Another St. Patrick’s Day has come and gone. I spent it with my family on Long Island. Lots of parties, lots of food, lots of singing, lots of my children being spoiled to within an inch of their lives by their grandparents and aunts and uncles and older cousins. It was great great fun. Thus it’s all the more peculiar that in the aftermath of March 17th, I find myself possessed of a peculiar thought.
It would be so much easier not to be Irish-American.
I’m not playing the “Let’s See Whose Ethnicity Has Been More Screwed Over in History” game here. It’s a pointless contest to have. Still, there are some aspects of being Irish-American that undeniably make it a chore. At least if you’re Irish-American and care about it.
It would be nice to just celebrate St. Patrick’s Day the way we’re all supposed to: packed to the rafters in some in some dive, starting in with the green beer at 6 in the morning, wearing a plastic green hat and a “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” button (if the button has a message even that classy). Throw in a leprechaun and that’s all St. Patrick’s Day is to most people. Thanks to my parents and grandparents, I’ve made the fatal mistake of seeing St. Patrick’s Day as a family holiday, every bit the equal of Christmas or Thanksgiving. I don’t get to enjoy suffocating in some bar that thinks it’s a pub just because its name begins with an O and an apostrophe. For me, St. Patrick’s Day is a holiday you go home for, so you can spend it with your brothers, your sister, your sisters-in-law, your aunt, your parents, and their nine, count ’em nine grandchildren, four of which were given to them by you and your wife. There’s plenty of Guinness and Irish coffee on hand of course, but so is the corned beef, as sacrosanct as a turkey on the fourth Thursday of November. You have fun but you don’t lose your mind. The popular idea is that if you’re Irish, St. Patrick’s Day is about getting drunk. It might be nice to indulge in that. Unfortunately, I’m really Irish and not really a convenient stereotype so I know it’s not.
I would love to be able to just point to a cartoon leprechaun and figure this is the sum total of my ethnicity’s cultural contributions to the world. Then I wouldn’t have to watch people glaze over while I roll on like Old Man River about how Ireland was the last refuge of learning and culture in Europe while the rest of the continent wallowed in the Dark Ages, and how we really do have our very own language that can be extremely difficult to learn, and how your school was dead wrong to include Swift, Shaw, Wilde, and Yeats in that British literature course you took because they were all Irish writers. I wouldn’t feel the need to pontificate about the Abbey Theatre and how it’s arguably the best thing the Irish ever did for the world. It would make it so much easier to get along with non-Irish people or at least Irish people who can’t really be bothered to really be Irish.
It would be even easier for me to get along with other people if I could just respond to questions about my heritage the way I’ve seen so many Irish-Americans respond: with a breezy “oh yeah, I’m not really anything, just Irish. Pretty boring, huh?” Every time I’ve heard that type of sentiment uttered the obvious subtext has been “we’re just random Europeans and as such we’re just a bunch of standard issue white people and thus have no non-boring narrative of overcoming adversity and oppression.” Think of all the fun I could have ogling some gorgeous British royal or other and being breathlessly swept away by all the grandeur and pomp of everything from a wedding to some princess’ s morning sickness. But no, that would be too easy. I just have to be fully educated about Ireland’s 800 of struggling for independence from Britain. I just have to see the British crown as the symbol of British infamy in Ireland, infamy that includes not one (Cromwell) but two (the Great Hunger) attempts at genocide. I can’t seem to conveniently forget little things like non-stop cultural imperialism that all but wiped out the Irish language and Irish customs, multiple plantations of Ireland that took ownership of the land away from the native people, the Penal Laws that made it a crime to be an Irish Catholic in Ireland, the Act of Union that attempted to make Ireland cease to exist as a nation, and the repeated attempts of everyone from Wolfe Tone to Pearse and Connolly to Bobby Sands to take Ireland back from the British that were just as repeatedly met with repression, execution, and treating Irish patriots like common criminals. Let me tell you, it’s made more than one conversation about the Queen and her allegedly heroic stands and equally alleged apologies a bit awkward. What I wouldn’t give to just glide through life agog at Pippa Middleton (that’s the sister, right?) under the blissful delusion that I’m some sort of Catholic WASP, untouched by centuries of brutal conquest.
There’s a not a thing wrong with being a WASP of course. There’s not much wrong with being royal family watcher. I’m neither. I know exactly who I am and where I’m from and what that means. What it means, in part, is that I’ve chosen a path other than the one of least resistance because I know the path of greatest resistance was forced upon people who share my heritage.
Not only does being Irish mean I have to know and explain my people’s unfinished struggle for freedom, it means I now have to identify with everyone else who has gone and is going through the same thing. If I didn’t care so much about being Irish, I could just pretend that things like colonization and its attendant bigotry was just stuff that happened to other people. I could cheerfully look down my nose at a Native American who isn’t all that crazy about Columbus Day or an African-American appalled at any part of the Voting Rights Act suddenly being in jeopardy. Those could just be their problems. But I just had to be all gung-ho Irish and thus realize that imperialism and discrimination happened to people with last names like mine and if I didn’t want to be an utter hypocrite I had to give a damn about it when it happened to someone else. Better yet, I’m an Irish-American with a very clear and fond memory of his immigrant grandfather, the one who came here and did every kind of difficult and dangerous job you can think of from construction to mining in order to support his family. There goes resenting immigrants and thinking they’re taking away anything but the most thankless and backbreaking gigs this country has to offer. I suppose I could still at least be suspicious of Muslim immigrants and see them all as dangerous terrorists who can’t be trusted and who practice a spooky backward religion. When have the Irish ever been accused or terrorism or had their loyalty questioned just because of who they were? And since when did any of us practice a religion seen as backward and spooky?
Oh…right. Moving on then.
I’d love to let myself off the hook. I’d love to just reduce being Irish being pale and drinking a lot. It’s always much easier to be a stereotype than to know and embrace what you actually are and take responsibility for it. I fall far short of doing that perfectly. I just know I have an obligation to make an effort to do that. I’m an Irish-American. I can’t just blow that off. I can’t pretend it doesn’t make me different. Not better, not worse, just different. Distinct. I’m part of an ongoing story of a people that isn’t exactly like anyone else’s. I also know that story is enough like a lot of other people’s to realize that they’re just as human as I am and that I’d better not expect them to be a stereotype either.
St. Patrick’s Day: a great day to be Irish.
If you’re going to be Irish, you have to be Irish the other 364 days too.
And if you’re going to be Irish, you have to mean it.