By Paul J. O’Leary
Today, March 17th, is a day that fills me with both excitement and dread. As a son of an Irish immigrant mother and first generation Irish-American father, the celebration of being Irish was something important in our house growing up. But Saint Patrick’s Day….
Saint Patrick’s Day is the day in which the rich tapestry of the Irish heritage is mixed thoroughly with some of the most insulting cultural stereotypes available. Many of which date back to the days when the Irish immigrant communities in major American cities were openly discriminated against.
The Irish heritage is one of suffering and pain, but also one of fighting tyranny, overcoming adversity, and through it all creating some of the finest music, literature, and poetry the world has ever known. The Irish diaspora fled tyranny and starvation and settled in places like New York City, Boston, and Buenos Aires, where they brought their culture and hard work to create new lives for their families.
Even some of the vocational stereotypes are ultimately stories of victory. Why the police and fire departments, especially in the northeaster states, filled with multi-generational Irish families? Because they used to be REALLY shitty jobs that paid horrible wages with few benefits and hazardous working conditions. In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, they were the jobs Americans wouldn’t do. The Irish took those jobs because they were a way to scratch out a living. Then they formed unions and fought for better pay and working conditions. Then they became supervisors and managers and brought change from the inside. Eventually, those jobs became pretty highly paid gigs with great benefits and nice retirements.
Others in these communities became elected officials, business owners, and tradesmen, where they did the same things to better their respective professions.
Can you say American dream?
The music of the Irish people tells the story of war and tyranny and famine. Of fighting the oppression of the British government. Of fighting starvation. Of fighting each other.
Like many stereotypes, some of ours are rooted in truth. We are a culture of drinkers and fighters. I don’t have enough of a background in cultural anthropology to say why some cultures are more or less prone to addiction or violence, but oppressed cultures are often characterized by violence among themselves. A means of acting out, say some researchers, when there is no venue for striking back against the oppressor class.
Even the Irish food tells the tale of tyranny and tough conditions. Why are the Irish known for their love of the potato? Because it was the main mean of sustenance in the days when the British nobility occupied Ireland and cattle were not available. Even without the restrictions of colonial England, the land and the weather in Ireland can be harsh and cold. The potato is a nutritional food that can be grown in even the most austere conditions. For many Irish families, it meant survival.
Through it all, however, the Irish, as a people and as a culture, never lost their pride, their perseverance, or their humor. Live or die, succeed or fail, smiles and laughter were always key ingredients to every part of life. Just attend a traditional Irish wake if you have any doubts.
So, as we fast forward to the late 20th and early 21st Century, how do we celebrate the accomplishments, successes, and contributions of this large immigrant population that is so much a part of the American culture?
You dye your hair with green spray on color, pull on Notre Dame football sweatshirt, and go down to the nearest chain restaurant with an Irish sounding name and order a shitty, watered-down Budweiser with a blast of green food coloring and maybe listen to U2 while getting as shit-faced as possible until the place closes down.
Leprechaun cartoons and giant glittery shamrocks? Green beer and corned beef hoagies? U2? Fucking U2????
Don’t get me wrong, I like U2, but they’re not my go to selection to celebrate my heritage any more than I would jam to Bryan Adams or Alanis Morrissette if I was celebrating Canada Day. I mean, it’s basically like saying you are a punk rock fan because you listen to Green Day.
Saint Paddy’s Day probably competes only with Cinco de Mayo when it comes to seeing a beautiful cultural tapestry boiled down to a bunch of obnoxious frat boys and their girlfriends getting ridiculously drunk while wearing idiotic hats. It’s embarrassing.
If you want to celebrate the culture, why not find an authentic Irish pub or restaurant? Eat a traditional Irish meal and drink some actual Irish beer (hint…it isn’t Coors with green chemlight floating in the mug). Take in a local Irish music band or listen to something like the Dubliners or the Corrs. Shit, even if you’re not going full-on traditional Irish music, you could at least choose a band that rocks like Thin Lizzy or the Dropkick Murphys.
The bottom line is that if you want to celebrate a popular Irish holiday, show it at least a modicum of dignity and respect.