Ethnicity and Generation


This contribution explores the ethnic identity of the contemporary descendants of Irish immigrants who came to America between 1847 and 1854, during and after the Great Famine, who are now of the fifth and sixth generation. Most first-generation Irish-born immigrants were English-speakers, who freely intermarried with other English-speaking immigrants from England, Wales and Scotland, and second-generation Americans whose parents were from other European countries. Generation upon generation of subsequent intermarriage has resulted in individuals with very mixed ancestries. As people have become hybridised through intermarriage, their categorical identities in a society in which everyone is nonetheless assumed to have a distinct ethnic or categorical identity have become increasingly uncertain and ambiguous. For a large number of Americans whose ancestry is complicated or indeterminate, "ethnic identity" is an empty vessel, which can be filled (or not, as the individual wishes) with whatever content he or she likes. In those situations, ironically now more frequent than in the past when individuals are called upon to state or perform "an ethnic identity, "their choices range from the strategic and situational, to the arbitrary and capricious. This contribution thus raises questions about the limits, and future, of concepts such as "roots" and "ethnicity" in polyethnic and multicultural societies where free intermarriage across categorical boundaries over the generations blurs and ultimately dissolves such boundaries.

How to Cite

Byron, R., (1998) “Ethnicity and Generation”, Ethnologia Europaea 28(1), 27-36. doi:

Publisher Notes

  • This article was previously published by Museum Tusculanum Press.


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Reginald Byron (University of Wales)



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