Going beyond wearing green Citizenship: Thousands of Americans, mark St. Patrick's Day as dual citizens of Ireland and the United States

March 17, 1998|By Sean Somerville | Sean Somerville,SUN STAFF

Standing under a Guinness Stout sign as an unofficial emcee of Baltimore's St. Patrick's Day Parade, Michael O'Shea might easily be regarded as an occasional Irishman who appears for festivities every March 17. But he's not.

By his count, O'Shea has been to Ireland 60 times -- enough, he laughs, that he should buy a house there. Years ago, he embarked on an increasingly typical undertaking to express his heritage: O'Shea became an Irish citizen.

"The want to do it traces back to my childhood, listening to mother and father talk about their parents who came to this country," said O'Shea, the 55-year-old majority owner of Mick O'Shea's restaurant on Charles Street. "I've not been a green-beer drinking Irishman, just someone who has a love of Ireland."

O'Shea is one of about 14,000 Americans who have become citizens of Ireland over the past 10 years -- the highest number in any decade since Ireland passed a law allowing dual citizenship 42 years ago. And a hefty majority of the applications were processed in the past five years.

In 1997, the Irish government gave out roughly twice as many passports to Americans as it did a decade earlier. The growing interest signals a larger trend: Many Irish-Americans, who for years have celebrated today's holiday by donning green and watching bagpipers from curbside, are moving closer to the real thing.

The Irish Voice in New York has been inundated with so many inquiries about citizenship that the newspaper recently published a pullout section with step-by-step instructions.

"Years ago, there was a large, undocumented Irish population that wanted to know how to become American," said Debbie McGoldrick, the paper's editor and the author of an immigration column. "Now, there are a great number of Irish-Americans looking to become Irish citizens."

Several types of connections to Ireland qualify a person for citizenship. Children of at least one parent born in Ireland are automatically considered citizens.

Those who have one grandparent born in Ireland also qualify, but must apply at one of the four Irish consulates in the United States or at the Embassy of Ireland in Washington.

Under certain circumstances, spouses of Irish citizens and some of those with an Irish-born great-grandparent can qualify.

Getting Irish citizenship is not purely a sentimental journey. A holder of an Irish passport can live and work in Ireland or any of 14 other member states in the European Union. Ownership of an Irish passport does not affect U.S. citizenship. And there's no need to worry about Irish taxes unless a passport holder lives in Ireland.

Adrian O'Neill, a spokesman for the Embassy of Ireland in Washington, said the number of Americans seeking Irish passports began to rise in the 1980s.

"A lot of people applying in the 1980s were doing it for the practical value," he said, referring to the economic benefits. "In the 1990s, Ireland and things Irish are enjoying a certain prestige in the United States. That is more a motivating force now than practicality."

U.S. theaters throb with Riverdance, a celebration of Irish dance. Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes," an account of the author's childhood poverty in Ireland, has held a spot on the best-seller list for 78 weeks. Movies such as "Michael Collins" have tackled Ireland's sectarian violence for American viewers.

Baltimore is no exception to the surge in Irish interest. The General Assembly is considering legislation to require the teaching of Ireland's potato famine in 1847.

O'Shea said his grandparents on both sides left Ireland decades after the famine, mostly because of abiding poverty. His parents, born in the United States, remained patriotic to Ireland.

"My mom sang the songs and talked the talk," said O'Shea, who is also owner of O'Shea Lumber. "She made sure her Michael had a bit of green on when I went to school in a blue uniform. And I remember that I couldn't watch Alfred Hitchcock because he was British."

When O'Shea and other Irish- Americans visit the mother country, one fact becomes apparent very quickly: This is not their grandfathers' Ireland.

Haunted for years by poverty and persecution, the country now has one of Europe's healthiest economies.

Boosted by European Union subsidies, the Irish economy grew by 8.5 percent last year, with annual inflation of 1.6 percent. Ireland, which lost 26,000 of its 3.5 million people a year as recently as 1991, is no longer losing more people than it's gaining.

That prosperity has meant work, for thousands of returning Irish and for some passport-holding Americans.

The Irish government does not keep track of the number of U.S. citizens with Irish passports, or how many Americans with Irish passports live and work in Ireland, O'Neill said. Experts say that number remains small.

But Scott Simons, a Californian who immigrated to Ireland, said his "Move to Ireland" Web site gets about 4,000 hits a week. Describing a village life that offers stability, he said: "It's America in the '50s. Why not move here?"

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