How do we talk about the IRA? How do we talk about the North?

One of my perennial problems with American tv shows with occasional British themes is the way in which Irishness is leveraged. Irishmen are either IRA terrorists or benevolent barkeeps. Irishwoman are almost universally objects to be had by charming American male leads. Stereotypes aside, for the time being, I have noticed a trend in recent portrayals of the ‘nasty’ IRA mode of Irishman. A recent episode of ‘Human Target’ featured an ex-IRA ‘enforcer’ who makes good by helping the British royal he once put a bounty on. Movies like ‘Boondock Saints’ feature thuggish men with northern accents who make good by ridding Boston of bad guys. Is the implication that (a) all Irishmen with northern accents are IRA men? and (b) that consequently all Irishmen with northern accents owe something to either the U.S. or Britain?

Narratives about Northern Ireland in the American press are few and far between. A botched car bombing in Derry in November got almost no attention in the U.S. press, marching day riots receive little but brief mention while the publication of the Saville report, arguably one of the more important news items vis-a-vis northern Ireland in recent years garnered three mentions in the New York Times, one of them in an op-Ed written by Bono. However, northern Irish characters seem to pop up regularly in American television, from Leverage to Lie to Me to Human Target to Burn Notice. These characters are a knowable unknowable – exotic enough to be a change-up from the normal thuggery, but familiar enough to make audiences receptive. Frequently, these characters find redemption in the end, or die protecting ‘worthy’ American or British allies.

In the most recent iteration of the Sherlock Holmes cannon, Moriarty is cast a dilettante Irishman, a modern day Oscar Wilde, but with a northern accent. Are we to learn that only non-northerners can be trusted? That northern Irishmen can only be redeemed through service to crown or American flag? Or is this simply a correlation/causation problem, based on the assumption that Americans can’t recognize Derry from Dublin, let alone Ireland from Scotland?

If the myth of Irish-America is one of the 26 counties rather than the 32, how do we teach Irish-American or even Irish history in America? Put another way, if the only Irish that we accept in American popular culture are from the republic, how can we responsibly talk about the 6?

In terms of teaching Irish and British history, how do we undermine the othering of Northern Ireland without giving students the impression that we are advocating for violent republicanism?

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