Misconceptions of an American

People always ask: What ethnicity are you? This is a difficult question for genealogists, as we can get quite detailed with our answers: “Well, on my mother’s maternal line we have Irish from County Leitrim and Monaghan, on my mother’s paternal line we have Italians and Irish, and my paternal line…” Well, you get the drift.

And while I’ve researched Italians, Germans, Irish, and Norwegians in my own ancestry, I’ve identified most with the Irish, given my closeness with my (likely mostly Irish) grandmother. Because of this, I’ve always thought that I knew something about the Irish, their culture, and their history. However, after two weeks in Ireland, and several guided bus tours, I found that of what I thought I knew, I actually knew very little. Here are some of the most embarrassing revelations:

  1. Farmers in Ireland grow vegetables. While some farmers grow vegetables, the majority of the farmers grow animals: sheep, cows, pigs, goats, chickens, etc. The reason the farmers focus on these animals is even more obvious: Ireland is an island! In most regions, the topsoil is not deep enough to grow vegetables, as we do in the U.S., and therefore the farmers use the available soil to feed their animals (grass). The limestone foundation provides minerals and nutrients to the grass, which is then consumed by the animals, and, in turn, makes for tasty meals. Families might have a small garden to grow potatoes, cabbage, carrots, etc., but their livelihood would have come from their animals, not vegetables.
  2. The Irish avoid all things associated with the English Royal family. I traveled to both Northern Ireland and the Republic during my two week stay, and I can say with gusto that the Irish celebrate Queen Victoria. Not only did my Irish tour guides refer to her as “brilliant,” “smart,” and “great,” but infrastructure bears the names of Queen Victoria and her beloved husband, Prince Albert: clock towers, rivers, office buildings, and restaurants. I always assumed the tendency would be to lean away from the Royals, with the renaming of places like Cobh (previously Queenstown), but I was wrong to assume (we all know the saying about this bad habit). In fact, I visited two different Irish estates while in the Republic (built by folks with Irish ancestry), and both featured spectacular walled English-Victorian gardens, designed as a nod to the Queen.
  3. Partitioned cemetery plots are designed for religious reasons. Now this may be the silliest assumption that I had going into the trip. Cemetery plots in Ireland are (generally) small, walled-off plots with white stones/gravel covering the area where a loved one is buried. Memorial stones, picture frames, flowers, statues of the Virgin Mary, rosary beads, etc., are left on the gravel stones in remembrance of the individual. I always assumed (again, I know) that the Irish designed these plots for purely religious reasons. However, the plots also serve another function; again, because Ireland is an island! It is too difficult to bury an individual to the depth that we do in the U.S., and therefore stones are added on top to protect the body.
  4. In summer, the sun will set around 8:30. Haha! Nope. More like 10:00-10:30. Thank goodness for room-darkening shades.

I decided to share these examples, not because you might have been under the same assumptions, but because I wanted to encourage everyone to be more inquisitive. I asked the Irish A LOT of questions while in Ireland. And because of this, I met and spoke to some of the nicest, most interesting people. I heard a more intimate perspective of Irish history and culture, which I would have missed if I relied only on Google. So, I am grateful that I came to the Island with my assumptions; without them I would have missed my opportunity to have a personal connection to Ireland and my heritage. Míle Buíochas!

About Lindsay Fulton

Lindsay Fulton joined the Society in 2012, first a member of the Research Services team, and then a Genealogist in the Library. She has been the Director of Research Services since 2016. In addition to helping constituents with their research, Lindsay has also authored a Portable Genealogists on the topics of Applying to Lineage Societies, the United States Federal Census, 1790-1840 and the United States Federal Census, 1850-1940. She is a frequent contributor to the NEHGS blog, Vita-Brevis, and has appeared as a guest on the Extreme Genes radio program. Before, NEHGS, Lindsay worked at the National Archives and Records Administration in Waltham, Massachusetts, where she designed and implemented an original curriculum program exploring the Chinese Exclusion Era for elementary school students. She holds a B.A. from Merrimack College and M.A. from the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

17 thoughts on “Misconceptions of an American

  1. My husband and I toured Ireland in 2009. One of the things that surprised us that that we never found a nice rack of lamb on dinner menus in Ireland. With all those sheep, you’d think lamb would be prominently featured on restaurant menus. When we asked our guide about it, she said most of the sheep are raised for wool, and that when the Irish eat lamb, it is imported from New Zealand!

  2. If I were asked my ethnic heritage, I would have to say mixed or American. My ancestors came from England, Scotland, Germany, and a few other places. They arrived in America at various times between 1620 and 1895.

