The British, the Germans and the Irish: A Look at How Traditions Survive Emigration

by Mike Kimel

The British, the Germans and the Irish: A Look at How Traditions Survive Emigration

Between 1921 and the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, about 70% of those admitted into the US came from the UK, Ireland, and Germany. In a roundabout way, I want to discuss what that has meant for the US. But first, I’d like to regale you, the reader, with a paragraph long digression.

Because I never really developed an attention span until I was about 40, I didn’t quite learned to study properly and ended up having to wing my way through school. So while I enjoy what I do tremendously, a part of me occasionally thinks wistfully that in an alternate universe, I might have become a physicist. Perhaps as a result, I pay a dilettante’s attention to the hard and life sciences. Here or there, it’s enough for me to recite the journalist’s summary of what is going on in a field of research though I won’t pretend that conveys any real understanding.

Still, from an “everybody needs a hobby” perspective, I can name a lot of scientists. More precisely, I can name a lot of German scientists, and most of them would be physicists. I can name a lot of British scientists as well. But what about Irish scientists? Well, Robert Boyle, truly one of the gods, if lower cased, comes to mind. There is also, well, (cough to clear throat), um… crickets. So I went to Google which sent me to someone’s list of the top 10 Irish scientists of all time. On this list, Boyle comes in at number two, after Ernest Walton, described as the only Irish science Nobel laureate. To quote the article, “He and John Cockroft “split the atom” (disintegrated lithium) using the first successfully built particle accelerator, built by Walton,at Cambridge in 1931.” (I note that Cambridge, of course, is not in Ireland.)

Number three on the list is Shackleford – a great explorer, no doubt, but not a scientist at all. George Boole is fifth on the list. He too was not a scientist. By this I mean no disrespect – Boole was a very fine mathematician. Anyway, the point is, historically great Irish scientists have been more scarce than great German or British scientists. That probably indicates that the Irish produced fewer scientists, in general, than Britain or Germany on an absolute or per capita basis. It also appears to still be true today.

(As an aside, greater or fewer world class scientists is not as related to population as you might think. I lived much of my life in Latin America and the only well-known Latin American scientist that comes to mind as I write this is Oswaldo Cruz. Furthermore, I believe he is primarily known for the institute based in Rio named after him. Without looking him up, I cannot tell you what he did that was notable, and my bet is, neither can you.)

But Ireland does produce writers. Great writers. Good writers. Lousy writers. Magnificent writers. Even, occasionally, sober writers. There’s Jonathan Swift and Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett and a zillion and a half others. (Joyce doesn’t do it for me, but YMMV.) So for the last however many hundred years, the Irish haven’t produced scientists the way that Britain and Germany have, but the Irish have generated a lot of writers. (This is not to say the Brits and the Germans have slacked off in the writing department either, mind you.) Call that tendency to generate writers rather scientists whatever you’d like, but culture is as good a word for it as any. And that culture, or the cultural difference between Ireland and the UK and Germany has lasted at least since the industrial age.

Now, the interesting thing is that the culture or cultural difference doesn’t appear to be entirely geographically specific. It seems to carry to places and times where you find people of Irish, British or German descent. American scientists with English or Scottish last names are a dime a dozen. American scientists with German last names are probably a nickel a dozen. Think Edison, Franklin, the Wright brothers, Oppie, Pauling, E O Wilson, Watson and (I would guess) Alan Guth (to throw on a recent addition). That’s keeping it very short. Include immigrants and now we’re talking Einstein, Crick, Mayr and Alexander Graham Bell. A list for which someone like Hans Bethe is qualified but doesn’t qualify qualifies as one hell of a list.

But for Irish American scientists… I drew a blank. So I looked it up and ended up at Wikipedia. Here’s what their list looks like as of this writing:

Michael Collins – astronaut with Gemini 10 and Apollo 11 missions
Jim Collins – Rhodes Scholar, MacArthur genius, bioengineer and inventor
John Philip Holland – inventor of the submarine; Fenian
Charles McBurney – medical pioneer
Charles Townes – physicist, Nobel Prize in Physics laureate

First off, Michael Collins was not a scientist. He was a test-pilot, an astronaut, and later an administrator. None of that is bad, but it doesn’t make him a scientist. I’ve heard a few stories about Charlie Townes and he certainly was a first scientist but I haven’t heard him compared to Linus Pauling or Albert Einstein either. I haven’t heard of the rest – they seem like interesting people, no doubt smarter and more productive than I, but pound for pound we probably aren’t talking about Thomas Edison or James Watson.

Now Irish American writers on the other hand… well, here we have Poe, Fitzgerald, London, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and sooo many more. Even if the list stopped with the names I mentioned (and as an aside, I think a couple of them were sober a lot of the time), heck, even if it stopped at Poe (not sober), it would be a list of formidable contenders for pretty much anything. Only for completeness, I will add that of course, the American descendants of British and German citizens have also generated magnificent authors as well.

So where am I going with this? Well, it appears that some cultural traits seem to carry, both geographically and temporally. I note this seems to apply more widely than just Europe and the USA. Having spent a bit of time in Argentina, I note that it too is home to a fair number of German, British, and Irish descended individuals. I believe the same pattern (Irish = writers, but not scientists) applies there. Wikipedia’s list of Irish Argentines may not, of course, be definitive, but while it includes a number of writers and a couple of doctors, unless I’m missing something, it includes no scientists.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no impediment, legal or otherwise, to the Irish people or their descendants becoming scientists. Members of the Irish diaspora have been in the US (and Argentina and who knows where else) for a long time now, and yet, relative to say German and UK descendants, they produce relative few scientists per writer. Just like the home country. So here is an example of a transplanted culture nevertheless lasting a long time.

A few notes in closing. First, the Irish, British, and Germans aren’t the only groups to behave in this way. For example,

More than half a million women and girls in the U.S. are estimated to be affected or at risk of FGM, according to the Population Reference Bureau (PRB), a nonprofit organization that released statistics on FGM earlier this year. The number of those at risk has more than doubled in roughly the past decade, according to the PRB.

Officials from various organizations say the main reasons include population growth, and the fact that more families are immigrating to America, and bringing their traditions with them.

I would venture to guess the Irish diaspora doesn’t play a prominent part in this particular practice. I would even double down and state that the descendants of British and Germans of a few hundred years ago probably also aren’t the target audience for FGM either. I would reckon the bulk of the FGM enthusiasts in the US either emigrated from countries where it is practiced, or are descended from those who did.

Second, there are exceptions to the scenario noted in this post. There are groups that develop new traditions, or abandon old ones upon emigration. (Well, kinda sorta, and maybe less than you think.) How that happens, why, under what conditions, and to whom, will be covered in a later post.

Implications of all of this will also come in later posts.