The American-Irish relationship is evolving, with 38 million Americans defining their ancestry as Irish or Scotch-Irish in 2010 compared to 44 million in the 1990 census. Irish youth from my generation increasingly look to live in Anglophone cousins other than the US–like Canada, the UK, and Australia, or work in Anglophone enclaves in places like the Emirates. While the American J1 summer visa is still a rite of passage for many Irish teens – most people in my 12 person masters program have taken at least one J1 – many advocates of a more advanced US-Irish relationship worry about the depth and longevity of the US-Irish connection. They want to build a sustainable relationship that extends beyond St. Patrick’s Day parades. It would be a relationship based on art, business, and scholarship like university undergraduate and graduate exchanges.
While this new, deeper American-Irish dynamic will take time to build, I have come to recognize the incredible foundation already in place. Spending 3.5 months studying in Limerick, sandwiched in-between 1.5 months working in New Jersey this summer and a month relaxing there this winter (and 17 years of growing up there) have shown me the incredible similarities between parts of the Emerald Isle and the United States – or more specifically, Limerick and New Jersey.
A Forbes article once noted, “On St. Patrick’s Day we’re all Irish.” In New Jersey, in some municipalities, this holds true year round. More than 10% of the population claims Irish ancestry along the shore and in the Philadelphia and New York suburbs. Several Jersey shore towns have over over 30% of residents claiming Irish heritage. A stretch of Irish communities along the shore – not too far from the quaint town of Seaside Heights that hosted the TV series the Jersey Shore – is nicknamed the Irish Rivera.
Maybe it is the shared chromosomes, or the shared heritage that manifests in houses on both sides of the Atlantic flying the Irish flag, but at the cultural level there are uncanny similarities between my Limerick and New Jersey experiences. Both Limerick and New Jersey have a touch of sandwiched-by-big-cities complex, Limerick by economically successful Cork and party-town Galway and New Jersey by historic Philadelphia and adjective-not-needed New York City. As a result, both have strong, proud cultures that one can say is only found in Limerick or only in New Jersey. Limerick buzzes with a remarkable energy during Munster rugby games, with a level of cohesion and passion that I have only seen equaled in the prolific spread of ‘Jersey Strong’ and ‘Stronger than the Storm’ bumper stickers in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Downtown Limerick, with the 700-year-old St. John’s castle excluded, could be mistaken for dozens of New Jersey towns, with its three story brick facades and slew of small businesses.
Exemplifying their robust, proud culture, both New Jersey and Limerick are looking past the heavy industrial heydays and building post-industrial economies based on pharmaceutical and high-tech industries. While over the past two decades Bell Labs’ headquarters and offices in New Jersey were pared down significantly, Bell Labs’ younger Dublin office’s connection to the University of Limerick’s Stokes Institute is has grown stronger. Dell Computers closed down its Limerick processing plant in 2009 loosing Limerick about 1,900 jobs, but on the other side of the Atlantic IBM has continued to reaffirm its 99-year-old relationship with the State of New Jersey providing thousands of jobs. New Brunswick, NJ, ‘The Healthcare City’, is my home and headquarters of Johnson & Johnson, which operates a subsidiary plant in the Irish National Technology Park that is a six-minute walk from my Limerick apartment. New Jersey hosts growing labs of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, which in 2013 announced plans to buy a plant and start operations in Limerick – in the very factory Dell abandoned in 2009.
In these similarities, I can see the foundation for meaningful cooperation and exchange. However, the United States is a big place of which much does not resemble New Jersey; Limerick is just a small slice of Ireland; Washington D.C. is a city with an decreasingly coherent Irish voice; Dublin is going to have to navigate flack over low corporate taxes effectively to solidify Ireland’s relationship with many American pharmaceutical and high-tech companies.
I could not imagine another place outside of New Jersey that would feel more like home than Limerick. (And I’m not even touching on that cliché ‘my last name is Brennan and I’m finding my roots’ conversation.) As the Ellis Island era migration stories are now tales about great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents, and young Irish now arrive at Toronto Pearson and Dubai International Airport alongside JFK and Boston Logan Airport, I am heartened by the bigger implications of these similarities between Limerick and New Jersey.