    1. Many moons ago, I worked as a tour guide/ bus driver in Yellowstone National Park. I was frequently asked by foreign tourists about my ancestry. People would stop me when I went into a detailed explanation and tell me to just say you are an American. I learned to just say American or sometimes a Heinz 57. I don’t consider myself anything but American. My ancestors came from nine or more countries all over Europe and the British isles. Some ancestors came here nearly 400 years ago. But my maternal grandfather was born in the the Tirol in Austria.

  3. I am sorry to speak so strongly but I am shocked that this post went out from this respected organization. The naivete and misinformation took my breath away. It should be deleted. Two major points.

    1–The Irish lived on potatoes, as you may have heard, because their land was taken from them and it was the only life-sustaining food they could grow on the very small plots they were forced to rent from wealthy English landowners. They raised few animals–not enough land to graze them on. When the fungus struck and the potato crops failed in the 1840s, a million people starved to death. A million people. A million people emigrated, including many readers’ ancestors. But Ireland had food–crops and animals were exported throughout the Famine by the wealthy landowners as people died all around them. Ireland raises cattle and sheep today because it is more profitable. And lamb is on the menu everywhere–I have had it many times on my trips to Ireland.

    2–The British aristocracy and the Royals were despised throughout Ireland for centuries and with good reason. Ireland was an occupied nation for centuries, with all the cruelty that implies. Anything named for Queen Victoria or others was certainly not so named by the Irish. Do you know about the Rising of 1916? Do you know about the Irish war for independence? There is no room to give a complete history of Ireland here but I urge you or anyone else who is curious to choose one of the many books on the subject and inform yourself. Or at least take a look at Wikipedia. Look up Skibbereen, for instance.

    After nearly a century of independence, the majority of Irish people today do not hold the same strong views against the British royals. The Queen was well received when she visited in 2011. The UK is seen by many as a near neighbor with whom the Irish have much in common. And the UK has a large number of people of Irish descent or birth.

    Again, my apologies for speaking so strongly. But the writer of this post needs to do her homework and AmericanAncestors.org needs to check posts a little more carefully before they go out.

    1. Vita Brevis is a collection of blog posts, some of the authors work for the New England Historic Genealogical Society, other do not. But, regardless, Lindsay Fulton was writing personally about her thoughts and experiences on a recent trip … she is not writing about the potato famine or historical uprisings.

      I believe the writer of this post DID do her homework – she went to Ireland and learned what it is TODAY.

    2. Vita Brevis is not designed to provide the sort of unlimited historical perspective you suggest, Virginia. It is a blog, more informal than almost anything else NEHGS publishes, and posts like Lindsay’s are designed to offer impressions (or — as in this case — corrections) about the work being undertaken by the author.

      I regret that you find this post so jarring. It is one person’s perspective on a visit to an ancestral country — and while I can assure you that Lindsay is well aware of the history you cite, such a litany is not what she set out to provide. I trust you will find other posts on Irish subjects more to your taste, but Vita Brevis bloggers write about the things they wish to consider — full stop.

      1. My objection was to incorrect facts, facts of a most serious nature. No one expects the history of a subject in a blog post but major errors of fact must be called out. They required a more detailed reply than I would normally consider.

        I am a fan of Vita Brevis and enjoy all the posts, often expressing my appreciation to the writers. I have never had occasion to raise such issues before and hope never to again.

        1. It seems that none of the errors you mention are found in Lindsay Fulton’s post, which speaks of at times surprising (to her) contrasts between what she had learned of Ireland’s history and the way Ireland is today.

    3. Virginia-

      When individuals feel ashamed or embarrassed about their lack of knowledge, they don’t ask the necessary questions to expand their understanding of a culture, historical event, concept, etc. Asking good, well-thought-out questions, of those who are knowledgeable about a topic, will only make an individual more understanding and empathetic. So, while your intention was to shame me and my lack of knowledge about the famine (of which I made no mention), you have, inadvertently, made my point.

      Thank you for reading and providing your perspective.


      1. Lindsay,
        I wrote to correct serious errors of fact in your post for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the history of Ireland. As you discussed farming practices, reference to the Famine in my reply was necessary. I am puzzled that you think I wrote to ‘shame’ you. I do not engage in such practices. Your interests would be best served by not blaming others and by resolving to know your facts before you publish.

      2. Some people seem to be either intentionally misreading this blog or so alarmist in their own heads about Irish history they are unable to “read” or see it as it is, for what it is!

        One example is that you state you thought “Farmers in Ireland grow vegetables,” but found out they do not. This seems to lead (by what path I do not know) that you don’t know that the Irish – at one time – lived on potatoes, a vegetable!

        I thank you, Lindsay, for writing about your trip, asking questions, and learning about current day Ireland.

        I just hope that these alarmist responses have not lead to the immediately following proposal of reduced Vita Brevis postings. That would be a terrible shame.

    4. Part of the reason that many Irish starved during the famine was because the soil was too poor to grow any crop, including potatoes, so it’s not surprising that it still isn’t arable.

