Boston — Until four years ago, Mike O'Laughlin knew nothing about Ireland beyond the snatches of family history he had been told. Then the popular miniseries ''Roots'' aired on television, and Mike, a self-employed Kansas City, Mo., businessman, began to trace his own origins. Eventually they led him back to the country of his ancestors.
Now he is president of the fledgling Irish American Cultural Center in Kansas City - a year-old group that is collecting Irish-American memorabilia ranging from songs to the bricks the Irish used to build the city's streets.
Here in Boston, Frank Costello walks onto the practice field across from Harvard Stadium. A half-dozen teammates are already whacking around a soft leather ball with a cork center as he takes out his hurling stick. Hurling is the traditional game of Ireland.
''That little ball is a part of you,'' Frank Costello says. ''Every time you hit it - even if you're 3,000 miles away (from Ireland) - you're making a statement that the culture will never die.''
In Kansas City, in Boston - indeed all across the United States - a new sense of Irishness is emerging. New Irish-American groups are springing up and old ones, such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians, have been revitalized. The Hibernians even have an active chapter in Albuquerque, N.M., now.
''I never would have realized,'' says the order's national president, Joseph Roche, in New York, ''that out there they would thirst for Hibernianism.''
This flurry of activity signals that the descendants of the first great wave of immigrants to this country have gradually come full circle - from intense ties to the land of their heritage, to cultural submergence, to a reexamination of that heritage.
Even the communications media have picked up the cue. Last year PBS offered its stations around the country the 13-part series ''Ireland: a Television History,'' originally written and narrated for the British Broadcasing Corporation by Robert Kee. A major US publisher followed up by offering the material in book form.
This time, though, most of the ties to Ireland are confident, relaxed, and distinctly American. And that is something just being learned by a minority of Irish-Americans still shouting with the voice of the past.
''By 1960, the Irish had achieved every prize that America had to offer'' - including the Oval Office in the White House, says William Shannon, a Boston University professor and former US ambassador to Ireland. ''So that generation began the process of looking where it had come from.''
Irish-Americans 20 years ago gave their children Anglicized names, such as John, Professor Shannon says. Now, names like Sean and Eoin (the original Celtic version of John) are more prevalent.
''We used to think of ourselves in negative terms,'' agrees Kevin O'Neill, professor of Irish history at Boston College and a second-generation Irish-American. For the first time, that school is offering its students the opportunity to minor in Irish studies.
''We didn't go to dinner parties on Beacon Hill or visit the MFA (Museum of Fine Arts),'' Professor O'Neill says. ''But now the children of some of those Irish do attend Beacon Hill parties and visit the MFA. As Irish-Americans gained acceptance, their definition of themselves had to change.''
During his childhood, O'Neill learned little about Ireland from his parents. That part of his education came from the stories his Irish-born grandfather told and from books he read.
''I saw real parallels between my family and what I was reading in those books: the ferocious political orientation, the fierce Catholicism, the definition of success,'' he says. ''They put much more emphasis on status than on income.''
Other observers see more than just economic forces rekindling this ethnic awareness.
Raymond Wylie, associate professor of international relations at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., says the developments in strife-torn Ulster have stirred up political activity among Irish-Americans here.
Still, the vast majority have apparently confined their interest to culture - Irish music, literature, and language. And they have shied away from taking a stand on the complicated question of whether British-ruled Northern Ireland should be reunited with the Republic of Ireland.
''Ninety percent of Irish-Americans have never contributed a dime or dollar to the IRA,'' Shannon claims, referring to public support for the illegal provisional wing of the Irish Republican Army, which opposes British rule in Northern Ireland.
The steady growth in cultural appreciation, however, has been paralleled by the growth of a vocal minority that does take a vital interest in the troubles in Northern Ireland. The split between the two phenomena is clearest in Boston, New York, and other Irish-American strongholds.
