My favorite news story of 2009 revealed that, in a poll of 5,000 women worldwide, Irish was voted the world’s sexiest accent. French accents, which had held the top spot for decades, slipped to fourth, also behind Scottish and Italian, followed by Australian, English and Swedish. American accents finished 10th, just behind Spanish and Welsh and just in front of Jersey and the Bronx.
Regrettably, I do not have a sexy Irish accent. I am, however, of Irish descent. Being of Irish descent hardly makes me unique. There are some 45 million Americans who claim some strain of Irish ancestry, and an additional 5 million or so who identify as Scot-Irish. If my numbers are correct, I have no doubt that they are not, then fully 12% of the population of the United States is descended from Irish immigrants.
That number will go up dramatically next Friday when another couple of million Americans will embrace their nonexistent Irish roots in one hand while clutching a pitcher of green beer and a cardboard shamrock in the other as they drunkenly proclaim “‘Erin Go Bragh.” These Plastic Paddy’s have no more Irish blood in them than Yogi Bear, but you can’t blame a person for wanting to be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.
The desire to be Irish has an almost mystical pull on many people. There is practically an entire industry built around helping people trace their Irish roots. There are more websites devoted to tracing one’s Irish family tree than there are sites featuring naked photographs of Pamela Anderson. I wouldn’t believe it myself had I not done extensive personal research on the topic.
The Irish were not always so popular. Like most immigrant groups, the Irish faced discrimination and stereotyping. At the height of the Irish diaspora, it was not unusual to see the letters “NINA” in job postings – “No Irish Need Apply.” The Irish were variously stereotyped as friendly, violent, dirty, artistic, musically talented, drunken, lazy, funny, conservative, intellectually gifted, unruly, anarchic and pious. Did you know that the word “whiskey” comes from the Gaelic “uisce beatha” that means “water of life.” Did you hear that God created whiskey to stop Ireland from conquering the world?
Would it surprise you to learn that Ireland has more dogs per capita (human capita) than any other country in the European Union?
The great Irish-American statesman Daniel Patrick Moynihan lamented that it was part of the nature of being Irish to know the world was eventually going to break your heart. Malachy McCourt, brother of Frank McCourt of Angela’s Ashes fame, pointed out that Irish men don’t look at each other when they speak – instead they usually squint off toward an imaginary ocean no matter how far from one they may be standing.
The list of notable Irish Americans is lengthy and distinguished, including eight signers of the Declaration of Independence and former President Obama, who, according to some, was born in Ireland, among other places. The Irish component of my family hails from County Cork. I don’t really know much about my Irish paternal great-grandfather, other than it appears his departure from Ireland to America was less a matter of his wanting to go than a matter of Ireland not wanting him to stay.
I’ve now been to Ireland three or four times myself and hope to go back again soon. And although Ireland is not my home, when I hear an Irish accent or listen to a Celtic song or see a lovely stone wall or a storm-tossed sea, I often feel something akin to nostalgia, a feeling of homesickness for a place where I was not born and have only ever visited as a tourist. Maybe it’s time for me to plan another trip to the old country next year. Until then, beware ladies – I’ll be working on my accent.
Tom Tyner writes a weekly humor column for this newspaper. This is from his “Classics Files.”