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How Irish Are People Who Identify As ‘Irish-American’?

It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and as a person who is partly of Irish ancestry, I’ve always been curious about how other people with a similar background navigate the identifier “Irish-American.” It’s a fuzzy line — I know people who are three-quarters Irish but don’t identify as Irish-American. I also know people who are a quarter Irish and consider themselves Irish-American.

Irish-American isn’t a particularly exclusive club; according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 10.5 percent of Americans identify as being of Irish ancestry — roughly 33.3 million people. The only larger heritage identification is German.

So let’s try to figure out how much Irish heritage people who identify as Irish-American have. I went into this with the assumption — developed over years of growing up among Catholics, predominantly Irish-Catholics — that people who identify as having Irish heritage tend to know to a decent degree of precision their ancestry.

And that was borne out. I asked SurveyMonkey Audience to ask people whether they have any Irish heritage and, if so, to estimate what fraction of their heritage is Irish. We also asked respondents whether they identify as Irish-American.

The survey had 1,044 respondents in total, 430 of whom claimed to have some Irish heritage. Of those, 126 indicated that they identify as Irish-American. That’s 12 percent, which is in line with the Census Bureau’s finding, so our sample seems OK.

Anyway, get this: Of the 430 people who claimed to have some Irish heritage, 423 volunteered a fraction or a percentage. This appears to jibe with my “Irish-Americans know a lot about their background” theory.

The results:

  • The vast majority of the 176 respondents who reported being less than one-quarter Irish heritage did not identify as Irish-American.
  • About a quarter of the 110 respondents who reported they were precisely one-fourth Irish descent — such as having one grandparent of Irish heritage — identified as Irish-American.
  • The inflection point here seems to be anything from more than one-fourth Irish heritage up to and including one-half. Fifty-five percent of those 96 respondents reported that they considered themselves Irish-American.
  • People who are more than one-half Irish heritage probably consider themselves Irish-American. Of the 41 respondents who reported that they were more than one-half Irish heritage, 78 percent identified as Irish-American.

This makes sense to me, personally. There’s no “line in the sand.” Heritage is a complex and nuanced issue in the U.S. — shocker, I know — and particularly with a group that mostly emigrated several generations ago.

But this isn’t — pardon the pun, but there’s really no way around this — a “no true Scotsman” situation. Across the board, 3 in 5 respondents said they’d participated in St. Patrick’s Day festivities, so clearly the holiday has a broad appeal.

But, seriously, if anyone offers you soda bread, just pretend you’re off carbs — that stuff is gross.

Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.

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