Since the death of the imprisoned hunger-striker Bobby Sands, a Provisional IRA member, in 1981, support for nationalist groups has increased in the US. (In the lexicon of Northern Ireland, the economically and politically disadvantaged Nationalists - usually Roman Catholic - want to merge the north with the independent Republic of Ireland. They are opposed by Northern Ireland's majority Loyalists - usually Protestants - who want continued union with Britain.)
At the extreme are those Irish-Americans who buy and smuggle arms to the Provisional IRA.
In US District Court in Brooklyn in May, one American and three Northern Irishmen were found guilty of plotting to smuggle arms. According to the FBI, these were the first convictions in a series of cases against 18 IRA sympathizers in the US.
The US, Irish, and British governments are convinced that the group known as Irish Northern Aid (Noraid) is an agent of the Provisional IRA.
Two years ago, a US federal judge agreed and ordered that the group register as an agent of the Provisional IRA. Noraid, however, has never agreed to do this. It claims it sends funds exclusively to help the families of jailed members of the Provisional IRA.
Noraid is at the far edge of an array of strongly nationalist Irish-American groups.
Consider the Committee for United Ireland. Marion McCarthy, the quiet, calm Brookline, Mass., woman who is co-chairman of the group, says its main goal is to publicize alleged human rights abuses against the Nationalists in Ulster so an embarrassed Britain will withdraw. She and others don't support the Provisional IRA terrorist campaign against Unionists (and the British Army), but see it is as a natural outgrowth of what they call British oppression in the region.
Or consider the Washington-based Irish National Caucus. One way to force the British to leave is through US pressure, claims Sean McManus, its national director. The group supports a bill by US Rep. Richard L. Ottinger (D) of New York that would outlaw discrimination against Roman Catholics by US companies operating in Northern Ireland.
In fact, many of these groups hope to translate renewed Irish-American cultural interest into political lobbying power. Looking wistfully at the lobbying power of 6 million Jewish Americans, Mr. McManus hopes to reach by direct mail some 3.5 million Irish-Americans by the 1984 election and ''wake the sleeping giant of Irish-Americans.''
The Nationalist groups, however, have been opposed by the British and Irish governments. The Irish government is actively trying to discourage Irish-Americans from supporting the Provisional IRA. Its message: Ireland can only be united through peaceful reconciliation.
There is, says William O'Donnell, editor of the Boston edition of the weekly Irish Echo, ''currently a struggle for the hearts and minds of Irish-Americans.''
William McNally, executive director of the Ireland Fund, based in Boston, is trying to provide a middle ground.
''I think there is a very honest confusion about what people of Irish-American background can do. It's easy to say: 'Don't support violence.' (But) the challenge is to provide alternatives.''
This year, Mr. McNally's organization will channel half of its expected $750, 000 budget to reconciliation programs in Ireland, such as job training in poor Nationalist and Unionist enclaves of the north and programs to bring together children of the various sides.
Also, a handful of groups bring children from Northern Ireland to the US for the summer. Some of these programs, such as the Irish Children's Fund in Downers Grove, Ill., try to mix and balance the Catholics and Protestants.
Says McNally, ''I think where American-Irish self-esteem is taking us is to a relaxed pride and interest in Ireland.''
In the past, Irish-American nationalism was partly shaped by the immigrants' experience in America, writes historian Thomas Brown in his study, ''Irish-American Nationalism: 1870-1890.''
It was Boston, for example, that shaped the perceptions of Patrick Ford, an immigrant who later led the fight for social reform in Ireland. Mr. Brown concludes that the miserable tenements, menial jobs, and ever-present signs on employers' gates - ''Irish need not apply'' - made it easy for Ford to link discrimination in Protestant-led Boston with that by Protestant Britain against Ireland.
About 10 years ago, fourth-generation Irish-American Sandy Rose says she found another ''Irish need not apply'' sign still posted in a back alley in Kansas City.It was old and rusted and had obviously fallen into disuse, she recalls, but ''I was simply amazed that anyone could not love the Irish.''
Now the archivist of the Irish-American Cultural Center, she has never again been able to find that rusty old sign, although she has looked.