Everyone’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day?

For me, St. Patrick’s Day has always been about one thing: self-preservation. My first St. Paddy’s “celebration” (if it can be called that) came in kindergarten when my mother sent me to school without remembering to dress me in green, and without any warning that there would be legions of little bastards (formerly known as my classmates) waiting to pinch me for this oversight. Like most five-year-olds, I knew little more about the world than what my parents had taught me; and as a black kid with a Baptist for a mother, I knew even less about things like pagans and saints and Irish Catholics. I think I got pinched exactly twice before knocking one of my tormentors onto his ass and saying whatever the kindergarten equivalent of “Fuck this holiday forever” was. I learned my lesson though, and every year I begrudgingly pull out something green, just in case (even though anyone who pinched me nowadays would probably pull back a nub).

My traumatic initiation into the holiday aside, there are plenty of other reasons I could have learned to hate it. Like the fact that the cheap, obnoxious way we celebrate it in this country has almost nothing to do with Ireland and Irish identity, and that I can’t stand the bro culture takeover of every city with even the most negligible Irish community. For me, it’s just easier to slap on a little token green and grumble quietly to myself until March 18th comes along.

At least until this year. Last week, some friends were excitedly discussing their St. Patrick’s Days, past and future, and I couldn’t seem to swallow my unease like I usually do. Maybe it’s because I was finally able to articulate the one thing that bugs me the most of all about this day. It’s the one day of the year I am most aware of my race, and all told, it’s really not a great day to be black in America.

First of all, there’s the issue of physical safety. Over at True/Slant last St. Patrick’s Day, Elie Mystal dedicated his post to “a brother [he] passed on the street this morning. A green-clad man said, ‘Happy Saint Patrick’s Day,’ to which the brother responded, ‘Yeah, you know, just trying to not get beat up.’” Mystal continues with a discussion of the historical tensions between blacks and the Irish in Boston, and how black people’s mistreatment at the hands of the heavily-Irish police force can make hearing stories about “the glory of the Five Points” as traumatic as hearing about “the heroic deeds of the Confederate captain” in your family. His primary concern, however, is not any past conflict between the two groups. It all goes back to trying not to get beat up:

I’m sure I don’t have to tell many black men this, but when a girl says, “Kiss me, I’m Irish,” she’s not talking to you, bro. I made that mistake once (SPD”“1999), and I’m still shocked I got out of that bar alive. The Boston bar I was in became so silent you’d think I’d raped a hockey team full of red heads with one stroke. One time, my then-girlfriend (now wife) said she wanted to go to South Boston to see the parade. All of our white friends looked at her as if she had just said she planned to sever an artery to see how long it took to bleed out. They left it to me to politely say, “Baby, I don’t think your plan maximizes our long term survivability.”

Physical safety aside, this is a holiday that encourages large groups of white people to get together and celebrate a particular brand of whiteness which I find to be at best exclusionary and uncomfortable. Absolute best-case scenario? It’s like being in a bar with a bunch of people who are speaking a foreign language, none of whom get why you can’t understand what they’re saying and why you’re not having a good time. They can be nice and smile at you and send you drinks, but can you ever hope to participate in the conversation enough to have a good time? I don’t know about the rest of y’all, but that would get old fast enough for me to cut my losses and go home.

On my more paranoid (and less patient) days, I can’t help but wonder if St. Patrick’s Day is such a phenomenon because it allows white people a conveniently covert way to overtly celebrate whiteness without being called racists. In fact, celebrating “Irishness” in America might even be a way to show you’re one of those white people who is “down with the struggle.” White guilt has become such a burden to some that, as a defense mechanism, people will look for any way in which they have suffered to distance themselves from the privileged establishment, using any “otherness” at their disposal so they can ostensibly join the ranks of the downtrodden and throw stones at Rich Straight White Male Oppressor straw men. And I’m not the only one who’s taken it there. Last year on St. Patrick’s Eve, Matthew Schmitz wrote a short piece on his similar problems with the day:

It would be a little weird, not to say unseemly, for Americans of English or German descent to parade in the street celebrating their ethnic heritage. To do so would be like dancing in the end zone of colonial history. And so, because the Irish were actually the subjects of discrimination and oppression, Irishness has become the go-to white ethnicity.

Schmitz, who is half-Irish himself, goes on to say that while there are plenty of valid reasons to celebrate the holiday, it’s interesting that the form it takes in this country gives “the privileged a chance to dress up in the drag of historical oppression.”

Talk all you might about how the Irish have suffered, in 2011 in the United States, why do some people continue to claim the institutional oppression that their ancestors suffered as their own, when it has in no measurable way trickled down to them? Stuff White People Like says it better than I could hope to:

If you find yourself talking with a white person who tells you about how their great grandfather was oppressed by both the English and the Americans, it is strongly recommended that you lend a sympathetic ear and shake your head in disbelief. It is never considered acceptable to say, “But you’re white now, so what’s the problem?”

Well? What’s the problem?

Published by

Ashley

Ashley is a North Carolina based aspiring librarian and amateur historian (if by "historian" you mean "one who loses many hours to dynastic Wikipedia spirals"). She does not hate the South.

21 thoughts on “Everyone’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day?”

  1. This is an interesting article with a perspective I hadn’t thought of before. Thank you very much for sharing. Something to really think about.

    I’m an Irish-American with my own qualms about Saint Patrick’s Day. As a kid, lots of non-Irish classmates would pinch me and I was kind of bothered that people used my heritage as a means of being an asshole.

    1. I totally understand where you’re coming from. I wore orange out of protest on St. Patrick’s day for about 15 years and used to give everyone an angry tongue-lashing who asked me why I wasn’t wearing green. But I decided to let it go this year and let stateside celebrations be the cliched, leprechaun-hatted, green-beer-drinking spectacle they are.

      St. Patrick’s day in the U.S. has a life of its own, and it’s got nothing to do with Ireland or a saint’s feast day. And I feel better now for letting go of my anger over the cultural misappropriation, the ignorance, the tired stereotypes. . . .

  2. “Well? What’s the problem?”

    I think the problem is that it’s dismissive and/or reductive. And maybe that’s okay. It depends where you are.

    As I’m sure you know, whiteness in the U.S. is quite a different thing from whiteness elsewhere. It can be *very* complex in other countries, including Ireland, where all white people aren’t lumped into the same monolithic “white” category or recipients of the same “white” privilege.

    I’m a non-WASP white woman, and a 3d generation American. White people in other predominantly white countries wouldn’t consider me as “white” as they are because of my ancestors’ ethnicities.

    I’ve studied Irish literature, politics, and history extensively. As you know, the Irish really were oppressed, Othered, and publicly compared to and depicted as apes by the English. As you’ve noted, the connection between that and institutional oppression in America in 2011 does seem tenuous. But it can be very real in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

    I have no Irish ancestry, but I’ve lived outside the U.S. and attended school in Dublin. Irish people were constantly telling me they were surprised to hear my American accent, because I looked like a __________. They always filled in the blank with one of the two countries my great-grandparents emigrated from. Just from looking at my build and facial features.

    I guess my point is that I’m aware of and sensitive to the distinctions between different groups of white people that exist outside the U.S., because I’ve lived with it and among them. I don’t claim to carry (and hopefully don’t act like I carry) the burden of institutional oppression or not being “white enough” in the U.S., but I can’t stop myself from being sensitive to the phenomenon as it exists elsewhere. Losing that sensitivity would be perilously close to telling members of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Sinn Fein, the UUP, the Labor Party, and the Torys in Northern Ireland to just knock it off already because they’re all white.

    I don’t think that’s at all what you’re saying here, but a lot of people do, which is ignorant and unfortunate, and can be truly insulting.

    And of course, none of this has anything to do with St. Patrick’s celebrations in the U.S., which really all comes down to wearing a stupid Leprechaun hat and drinking green beer, and NOTHING to do with real Ireland.

    1. great comment, but I’m confused by your references to Irish and UK political parties in Northern Ireland “knocking it off”.

      Sinn Féin and the UUP are political parties in the North, but FG and FF don’t have any significant political presence there: I don’t think the UK Labour party or the Tories do either.

      1. Good points; I do think the other parties have some presence in Northern Ireland, or at least they did the last time I was there. But I probably am wrongly throwing the Northern Irish Assembly and British Parliament together more than is warranted.

  3. This is really interesting, thanks for the post. Being Irish (as in from Ireland), to me the holiday is much more equivalent to your Fourth of July, or Bastille Day
    in France; it’s my country’s national holiday. Sure I put on green nail polish and get hammered (so. hung. over. right now), but it’s mostly about celebrating my country – especially at a time when it really needs a bit of celebration. It’s not about hating English people or complaining about how oppressed we’ve been, because that’s honestly ridiculous. Even the pageantry we’ve adopted from the US is more about how great modern Ireland is than about how rubbish it used to be.

    I’ve always been fascinated by the interpretation of it in the US and I’ve never thought of it this way before, but I think you’re really on to something when you suggest that it enables white people to put on the guise of an ‘oppressed’ class. That isn’t to say that Irish-Americans didn’t have a hard time – they did – but the 30-million-odd Americans who claim Irish ancestry don’t even have an inkling of what that was like. I don’t define Ireland on the basis of suffering because it would be ridiculous; I grew up in what was, at the time, one of the wealthiest countries in the world. It’s not a bad thing to take our experience and use them to interpret the current world with empathy and understanding, but we don’t get to play the oppression game anymore. It’s bad for us and it’s bad for all the people who are genuinely oppressed now.