      My great-grandfather’s family actually raised cattle in Ireland for generations, on leased land, during the 19th century. When his father died fairly young, his mother gave up the cattle and raised sheep. I suppose my ancestors faired a bit better than most during the famine, as none left Ireland until after the famine.

      But, more to the point, this blog post was about one person’s experience in MODERN Ireland, and how some people’s preconceptions of MODERN Ireland may be incorrect. The blog post wasn’t presented as a history lesson. (I believe the blogger assumed we knew the history). Omission of Ireland’s history here shouldn’t be construed as “misinformation.”

  4. I enjoyed your post, as I have every post of yours which I have had the pleasure to read, and I commend you for exploring those pieces of your ancestry, traveling, asking many questions and sharing what you learned. You are an inspiration to this old genealogy loving gal, who may or may not have Irish roots! History is important, but so isn’t what we learn and experience today. Please keep sharing what you experience.

  5. Traveling to an ancestral land is a rare treat, and a chance to see how that place has moved on from the issues that caused the immigrant to come to this country. As genealogists, we often have studied the history of each country as our ancestors knew it and that just might be way off the mark for today. Loved your trip to Ireland, Lindsay. My bucket list includes Sweden and Scotland…

  6. I, too, was left disturbed by this post from the NEGHS.

    1. Ireland’s farming communities were forever changed by the genocide of An Gorta Mor when almost all farm converted to pastures for animals. British political élite and the middle class of the late 1840s, who lived in England but owned the land of Ireland, held three main ideologies which denied responsibility, thus, excused relief:
    ▪ The economic doctrines of laissez-faire, held that there should be as little government interference with the economy as possible.
    ▪ The Protestant evangelical belief in divine Providence described the famine as ‘a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence’, one which laid bare ‘the deep and inveterate root of Irish social evil’; and
    ▪ Moralism which held that the Irish suffered from fundamental defects in morals rather than true financial hardship. Serious defects in the Irish “national character” included disorder, violence, filth, laziness, and a lack of self-reliance. The Irish could unlearn their dependence on government and be taught self-reliance only through this hardship or rightfully die trying.

    2. My three weeks traveling both the Republic Ireland and Northern Ireland on my own to visit to several of the 7 counties of my ancestry evidenced that plenty of the Irish remain rather unhappy with the rule of the British Crown, both past and present. I suggest a visit to Newtownmountkendedy in Co. Wixlow to visit a memorial to Captain Robert Monteith of Banna Strand fame; he is interred in Southfield, Michigan. This topic is again a hot ticket item given the issue of Brexit and the very real risk of breach of the Good Friday Agreement by a re-established hard border.

    3. As with many islands (like Malta) land was and is valuable for going food and housing living people. Moreover, as is common across humanity, we like to be buried with those we loved and lost. In Ireland family plots are intended to hold many people interred together; think about those burial baskets. My visit to the Shinn graveyard in Co. Down, where my 2GGP are interred, proved it to be very small but brilliantly beautiful. Like most graveyards in Ireland, it is up to family members to keep their plots free of weeds and in good shape. The family is also responsible for placing a headstone and keeping it in good condition by cleaning, re-engraving, or replacement when necessary. Where the Church has demand for burials of locals but no spare plots exist, the Church can re-use long-ignored plots after required notice.

    4. All this Michigander can say is Google the “45th Parallel and sunset.”

    There is nothing cute about making uneducated assumptions about other cultures, let alone voicing those assumption in the home country of that culture. Isn’t there someone at NEGHS that educates his/her peers about the history of the Irish and Ireland so that they are not operating off assumptions? Your editor should ask: Would I publish a similar article with assumptions about Africa? or even worse the British?

    1. Thanks for your views, Abigail. You have aired your position fully — so fully it might be its own blog post — and yet you have missed the point of the blog and Lindsay’s post: here at Vita Brevis we allow our contributors to write about the things they are studying or working through.

      My role, as the blog’s editor, is to help contributors shape their thoughts to elicit a reasoned response. My role is not to direct the outcome. Nor is it to publish posts for the ages, including all information amassed on a subject, without loose ends or second thoughts. NEHGS has multiple outlets for fully-sourced, exhaustive accounts of work undertaken by staff members; Vita Brevis is something else, where posts offer a momentary insight as often as they provide a neat conclusion to a research problem.

      I should point out something that is implicit in many Vita Brevis posts: our contributors uniformly have more expertise than they claim, but they don’t always lead with their expertise. Instead, they walk alongside their readers through the thought process behind the resolution to the question at hand. Please do not mistake this informality for a lack of skill, and kindly treat all bloggers with the respect they deserve.

  7. Someone needs to teach the Irish how to take land with thin soil and build it up. It takes a generation or two but it can be done about an inch a year. Given that, it would take more than a generation to get to six feet.

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