A Short History of Irish-American Relations

Michael Bergin details the history of Ireland’s links to the United States through political, cultural and economic lenses.

Since the foundation of the United States, indeed since the settling of the Eastern Seaboard of the new world, Ireland, and Irish culture, has played a disproportionately large role in the development of the new nation. At present, American culture and American businesses play a similarly exaggerated role in the lives of Irish people. Both nations exist as rejections of British imperialism, both call it “soccer”, and both will hopefully be equally represented at this year’s Oscars. 

However, while Ireland’s relationship with America is broadly characterised by friendship and familiarity, no relationship is immune to moments of conflict, even one as mutually beneficial as the Irish-American one. US troops’ use of Shannon airport to refuel, for instance, is one such instance whereby diplomatic niceties abroad have generated considerable domestic anger. Indeed, Ireland’s nuanced take on neutrality, particularly when it comes to dealing with American strategic interests, has often been met with discomfort at home. Thus, the modern relationship between the US and Ireland is not the mere sentimental vote-grabber that it is sometimes cynically categorised as. Nor is it a relationship of convenience. Both nations exercise a relationship that is complex, mature and measured in its manifestations. 

the modern relationship between the US and Ireland is not the mere sentimental vote-grabber that it is sometimes cynically categorised as

In bluntly economic terms, American financial might is a force that Irish governments have, for generations, been eager to please. It was America that Eamonn de Valera fled to during the War of Independence to drum up financial support for the Fenian cause. Indeed, at the Paris Peace Conference immediately in the wake of the first World War, it was US President Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of support for the rights of small nations that prompted the arrival of an Irish delegation, which was almost immediately rebuffed. It seems that, in the crafting of a new world order, the fledgling Irish state did not reckon in the mighty United States’ planning.

However, the global dominance of US financial systems meant that appealing to this vast economy was going to be imperative for any Irish government to attract foreign direct investment (FDI). 

The publication of T.K. Whitaker’s white paper, commonly known as the First Programme for Economic Expansion in the late 1950s ushered in an era of expanded economic possibilities for the state, with protectionist measures eschewed in favour of a more open, free-trading economy. In this, America would necessarily reckon.

After accession to the European Economic Community in 1973, and the accompanying development that the Irish economy underwent, openness to FDI reached new highs in the mid-to-late 1990s, and the early Celtic Tiger period. Aided by a low corporate tax rate and educated workforce, Ireland managed to attract many large US multinationals, becoming the European home of tech giants such as Google, Meta, Twitter and Amazon in the 2000s and 2010s.

American economic might continues to play an enormous role in the development of the Irish economy, with the closeness of this link witnessed through the devastating ripple effect the 2008 crash had on Ireland.

However, away from economic affairs, it is in the cultural sphere that Ireland and the United States perhaps share their closest ties. Aside from having their own distinct sporting cultures (neither with an enormous amount of crossover in the other), Ireland and America share an enormous amount of musical, film and literary links.

In the world of film, Irish-American actors such as Bing Crosby and Judy Garland became some of the brightest stars on screen during the golden age of Hollywood. Interest in telling Irish stories and having Irish culture represented on the screen was realised through the production of films such as John Wayne’s The Quiet Man, and, rather less impressively, in Walt Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Continuing to the present day, Irish films continue to perform well in the United States, with Martin MacDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin and Irish-language film An Cailín Ciúin proving themselves to be critical darlings in 2023.

Away from the screen, and into the world of music, “breaking America” has long been used as a metric by which an artist’s success could be judged. Once the American market was secure, then you had truly made it. In the long list of Irish musical acts that have attempted this gargantuan feat, none can be said to have “broken America” as considerably as U2, having sold millions of albums stateside, and performed in virtually every major city in the country. Having received numerous Presidential awards, Bono’s unanimous appeal stateside almost makes it appear as though the Dublin-born Paul Hewson is American himself.

In the world of literature, Ireland has again made an indelible mark on the American national story. The publication in 1934 of James Joyce’s Ulysses, after more than a decade as a banned book, marked a watershed moment for US literary criticism and censorship, ushering in a new and more tolerant publishing mindset in the US. Furthermore, the writings of Seamus Heaney have become a favoured crutch for current White House occupant Joe Biden to lean on in speeches and essays. 

the writings of Seamus Heaney have become a favoured crutch for current White House occupant Joe Biden

Indeed, the political sphere is often the location for much Irish-American pandering in stateside politics. Since the days of Kennedy, appealing to the Irish-American demographic has been a key vote swinger in battleground states. Kennedy’s strident Irish roots vary with the much more distant ties that George W. Bush shares with the Island, though one way or another, proving Irish ancestry and displaying it proudly has become something of a fixation of US Presidents. 

Away from the shamrock-giving ceremony on St. Patrick’s day, however, the political relationship between Ireland and the United States remains a strong one, despite some qualms. Both countries seem to wish to work together to their mutual benefit, and though US support for Israel and use of Shannon airport raise concerns in Ireland, broad cooperation is rarely in doubt between both nations.

To conclude, the United States and Ireland share a relationship quite unlike that existing between any two other nations. It is one built on a shared history, an admiration of the other’s culture, and a strong desire to build a prosperous future together, in a respectful and mature fashion.