London: What Does It Mean to Say You’re From Somewhere?

Thomas Devlin
Thomas Devlin explores Ireland and discusses what it means to be American.

Is it possible to be from a place you’ve never been?

This may seem like an obvious no, but for a long time, I was very convinced that I was Irish. When people asked where I was from, the idea of responding “America” never occurred to me.

In fairness to myself, I’m not alone in my thinking. One of the most memorable experiences of my middle school life was when a history teacher had us go around and say where we were from. I am from a very white hometown, and as expected, every student in the room said some combination of European countries. I proudly said that I was 100 percent Irish (really, I’m astonished that three generations of my family have managed to not intermingle with anyone of a different ancestry). At the end, the teacher announced in a chipper voice, “No, you’re all American.” But it didn’t sink in. After all, I look like I belong on a box of Lucky Charms.

And for someone who has lived in the same place for his entire life, I really should have been more certain about my identity. Most people’s identity crises happen after they’ve moved all around the world, and I was always a white kid from Douglas, Massachusetts. As I’d gotten older, I’d come to realize how dumb it is to say I’m Irish when I hadn’t even been near the Emerald Isle. Still, there was always a part of me that thought I was Irish at heart.

Then I went to Ireland. For those of you who haven’t checked your Revolution Anniversary calendar lately, this year marks 100 years since the Easter Rising in Ireland. And if you’re not sure what that is, then you are a lot like I was a few weeks ago. The Easter Rising was the last of many attempts for Ireland to break away from England — this is the one that was successful. However, “successful” may be too positive a word, though, because all of the leaders were executed. But a few years later, Ireland broke away from the British monarchy in the aftermath of World War I.

This was a pretty big weekend for Ireland — like American Independence Day but with fewer fireworks and more Guinness. Dublin had not just one but two parades to commemorate the event, and all around were celebrations of Irish history, of which, it slowly dawned on me, I knew almost nothing.

What really hammered home how out of place I was in Ireland was the parade. As I stood there, not knowing it was the Irish president who laid out a wreath to commemorate those who died a century ago, everyone began to sing the Irish national anthem “Amhran na bhFiann.” And I stood there, looking confused. For so long, I thought being Irish was an integral part of myself. Even though I love the city, my time in Dublin reinforced a horribly obvious conclusion about myself: I’m not Irish.
I’m an American.

Email Thomas Devlin at [email protected]

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