“When New York Was Irish”: Exploring the Irish-American History of Saratoga Springs.

As part of our blog post series of ‘Remembering an Imagined Homeland’, Abby Wise brings us news from Dublin, New York on this St Patrick’s Day. If you would like to contribute to this series, please get in touch. In the meantime, we hope that you are having a lovely St Patrick’s Day weekend, however that looks to you!

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Growing up in Saratoga Springs, NY, I fell in love with all things Irish. Each year, I’d feel a twinge of jealousy when my Irish-American classmates would be singled out as “special” by teachers when doing lessons about Ireland and Irish-American history at school in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. Irish-American culture was such a major part of life in our city, and I wanted to be included as much as possible, even if I didn’t have the ancestry to match. As a child, I thought Saratoga must be unique in emphasizing its history of Irish immigration. However, I now realize that in doing so, the city is participating in a larger cultural phenomenon linking the Irish-American diaspora to its motherland.

Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities stressed parallelism – the idea that people are able to recognise that they are living their lives alongside others in a completely different locale, with whom they share a common language, religion, or customs, even if the two groups never meet.[I] Parallelism is an exemplary way to illustrate the relationship a diaspora has to its “old country”. These days, it is increasingly easy for diaspora members to remain connected to their mother country, thanks to the internet. Being able to keep up with one’s ancestral homeland – even at two, three, or even four generations removed produces a form of “cultural sub-nationalism” as described by Nairn.[ii] National groups with little political recourse to declare their identities revert to movements of kitsch – or the sentimental and romantic side of national identity.[iii]

While Irish-Americans are certainly not the only curators of kitsch or cultural sub-nationalism, theirs are arguably the most well-known in America. It almost goes without saying that “Irish-American” means someone with Irish Catholic ancestry.[iv] One of the consequences of cultural kitsch is that it often creates overly simplistic narratives. For many Irish-Americans, the stories of older generations have long served as their frame of reference on Irish history.[v] The oral histories of family and friends who emigrated, or who were first generation Americans, are not complete fabrications, but they often include a “broader culture of nostalgia and sentimentality” preventing them from being truly objective.[vi] Anderson’s theory of parallelism also includes the idea that the communities in question maintain a “felt connection” to one another, even if they acknowledge that various factors like geography keep them from living identical lives.[vii] A “felt connection” might be easily established by oral histories, but these remain stagnant, while culture is constantly evolving. As such, the Ireland that many Irish-Americans might imagine doesn’t always align with the Ireland of the present day. This is not because all Irish-Americans are overly sentimental or unwilling to accept facts. Instead, their understanding of Ireland is deeply rooted in emotion. Dillane identifies this imaginary Ireland as an example of “ersatz nostalgia”, or “a desire to recover something one never actually had or directly experienced in the first place.”[viii]

It is crucial to understand that while words like “ersatz” or “kitsch” have developed somewhat pejorative meanings in colloquial English, they are not being used as such here. Although kitsch can definitely reinforce cultural stereotypes in some forms, Rains points out that nationalism almost demands a material component, as physical objects make one’s ethnic identity explicitly clear.[ix] “Buying” culture preserves the tradition of family heirlooms in the modern era.[x] It’s become a stand-in for the fact that, particularly in the Irish-American case, it has been decades – if not centuries – since people’s ancestors left Ireland. Even if they’d immigrated with material goods, there likely isn’t much left at this point to pass down to the next generation.[xi] These “transactions of incorporation” have become the way that more recent generations of Irish-Americans can participate in their heritage.[xii]

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Friendly Sons of St. Patrick banners line Broadway in Saratoga ahead of St. Patrick’s Day 2019

Saratoga Springs is a prime example of this concept. Although there was little Irish presence in the city until the digging of the Erie Canal began in 1817, by the 1840s, the city had its own Irish enclave.[xiii] Today, the “Dublin” neighbourhood of the city’s west side is a historic landmark.[xiv] There is an entire industry built around the city’s Irish-American heritage from the “Halfway St. Patrick’s Day” hosted every 17thAugust at the famed Saratoga Racecourse to the city staple that is the Parting Glass Pub, which hosts the Saratoga Pan-Celtic Session. Saratoga has truly developed as an Irish-American city, rather than a city with Irish-American residents. For further insight, I spoke to Paul O’Donnell, owner of Saratoga’s Irish import shop Celtic Treasures about the city’s Irish connections.

O’Donnell was born on the south shore of Long Island, the son of an Irish-American father whose ancestors had immigrated during the Famine, and a mother who’d left County Cavan for New York City in 1959. He notes that his mother’s family is “right from the border”, their homestead being located on the Cavan side of Cuilcagh.[xv] Although he always imagined a career in agriculture, O’Donnell opened Celtic Treasures in 1992.

