The Continuing love affair of American tourists with Ireland

Wednesday, May 29, 2024. 11:43am
The Continuing love affair of American tourists with Ireland

Why Americans Love Ireland

One year on St. Patrick’s Day, an American friend posted a meme on Facebook. It was a photo of someone gazing directly into the camera, wearing an indulgent smile. The meme’s text read: Go on, tell me how you’re Irish.

I had to laugh because the meme was true. Given a chance, almost any American would love to tell you about their Irish ancestry. It’s no secret that the whole world loves Ireland and that Americans are among its most obsessive fans. But why?

I grew up in the American countryside. We didn’t have Chicago’s massive green river or the crowds or pubs of New York City, but St. Patrick’s Day was nevertheless occasion for celebration. I was too young to wonder why. Had someone asked me, I might have ventured a childish guess that had something to do with shamrocks and leprechauns, a vague notion of Ireland that I’d been fed by the cartoon imagery on the Lucky Charms cereal box. When I grew a little older, I might have parroted the phrase ‘luck of the Irish’ or referred to the Scotch-Irish immigrants our teachers said had settled our Appalachian valley. One of my own ancestors had been among them, but I didn’t fully absorb this piece of our family’s history until I was nearly old enough to attend university. Prior to that, all I knew was that St. Patrick’s Day brought general good humour and corned beef and cabbage for dinner.

I was nearly forty before I visited Ireland for the first time. I was travelling with a friend, and we happily did what other visitors do: ate fish and chips in Temple Bar, paid exorbitant prices for Irish tea and woollen sweaters, toured Kilmainham Gaol, and walked the campus of Trinity College. Hiring a car, we drove from Dublin to County Mayo. Exploring the fields and forest around our hotel—wandering among the intense emerald hues of grass and moss-slicked stones and lichen-wrapped trees—I felt cradled in an ancient story and thought I understood the fervour for this country. The realisation disconcerted me. I’ve never liked the feeling of being part of a crowd. I worried that I might be subscribing to a collective American tendency toward over-romanticisation.

I couldn’t help it, though—I liked Ireland. I liked both its wild natural scenery and how its stone walls sought to bring order to the land. I was enchanted by the castles and in awe of the stunning cliffs. I liked Dublin too and how its literary heritage—Joyce and Beckett and Wilde—was painted across its walls. And there was no denying that everyone—from taxi drivers to hotel staff members to shopkeepers—had been friendly to us. They’d seemed keen to go out of their way to offer help. It wasn’t a cold, professional courtesy we’d felt. It was more relaxed than that, an underlying kindness frequently peppered with stories or curse words or jokes. It was coloured by each person’s individual mood, which only made it seem more genuine. We left Ireland feeling that we’d stayed in the home of friends.

The Continuing love affair of American tourists with Ireland

‘What do you think?’ I asked an American friend when I called him for his take on the matter. He lives in Colorado and has visited Ireland four times.

‘It’s the friendliness,’ he said without me saying it first. ‘But Americans also have a romantic idea about going back to the place where their great-grandparents are from. I think the Irish people come across as fun and free-spirited too, and I think Americans like to feel a connection with that. It gives them an escape from their everyday lives.’

I couldn’t disagree with him about the Irish reputation for having fun. On the other hand, I could think of other countries where Americans enjoyed letting loose—countries like Mexico or Thailand or the Bahamas. None of them, however, have achieved the shine that Ireland holds in the collective American consciousness.

One American ex-patriate in Dublin says it’s down to successful travel marketing. A resident of Dublin for the past several years, he says friendliness has nothing to do with it. Not that the Irish aren’t friendly, he says, it’s just that he believes most people in the world are, in fact,friendly. Instead, he attributes the American obsession with Ireland to images of the country perpetuated by glossy travel advertisements and by the massive party that’s become St. Patrick’s Day in America. A first-hand witness to Chicago’s celebration, he says it does a disservice to the richness of Irish culture.

‘It becomes a Mardi Gras atmosphere,’ he says. ‘It’s absolutely wild. A lot of Irish stereotypes come out that day. Then Americans come over here to Ireland expecting to find a place where they can cavort and drink Guinness all day long. I don’t think a lot of the Americans are coming here for the history or for the literature. Or for the wonderful museums. And I think it really shows. When I have people come over from America, they have no idea what they want to do when they get here. They haven’t really thought about it. They haven’t really thought about what they want to see or find out.’

I could understand where he was coming from on the ‘party’ front. For two and a half years, I’ve lived at the edge of Temple Bar. You only have to walk through the neighbourhood at the weekend to see clusters of American tourists clutching pints, wearing the T-shirts and satisfied grins of travellers who’ve arrived at their intended destination.

But I also, after two and a half years, continue to encounter what strikes me as an exceptional tendency toward kindness and helpfulness among most Irish people I meet. It’s one of my favourite parts of living here. I don’t know its genesis, but I believe it’s attractive to Americans accustomed to a more every-man-for-himself mentality. Combined with Ireland’s stunning scenery and the healing notion of ‘going home’ to the starting point of one’s ancestors, it’s no surprise Americans find Ireland magnetic.

And if the wild party atmosphere of St. Patrick’s Day is any gauge, I suspect a lot of American tourists still don’t know that, beyond the edges of Temple Bar, they could go stand in the quiet of Marsh’s Library and breathe the smell of old books, or travel to Ardgillan Castle’s parklands and walk next to a carpet of butter-yellow daffodils. Some of them might not yet know about the heathland views in Connemara, the moody indigo storms along the Wild Atlantic Way, or the soaring Donegal cliffs.

The Continuing love affair of American tourists with Ireland

Which is to say that there’s still an incredible amount of room for discovery here and for Ireland’s hospitality industry to spread the word among would-be visitors. Once they do, there’s no telling just how in love with Ireland’s true nature Americans will be.

By Elizabeth Oxley | American journalist living in Ireland

Share this:

Explore topics: