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.


  1. Irish immigrants built the Industrial Revolution in the United States and filled the Union army and the US Calvary, both green and orange. I think all national/ethnic holidays become Americanized with not much connection to their origins. Think Cinco de Mayo or Mardi Gras. Any excuse to party.

    1. While I agree that this is a trend, it doesn't make it right. Stereotyping minorities for the purpose of getting trashed really irks me! Just not cool. We should be better than that.

  2. Hi Hon!
    I remember those arguments. They were fun because, outside of my family, no one I knew cared about Irish history, the Irish American experience or St. Patrick’s Day. It was especially interesting to have someone to argue with who represents the other side of a divide that is as old as modern Ireland itself.
    I have to take some issue with what you have written, obviously, but I would like to say first that you are entirely right about the drinking. It is in no way respectful or celebratory to mark this occasion with marathon binge drinking. It is unhealthy, unattractive and downright dangerous to everyone involved or even just passing by.
    That being said, I think that your commentary ignores the roots of the alcoholism that the Irish generally, and Irish Americans in particular, suffer from. I’ll get to the point. 400 years of colonial oppression will do that to a people. We didn’t immigrate to the US because we loved to travel and the Irish climate didn’t suit us. We left because English elites looked to their west one day and said, “What a lovely island, pity its full of savage nonhumans. What’s say we take that land they’re just running around on and farm it. Maybe these degenerate creatures will learn (through our industrious example) how human beings live.”
    So the Irish became peasants and were subject to the cruel tutelage of the English. We were at the mercy of people who extracted our agricultural wealth, taxed our labor, and pitted us against each other. We were a laboratory that would perfect the colonial methods that allowed the English to control the globe for a time. We were Hutus and Tutsis. Cousins made to hate each other in the service of colonial masters. To them, we were just as black and we stayed that way for hundreds of years. Or didn’t you know that we’ve only had the distinction of being white for the last century or so? We took our lessons and struggled to establish that whiteness in order to be seen as equals to our colonial masters. This of course, resulted in many of us becoming just as racist as the English. We took our lessons.
    Which brings me to the IRA. Those who risk their lives and the lives of their loved ones for an idea of freedom that seems so impossible as to be ridiculous are heros. Nelson Mandela was a terrorist, George Washington was a terrorist. One man’s freedom fighter is a another man’s terrorist. The IRA weren’t good for blowing up civilians or murdering agents of English oppression in front of their families, but they were heros. Ghandi and the Indians he led were remarkable because their use of nonviolent resistance goes against all the pain and anger originating in colonial subjugation. But the Irish are not Indians and the IRA acted in a way that no one can say was unjustified. We took our 400 year schooling and put it to work. What goes around comes back around. So here we are.
    In the end, though, I don’t want to fight with you. I want you to really consider the results of colonial rule when you regard our ethnic holiday. When you condemn the drunken behavior and slogans glorifying the IRA, I just want you to remember that bad behaviors have origins, just like actions have consequences. Look a little deeper.

    Erin go Bragh, Hon.


  3. Thank you for reading my blog! Isn't it wonderful that we are now mature enough to refrain from rehashing old arguments?

    I am especially glad that I, having grown up a bit, have given up my adolescent habit of condescension. I recommend it!

  4. Wow. Obviously you two have feelings going back a long way on this topic, but as a third party observer I thought Brendan's comment was respectful and thoughtful - especially given that he was reacting to obvious and not very kind references you made to him ("ignorantly parroted IRA rhetoric"). I assume your statement about having given up on condescension was intended to be ironic?

    1. Helki, yes - many of Brendan's points were absolutely dead-on, and he has always had helpful and informative input on this topic. As I wrote in this piece, I very much regret being so hotheaded in high school, because I think my emotional responses did not contribute to the actual issues at hand. I absolutely respect some of Brendan's points, and I appreciate what he has contributed.

      That said, I do not need to be told to look a little deeper. My piece in no way contradicts the beginnings of Brendan's arguments, and I think, in fact, it is quite enriched by them. Alcoholism is a major issue for Irish history and for Irish people, and I have no doubt that it goes hand in hand with the oppression due to colonialism. In that, Brendan and I completely agree. I was not addressing that issue, but perhaps I should in future.

      But to be told to look a little deeper - when clearly, that means conflating the current terrorism in Ireland with the peaceful (and yes, tumultuous) acts of such leaders as Ghandi - I do feel condescended to. Yes, I respect Brendan's point of view (as I really do hope he respects mine) but I find it immensely offensive to be urged to agree that killing people is the same thing as seeking freedom.

      Yes, there was a time when true Irish rebellion was necessary, desperately necessary. None of us can look on the actions of the early twentieth century and judge them based on current events - even so, I acknowledge the import of the early works of those who desired republican independence. And yes, people did die. Nothing I say on the topic of the current terrorist organizations in Ireland has anything to do with the Irish liberation movements to which Brendan refers. And for him to assume that the IRA of which I speak is the same body which successfully, but bitterly, achieved republican independence means only one thing - that he thinks I am a cruel colonialist, or that he thinks I am an idiot.

      Neither of which are true. Because history and present events are nuanced. And I will not be treated as if I cannot see that.

      You speak of irony, but I would like to speak of cruelty. If Brendan really supports the current iterations of the Irish rebellions, i.e. terrorism, he would happily see me dead. I hope, I so hope, that that is not the case. Most speech I have heard from him on this topic has been cruel. It has ripped from me my heritage. I thought we might have gone beyond that. I thought that we might have, some day, a conversation enriched by two sides of a very fraught debate. But for him to say that a present-day group of terrorists (and not the rebels of the past) are correct is for him to say that my life, my experiences, are worthless and are expendable. Are terminable. And that he would gladly support those who would terminate me.

      I am sorry if I came off as aggressive, and I see that I have. But I do not like being treated as stupid, as colonialist, or as, at the end, worthless. I would like to continue to respect Brendan. I wish he might respect me in turn.

  5. Alice is correct - it is all ignorantly parroted IRA rhetoric. I have lost friends and relatives to the IRA's tactics of murder and terrorism. They are certainly not heroes in my book, just murderous bastards, as are the loyalist organizations such as the UDA and the UVF.

    Northern Ireland voted in a democratic process to remain British in 1921 and the majority of Northern Ireland still favor that Union. Instead of honoring that decision, the IRA has since 1969 chosen to murder innocent people to try to overturn a legitimate and constitutional decision by the people of Northern Ireland. Nationalists have always been allowed to a part of the political process and if one day the people of Northern Ireland vote for independence from the UK or for unity with the Republic of Ireland, that will happen through a democratic process. Losing a referendum or a vote does not give you the right to start shooting people and blowing stuff up just because you disagree with the result. Note how Scotland is currently voting for independence, and nobody has gone about murdering people to achieve that result. If Scotland votes to remain part of the United Kingdom, then that will be honored just as much as if the vote sides for an independent Scotland. The same will happen if Wales ever decide to obtain independence.

    1. Thank you, Richard. Your experience on this topic, and your contribution to this post, is what we should all respect. Neither I nor the above commenters can fairly speak to the reality of politics and terrorism in Ireland - you have actually lived it.

  6. I have no real opinion about Irish politics, but it's obviously a deeply sensitive topic and anyone who puts their honest feelings out there has earned my respect. Perhaps respect doesn't always translate well over the internet, even if it is intended? Anyway, thank you for initiating dialogue on issues like this so that less-informed people (like me) can learn something new. Good writing as always!