While he admits that there is always risk involved in opening a small business, he conducted “market research” in the Parting Glass Pub and realized how many Irish-Americans in town would gather there to share their heritage.

He said that being Irish-American has always been at the forefront of his mind, and he hoped to provide an additional outlet for Irish-Americans in Saratoga to enjoy their culture and share it with others.[xvi] Today, the shop has precisely 16,042 items in inventory, from traditional music albums to Waterford Crystal.[xvii] O’Donnell says the best sales of the year come at Christmastime, well after Saratoga’s vibrant summer tourist crowd as gone home, solidifying the shop’s place in the heart of Saratoga’s Irish-American community. While Celtic Treasures feels the increased competition of major online retailers such as Amazon,O’Donnell is relieved to know he still has dedicated regulars who will stop in year-round for tastes of “home”.[xviii]

Not only is Celtic Treasures well-known locally, O’Donnell has had the opportunity to share its success with former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, whom he met when Ahern made a visit to the New York State Capitol as a guest of then-Senator Hillary Clinton.  When O’Donnell introduced himself, he said Ahern’s face lit up at the mention of Irish importing, and he was thrilled to hear about Celtic Treasures.[xix] Speaking about the history of Irish-American involvement in political affairs, O’Donnell says that he is very concerned about the border issue raised by Brexit and thinks that if the US can help maintain peace it should do so. Having family from a border county, O’Donnell says he remembers “the hard border very well”[xx] While he personally believes in a United Ireland, he is heartened by the efforts of the Congressional Friends of Ireland Caucus to keep a soft border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and even remembers participating in some Irish-American activism himself – reaching out to the Department of State as a young student during The Troubles asking for the government to mediate peace for Northern Ireland, reinforcing the feeling that his Irish ancestry is central to his identity as an American, both in business but also in his daily life.[xxi]

These days, Saratoga’s Irish-American heritage is no longer confined to a neighborhood on the West Side. In “Dublin”, the prevailing evidence of the neighborhood’s immigrant beginnings is the Italian-American Principessa Elena Society, which has been in the neighborhood since 1900.[xxii] Irish heritage has moved to the city’s forefront and has even spread out to neighboring communities. Irish immigrants may not be arriving in America in numbers as large as in the past, but the influence of those who’ve come before will not – and can not – be forgotten in Saratoga Springs.

Abby Wise recently completed a MSc in Nationalism Studies at the University of Edinburgh. She received a Bachelor of Arts in both Politics and Religion from Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA in 2015. There, she became interested in Irish history – particularly the Ulster Scots community of Northern Ireland. Her master’s dissertation – along with her undergraduate thesis – focused on issues of Ulster Scots national identity. She can be followed on Twitter @abbswise, or contacted on wise22a@mtholyoke.edu.

[i]Anderson, B. 2006, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Revised edn, Verso, New York, NY.

[ii]Nairn, T. 1977, “Old and New Scottish Nationalism” in The Break-Up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Nationalism NLB, London, United Kingdom

[iii]Ignatieff, M. 1994, “Introduction” in Blood & Belonging Vintage, London, United Kingdom.

[iv]Nolan, J. 2005, “Silent Generations: New Voices of Irish America”, American Literary History, vol. 17, no. 3.

[v]Dillane, A. 2013, “Nostalgic Songlines and the Performance of Irish Identity”, Béaloideas, vol. 81, pp. 19-36.

[vi]ibid

[vii]Anderson, B. 2006, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Revised edn, Verso, New York, NY.

[viii]Dillane, A. 2013, “Nostalgic Songlines and the Performance of Irish Identity”, Béaloideas, vol. 81, pp. 19-36.

[ix]Rains, S. 2004, “Celtic Kitsch: Irish-America and Irish Material Culture”, Circa, vol. 107, pp. 52-57

[x]ibid

[xi]ibid

[xii]ibid

[xiii]University at Albany, SUNY Planning Studio 2001, Planning & Design Recommendations For the West Side Neighborhood, Saratoga Springs, NY, SUNY Albany, Albany, New York.

[xiv]ibid

[xv]O’Donnell, P. 2019, Personal Interview with Author, recording, Saratoga Springs, NY.

[xvi]ibid

[xvii]ibid

[xviii]ibid

[xix]ibid

[xx]ibid

[xxi]ibid

[xxii]University at Albany, SUNY Planning Studio 2001, Planning & Design Recommendations For the West Side Neighborhood, Saratoga Springs, NY, SUNY Albany, Albany, New York.

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