Ireland and the South

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Quinlan and listening to Gavan Lennon about the various links between Ireland and the southern United States. I’ve been a part of this link my whole life without ever naming it or being aware that it was something outside of my own experience. I remember as a child my fascination with my heritage. Questions such as  When did my ancestors emigrate to the United States? Do we still have family over there? Where exactly is “there”? were often on my mind. My excitement upon discovering that my mother’s side of the family had a family plaid was pretty extreme. We have a few amateur genealogists on that side of the family who have traced our lineage back several hundred years and across many miles of ocean. My faint traces of Scotch-Irishness were granted some legitimacy the other day when I filled out the census. The government wanted to know exactly what sort of white I am. Fascinating.

I found two passages that I think sum up Quinlan’s thoughts.

“Numerous defeated peoples – Poles, Japanese, those from the countries of the former Yugoslavia or of Latin and Central America, to mention just a few – have found it easier to identify with their experience with that of the American South rather than with the more successful parts of the United States. Indeed, the traditional South in many of its social, political, and economic aspects is probably more typical of the struggling world at large than is the rest of the nation.” (2)

“… there are many different ways in which Ireland figures in the southern drama: as a country from which a not-insignificant component of the southern population originated; as a land with a strikingly similar historical experience of defeat, poverty, and dispossession; and finally at least in the Anglophone world, as a culture that has clear resemblances with that of the American South, not least because of the remarkable twentieth-century literary achievements of both unlikely places… Both places have long been the ‘problem’ , if also frequently romanticized regions, of otherwise ‘progressive’ nations. They exist, all too really if often unwillingly, as the untamed peripheries of the respective civilized centers.“(4) 

He pretty explicitly lays out where he sees similarities between the two places. They’re like the red-headed stepchildren (a phrase I use to demonstrate the pervasiveness of anti-Irish sentiment, even all these years later) of their respective parent nations . Both quotes discuss the less desirable but still romanticized character of the two regions. They have both suffered defeat and poverty, perhaps partly caused by themselves. Both were largely agricultural economies. He mentions the similar cultures, most specifically the incredible literary output of the two. From the south you get literary bastions like Faulkner, Twain, and Williams. From Ireland, folks such as Joyce, Yeats, and Lewis come to mind.

The interview with Lennon was a nice parallel to the Quinlan reading. I enjoyed hearing him talk about the South and North in Great Britain. Since I’ve never been to Great Britain or read extensively about the culture there, I have no real knowledge of what cultural differences are present and what prejudices exist. Hearing about the encounter with the two gentlemen from the boat was interesting. The fancy man talking down to the man with geordie accident is something I’ve seen before. It reminded me of a few times when I’ve seen thick southern accents get looked down upon. Even my slight accent has drawn a bit of disdain when I’ve traveled to other places in the United States.

The reading and the podcast from this past week tie into previous themes of American and Southern exceptionalism. Turns out, exceptionalism isn’t just a southern or American thing. All sorts of people think they’re better than everybody else. Delightful.


Quinlan, Kieran. Strange Kin: Ireland and the American South, Louisiana State University Press, 2005.

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