to re-invent literary criticism.”
There are also clear links between traditional Irish music and the music of the South, namely Bluegrass and Country. As floods of Irish and Scotch-Irish immigrants poured into the American South in the 18th and 19th centuries, they began to fuse their traditional folk music with African rhythms from slave culture. This led to the development of Appalachian folk ballads and Bluegrass, both hugely influential in the development of Country music. The Bard of Boston delineates a few of the key similarities between Celtic and Country, including vocal harmony, drones, lyrical content (often laments or drinking songs), and the use of fiddles and banjos.
One of my favourite and most-used Southern contractions, y’all, is actually an Americanised variant of the Scots-Irish phrase ye aw. It’s a dead useful little word; until it came along, English was one of the only languages (that I know of) without a second-person plural! Check out Dialect Blog for more on how y’all made its way from the Ulster Scots in Northern Ireland to southerners like me.
And finally, a not-very-scholarly but personally profound observation (forgive the forthcoming generalisations, but I promise they’re both well-founded and well-intentioned). I’ve found that interacting with the Irish in a social context feels very much like interacting with a lot of folks back home. I find these interactions to be characterised by a certain kind of jovial, conversational openness–in contrast to the characteristically reserved English and the naturally suspicious inhabitants of the northeastern United States ;). If you’re a Southern expat and ever find yourself missing home, head over to the Emerald Isle for a dose of good ol’ Southern Irish hospitality.