Is John Kerry, Democratic front-runner for the US presidency, an Irish American or not? His name certainly sounds Irish, and numerous US publications have stated that he is of Irish descent. Yet last year his spokeswoman, Kelley Benander, said that Kerry “has never indicated to anyone that he was Irish, and corrected people over the years who assumed he was”.
Perhaps he would never have needed to issue such a correction if he had not himself propagated the error in the first place. The Boston Globe of 6 March 1984 reported him saying: “As some of you may know, I am part-English and part-Irish. And when my Kerry ancestors first came over to Massachusetts from the old country to find work in the New World, it was my English ancestors who refused to hire them.” He elaborated two years later: “For those of us who are fortunate to share an Irish ancestry, we take great pride in the contributions [of] Irish Americans.”
Now that he is a more prominent public figure, Kerry can hardly keep up the pretence. As a new biography by Michael Kranish, Brian Mooney and Nina Easton explains, he is the grandson of Fritz Kohn, a Jewish refugee from Austria-Hungary who arrived on Ellis Island in 1905. Fritz Kohn had changed his name to Frederick Kerry to escape persecution.
What is it that makes people want to present themselves as Irish even if they are nothing of the kind? In Kerry’s case, Mike Gilleran, a former deputy chief of the Massachusetts Republican Party, has argued that if it had been understood by the state’s voters that he was not Irish, “he would never have risen in Massachusetts politics”. Kerry is widely criticised as uncharismatic and wooden. As everybody knows, the Irish are romantic, amusing and empathetic.
An Irish ancestry suggests that you are not an emotionally stunted white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. It also helps in projecting yourself as a champion of the persecuted and the marginalised.
Kerry’s predecessors as false Irishmen include the novelist Patrick O’Brian (born Richard Russ to Russian immigrants in Chelsea, central London), the one-time Provisional IRA chief of staff Sean MacStiofain (John Stephenson, from Leytonstone, east London) and the stage actor Micheal MacLiammoir (Alfred Willmore, from Kensal Green, north London). These are just the famous ones. An ICM poll in 2001 found that one in four Britons asserted that they had Irish roots. A professor at Nottingham University calculated that the real figure is one in ten.
Judging by popular representations in films such as Titanic, Gangs of New York and Michael Collins, the musicals Riverdance and Lord of the Dance, and the TV programmes Ballykissangel and Father Ted, the Irish are still regarded as a funny, earthy people, and eternal, undeserving victims of Waspish nastiness.
In the US, it is particularly useful to be regarded as being of Irish stock. The historian Reginald Byron argued in Irish America (1999) that Irishness has become central to American identity and to the national narrative. The Irish are regarded as the quintessential, metaphorical immigrants, who defied British oppression and liberated themselves from its grasp. David Brooks observed in Bobos in Paradise (2000) that many American Wasps seem desperate to jettison their own ethnicity in favour of the “other”. Because their pigmentation makes it hard for them to pretend to be black, assuming Irishness is the next best means of projecting themselves as victims. And in our post-Diana world, everybody wants to be a victim.
America was disproportionately settled by Ulster Protestants (who, as everyone knows, are Bad People) and today 55 per cent of Americans of Irish ancestral origin are non-Catholics. Yet it remains expedient for US politicians to project themselves as descendants of Irish Catholics (who are Good People). We saw this with John F Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. At the 1995 St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Washington DC, Clinton punched the air, boasting that he was “feeling more Irish every day” – an absurd declaration, as if “feeling Irish” were a lifestyle choice. As the Irish journalist Mark Ryan pointed out, if Clinton had pronounced himself to be feeling “more Japanese every day”, commentators would have called into question his mental health.
In US politics, it sometimes gets even stranger. In 1998, as Speaker, Newt Gingrich visited County Donegal to pick up a certificate to confirm his membership of the O’Doherty clan. Unfortunately, when he arrived, embarrassed genealogists could find no proof whatsoever that “O’Gingrich” was of Irish descent. Then, in 2000, when English genealogists found evidence that George W Bush was des-cended from Essex yeomanry, they wrote to him with the glad news. Bush’s family told them to keep it quiet; the family feared it would prove to be an electoral liability. So we have one Republican who is not Irish but pretends that he is, and one who is English but pretends that he isn’t.
It is to be celebrated that Irish-Catholic descent is no longer a political handicap in America. However, being of Irish-Catholic descent myself (my mother is from Dublin – yes, really), I am weary of Irishness serving as a flag of convenience for cynical politicians. There’s a good word for this phenomenon: blarney.