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What makes a US politician ‘Irish’? It doesn’t have much to do with their genes

We’re not rushing to claim Robert F Kennedy Jr, whose stance on vaccines makes him part of a growing cohort of prominent reactionary Irish-Americans

You might imagine that the news that Ireland could have another shot, admittedly an extremely long one, at greening the White House would be cause for celebration; perhaps even a signal to start scoping out sites for a new petrol station. Unfortunately, the most recent candidate of Irish-American extraction to declare his interest in running for Democratic nomination comes with some baggage.

He may be as Irish as EasiSingles, and currently attracting the support of about 14 per cent of voters who had backed Joe Biden in 2020, but it’s safe to assume that no matter what happens with the nomination, there will be no Robert F Kennedy jnr plazas springing up in New Ross.

Kennedy is the son and namesake of Robert F Kennedy, who was assassinated while running for president in 1968. He has been said to be among the most politically gifted of the current generation his family. He has the kind of moving backstory US voters enjoy, having overcome drug addiction to emerge as a renowned environmental lawyer.

He is also, however, to use the current parlance, “problematic”. He may be a Democrat and a Kennedy with the familiar square-set jaw, but he is also a prominent anti-vaxxer and ranks among the so-called “disinformation dozen”, who are collectively blamed for as much as two-thirds of all anti-vaccination content on social media. He has written or lent his name to several books spouting spurious theories on vaccines.


In the speech launching his bid for the presidency, he called the government and media “liars” and said he would end the “corrupt merger of state and corporate power” that threatens to, among other things, “commoditise our children, our purple mountain’s majesty; to poison our children and our people with chemicals and pharmaceutical drugs”. (Purple mountain’s majesty is both a lyric from United States The Beautiful and a moderately potent strain of marijuana, incidentally.)

What makes a US politician “Irish” in our eyes? It has a little to do with genealogy and a lot to do with the liberalism of their politics, their soundness on the national question, their willingness to wax lyrical about Dundalk delicatessens, while we giddily perform our Irishness for them. That’s why Joe “roughly five eighths” Biden and Barack “one of the Moneygall Obamas”, will always be more Irish than Mike Pence, whose grandad was from Tubbercurry, Co Sligo.

Pence once made a speech in that he said “All that I am, all that I will ever be, and all the service that I will ever give, is owed to my Irish heritage”, and we collectively looked away as though he had just committed a digestion indiscretion.

There has been much attention on the gap between the Ireland we wheeled out for the Biden visit and the reality: a country where nearly a quarter of a million children consistently live in deprivation; where one in three third-level students can’t make ends meet; where more than half of women and 28 per cent of men have experienced sexual violence.

But of course the Ireland showcased to the US president was the heavily filtered for Instagram version. That is how it works. American presidents stop by for a visit and they are ushered into the good room. On some level, presumably, the folks watching back home understand this isn’t the real Ireland, just as some of them know most Irish people don’t actually eat corned beef on St Patrick’s Day, or pour green dye in the toilet bowl and tell our children the leprechauns did it.

Similarly, we choose not to be offended by stereotypes about the drunken, pugilistic Irish. Imagine the outcry if it was Nigel Farage rather than Biden who joked about how you may not be fully Irish if you’re a teetotaller with no relatives in jail.

But if the Ireland of Irish-American fantasy has only the most fleeting acquaintance with reality, that’s okay, because Biden is not actually representative of the current generation of high-profile Irish-Americans either. For that, you don’t really need to look much further than Robert F Kennedy jnr.

He is one of a growing cohort of reactionary, prominent Irish-Americans who are promoting a politics that, as Liam Kennedy points out, fuses privilege and victimhood, and a pugnacious Irish masculinity with a kind of hyper-Americanism. They were particularly conspicuous in their strength and profile during the Trump administration – including names like Kellyanne Conway, Sean Spicer, Michael Flynn, Kevin McCarthy.

They trade on the general fascination in the US with this corned beef version of Irishness to promote what Fintan O’Toole has called “the politics of white resentment”, that sometimes includes claims about “forgotten white Irish slaves”. Kimberly Guilfoyle – the Fox News presenter, former wife of Gavin Newsom and partner of Donald Trump jnr, whose father was from Ennis and who did some of her studies in Trinity – made a glib and nonsensical comparison to the Black Lives Matter movement in 2016. “The Irish got more than it. They don’t run around going ‘Irish Lives Matter’,” she said on Fox.

The shamrocks and shillelaghs version of Irishness is more than just a harmless performance we put on for visiting presidents. It’s a form of soft power, certainly. But it’s one we should wield in the full awareness that it feeds into the tropes and mythologies of the increasingly powerful cohort, sometimes dubbed the “alt-Irish”. There is a thread that runs from the show we put on for Biden all the way to the angry commentators with Irish names and improbably perfect teeth on Fox News, and from them on to Kennedy. If Biden is part of a vanishing notion of Irish United States, Kennedy is very much part of the current generation.

We may not be building plazas in his honour, but like it or not, Robert F Kennedy jnr is one of our own.