“Do they have traffic lights in Ireland?”

By Deidre Hutchison

“Do they have traf­fic lights in Ire­land?” This was a naive ques­tion posed to my cousin on a vis­it to the Unit­ed States in the 1980s. To my pre-teen intel­lect, this was the kind of insult that demon­strat­ed the height of Amer­i­can igno­rance my friends and I so often scoffed at. There was laugh­ter at such a ludi­crous concept.

The image of Ire­land as back­ward bor­dered on com­i­cal and more often, irri­tat­ing. After all, we were a nation with a deep his­to­ry and a rich cul­ture with lit­er­ary giants like James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and W.B. Yeats. Musi­cal­ly, we boast­ed the renowned tal­ent of every­thing from The Dublin­ers and Thin Lizzy to the glob­al phe­nom­e­non of U2. In our minds, we might be a small island, but we were extreme­ly proud and accomplished.

As a teen, it was easy for me to bask in the smug supe­ri­or­i­ty of my deep and event­ful her­itage. Despite my youth­ful dis­mis­sive inter­est in my country’s his­to­ry or lit­er­ary tal­ent, I was swift in its defense of crit­i­cism or judg­ment by out­siders, espe­cial­ly if they were Amer­i­can. There was a cer­tain air of con­de­scen­sion among my peers on the idea of his­tor­i­cal cul­ture with­in the U.S. To us, “Amer­i­can Cul­ture” was an oxy­moron. In my mind, gain­ing inde­pen­dence in the late 18th cen­tu­ry hard­ly qual­i­fied. His­tor­i­cal­ly, the Unit­ed States were just out of dia­pers. How could such a mod­ern soci­ety com­pete with Euro­pean coun­tries’ cul­tures that were thou­sands of years old?

Yet, it is this ‘moder­ni­ty’ that drew hun­dreds of thou­sands of Irish like me to the Unit­ed States. It had glam­our and glitz, dri­ve throughs and Hol­ly­wood, big cars and even big­ger hous­es. It was a land of excess. Promis­es of wealth and oppor­tu­ni­ty. These were the shiny daz­zling baubles that tempt­ed me. I was will­ing to over­come the short­com­ings of a lack of cul­ture for the mate­r­i­al rewards I was des­per­ate to expe­ri­ence. And I was not dis­ap­point­ed: Amer­i­ca has all of the above in abun­dance. The dri­ve to suc­ceed per­me­ates all areas of life and is a strong trait that has cat­a­pult­ed the coun­try into a glob­al world pow­er. There is a men­tal­i­ty of ‘any­thing goes’ which is lib­er­at­ing and allows for self-improve­ment – be it mate­r­i­al or emo­tion­al – that is not just embraced, but hearti­ly cel­e­brat­ed. It is this mind­set that gave me the courage to attend col­lege for the first time as an adult in my late for­ties. And so my edu­ca­tion began.

“My Favorite Books.” Cred­it: Deirdre Hutchison

As a his­to­ry major, I delved into the unend­ing tales of Euro­pean his­to­ry. Amer­i­can his­to­ry, an obvi­ous required com­po­nent of any under­grad­u­ate his­to­ry degree in the U.S., filled me with dread. In all hon­esty, the word ‘bor­ing’ came to mind. My old igno­rance was alive and well. A pro­fes­sor teased that he would con­vert me to Amer­i­can his­to­ry, but I doubt­ed I could be swayed. Sev­er­al class­es lat­er, I’m hum­bled by the lev­el of my own igno­rance and prej­u­dice. Every book  I’ve read and every course I’ve has deep­ened my under­stand­ing of an unde­ni­ably event­ful his­to­ry. Advanced civ­i­liza­tions that rivaled any of its Euro­pean coun­ter­parts exist­ed long before Euro­pean invaders cov­et­ed the pros­per­ous land. In light of my illu­mi­nat­ing edu­ca­tion, I’m both mor­ti­fied and hum­bled by my own igno­rance. I also smile at how fit­ting it is that the edu­ca­tion of my mind took place in the coun­try I once believed to be cul­tur­al­ly infe­ri­or to my home­land. Ear­li­er reser­va­tions are fad­ing, and I find myself excit­ed and des­per­ate to learn more about the Unit­ed States. Undoubt­ed­ly, the U.S. has a rich, com­plex, and diverse cul­ture and clear­ly one that I can learn from. It can rival any coun­try, even Ire­land. And yes, we do have traf­fic lights in Ire­land. Naivete and igno­rance often swings many ways.

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After work­ing for many years and rais­ing two chil­dren, Deirdre Hutchi­son is pur­su­ing a degree in His­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts, Low­ell. In her spare time, she likes to read, trav­el and spend time with her family.