  4. I am actually from a part-Irish (lapsed)Catholic family, but the only way we ever celebrate is to rib my brother, Patrick, and maybe some green cake. I never knew about these race issues before, although the religious implications have always been problematic for me. I always just thought of St.Patrick’s as an excuse to get drunk in the middle of the week for most people.

    Then again, maybe it is different in Canada? There are large groups of Irish Catholics here but I don’t know of any parades or anything big. Any other Canadians have a perspective on this?

    1. I’m Canadian, from an Irish background. I feel like it is different here in terms of racial issues, but obviously a lot of that will be to do with the different ethnic makeup of the area where I live (there really aren’t many Black people where I am, and nowhere near such a large number of Irish people as in Boston).

      When I was a kid, it was just an excuse to dress up and eat green porridge. I wasn’t told anything about oppression of Irish Catholics, or much about the religious reasons behind it (although as an atheist, the now-obvious religious implications do bother me). Now, it’s an excuse to dress up and drink. It’s nowhere near so huge as it can be in the states, though – with the parades, etc. And (here, at least) it’s not the only commonly-celebrated holiday specific to a racial group. Chinese New Year is a pretty big deal, for instance.

      It was an interesting read, and a disturbing one. I wasn’t going to comment, as my experience with the holiday is so far removed (geographically and otherwise) from the author’s that I felt too ignorant of the issues at hand to say anything, but as you asked for another Canadian perspective, why not?

    2. I’m from Canada too, and while we’ve got the whole parade and celtic festival coinciding with St. Patrick’s day it seems more like an excuse to drink green beer than the “historical oppression drag” the article refers to. I don’t recall having heard of any violence specific to the holiday (except for the usual drunken bar fights, but that’s more of an alcohol issue than a race issue) but obviously I could be mistaken.

  5. I only wore green because I don’t have anything red or orange. Fortunately, my job this year doesn’t seem to have that obnoxious person going “But why aren’t you wearing greeeeeeen?” for me to respond to “Because I’m Scottish and protestant?” so I don’t think it would have been a big deal.

    I do have to admit that I never really though of St. Patrick’s Day in terms of race, apart from the occasional “But you’re so pale you haaaaave to be Irish!” comment, so I’m very glad this article was able to shed some light on that.

    1. I usually reply with, “Because I’m Scottish and Jewish,” which always seems to stump people.

      I’m another person who had never really realized or given any thought to how white a holiday St. Patrick’s Day is, and how shitty that must be for people who aren’t white. This was really eye-opening for me.

      1. Yeah, agreed. I’ve always been bothered by this holiday — it feels weird and cultural-appropriation-y and I’m not Irish at all and anyway there’s nothing authentically Irish about it, and drinking green beer in a crowded bar surrounded by shrieking fuckwits in light-up glitter shamrock hats is a circle in my personal hell. But this is an aspect of it I hadn’t really thought about before, and damn.

  6. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t St. Patrick’s Day the only mainstream American holiday which focuses on a particular race/nationality/ethnicity? Yes, there’s Cinco de Mayo, the Lunar New Year and Kwanzaa, but those don’t get celebrated unless there’s a sizeable population of the relevant groups.

  7. It’s always interesting to me to hear about the differences between St Paddy’s in Ireland and in the US. On the surface, they are celebrated almost identically (the Irish would just never drink green beer). But it’s strange to hear how the meanings have diverged. I can’t imagine there would be any reason to celebrate St Paddy’s anywhere in the world except to just celebrate Irishness. Even in Ireland it’s not really a freedom thing, it’s just a culture thing. It’s not even really religious anymore.

    It seems sad that it has become a way for white people to secretly celebrate whiteness in the US. It’s casting off the “burden” of privileged guilt for a day when it seems like it should be a day of diversity – wasn’t the US formed from Irish immigration in a lot of ways? Irish history (and the history of Irish oppression which sparked emigration to the US) was a major contributing factor to US development. It’s weird that a day of drunkenness (because no one in Ireland would argue that this day is about anything but alcohol!) is such a racially-changed day in the US.

    This article was such an eye-opener! Thanks!

  8. I have to say that when I was in elementary school and first learned about St. Patricks Day, I thought it was really cool. I got home from school and explained to my mother that there was a day that celebrated our nationality- Irish!

    She sat me down and explained that we were Northern Irish, aka Protestants. She’s half Northern Irish- making me a quarter- and being Northern Irish had been a big part of my identity as a child- so I had made the (obvious) assumption that we would also celebrate St. Patricks Day. Obviously, I didn’t understand the difference at the time when my mom sat me down, but as I have grown up I feel as if I can’t really celebrate St. P’s day (although I would never go as far as to wear orange in protest).

    /end anecdote that I know doesn’t deal with race and St. P’s day as your post did, but I thought was related nonetheless.

Leave a Reply