Monday, March 17, 2014

Heritage, Marginalization, and Pride

Today is a day during which Irish Americans do themselves a great and terrible disservice. 

I've always been a bit of a pain on Saint Patrick's Day. As a little girl I loved it - I danced in the parade downtown, I went to lovely parties, I listened to my parents play traditional Irish music in bars. It was an exciting time, and everything from the green glitter on my cheeks to the proper lacing of my shoes was planned well in advance. I didn't know much about the holiday, but for me, it was a celebration of that place I longed to visit as soon as I heard the name - Ireland. 

As I got older I learned more, mostly due to the marriage between my mother and my Irish stepfather. His distaste at the holiday was a surprise to me; I just didn't get it, because I thought he, of all people, would feel incredible pride, would celebrate full-tilt. But once he explained it to me I began to understand - 

This holiday, in America, has become a mockery of an identity truly worth celebrating. 

And suddenly it clicked with me: I saw sparkling green decorations in school which had nothing to do with Ireland, and I saw adults getting horribly ill because of excessive drinking, and I heard grating fake accents, and I noticed that what I had loved about Saint Patrick's Day as a child - feeling closer to my past, to my heritage - was drowned in liquor, in spectacle, in degradation. 

So every year I made a fuss. 

I wore orange. I hosted dinner parties with homemade brown bread instead of all night debauches with cheap green beer. I talked to everyone who would listen about (what little I understood of) Northern Ireland. I yelled at classmates who joyfully shouted IRA slogans just because they thought it was fun. Corned beef and cabbage appeared on every menu and I educated whoever was closest by telling them the American origins of the dish. I got into horrible fights with one of my peers in high school about Irish politics and terrorism - actual screaming matches, to be honest. 

It's taken me quite some time to realize that, while my message was correct, my delivery was not. I wasn't able to place myself in Irish American shoes, to see things from the perspective of a long line of Irish American ancestors who suffered and toiled and did the jobs no one else wanted and who just needed a link to a homeland far away. 

I think that's what the American Saint Patrick's Day should be about. Not marathon drinking, not offensively and ignorantly parroted IRA rhetoric, not green miniskirts and red wigs. Those things are destructive, they narrow the Irish identity into the small confines of hedonism and stupidity, they make Ireland and Irish Americans alike something to laugh at. 

And Irish Americans don't need another reason to be marginalized and othered. 

How can we participate in this holiday which makes us ugly? How can we knowingly recreate the worst stereotypes of the Irish when those very stereotypes were used against us, and not that long ago? Why must we make ourselves drunk and belligerent when the origins of this American holiday, the parades and the feasts, were supposed to show pride and strength and a continued link to a beautiful and profoundly meaningful homeland? 

Yes, when I was a teenager, my message was clouded by a deep sense of anger and righteousness. I couldn't properly communicate how hurtful this American holiday was without yelling and fussing, and I think most people probably dismissed my arguments because I was such a pain. What I should have done - and what I am trying to do now - is present a single point, emotional but (I hope) a bit more accessible. 

We are doing ourselves a disservice, today. We are letting our heritage be manipulated. We are participating in our own degradation. If all we do on this day, the feast day of Saint Patrick, is drink and vomit and get a bit shouty, we are proving our detractors right. We are not living up to the promise of the Irish immigrant - the poet, the farmer, the musician, the artist, the teller of stories and the lover of beauty. We become our own worst enemy. We are active players in othering, in marginalization, and in shame. 

Today, I'm trying to let go of my youthful belligerence and self-righteousness, and I am trying to look at this holiday as what it should be - an homage to ancestry and a celebration of home. I understand that everyone is going to recognize Saint Patrick in their own way, and that my words here are my own and are not universally accepted. I'm not going to tell anyone to put down the Guinness and somberly refrain from playing Flogging Molly like the penitent before confession. 

But maybe, if you have a pint tonight, or if you find yourself surrounded by cardboard leprechauns and green glitter - a quiet moment of reflection will improve the day. Perhaps thinking about the rich and complicated history of Ireland and of being Irish in America will remind us all that we do have something to celebrate with joy and with dignity. Perhaps we can celebrate the good within us, the strength, the perseverance, the beauty - not the drunkenness, the foolishness, the meanest shards of stereotype and bigotry. 

Go ahead - have that pint, listen to that music, wear green or maybe orange. But do it with pride in what is best about us. 

Do it with the song of our heritage, the poetry of our people, and the ongoing story of what it means to be Irish and American.