What if I proposed a certain holiday where we celebrated Africans by dressing up in plastic clothes that were the colors of their flags, eating chicken and waffles, wearing things that said “Kiss Me I’m African,” and basically turning the day into a giant frat party where we celebrate the worst of the Hollywood stereotypes about African-Americans? Maybe the answer to that question depends on your political leanings: If you’re a liberal, you’re probably already calling me a racist because this idea IS as racist as all fucking hell. If you’re a conservative, maybe you’re saying that if we’re going to do that with African-Americans, we should be doing it with people of every race.
Here’s a news flash: We’re already doing it with at least one other ethnicity. (My hypothetical liberal up there might argue that we’re doing it with two, since there’s a strong case to be made that Thanksgiving is the same thing.) The Irish are dragged into the spotlight on St. Patrick’s Day for such a holiday for such a thing. St. Patrick’s Day is considered a minor holiday in Ireland. Although the Irish who immigrated to the United States brought it with them as a way of holding on to their home, America has turned it into the ultimate excuse for public drunkenness and debauchery.
I don’t think it was my parents’ intent to instill me with any sense of pride in my lineage, but it’s something that happened. I’m not sure it could have been helped: Buffalo is a VERY Irish city, and I was raised in the most Irish part of it. The South Buffalo Irish District served as the city’s Irish ghetto during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the influence of the old Irish guard there was still very powerful when I was born. A lot of the residents were from the Motherland straight or first-generation born in the United States. There are several Irish dance troupes, Irish flags line a section of Abbott Road, and the street names are written in both English and Gaelic. Although St. Patrick’s Day in Buffalo is stretched out into a season and everyone has a lot of fun, there’s a traceable solemnity underneath all the festivities. The Irish population in South Buffalo knew its past well and everything during St. Patrick’s Day took place in honor and recognition of our history, in both Ireland and America.
At one of the first Irish festivals I ever attended, I stood staring at a wooden door sign, trying to decipher it. It said, “now hiring – Irish need not apply.” My Mother spotted me looking at it and whispered into my ear, “See, it happened to your people too.” It hammered home the point that America’s playing field was never quite as level as it was supposed to be, and told me there was a lot my school history books were leaving out. As I got to learn a little bit of the history of Ireland, it started to create a sense of real ethnic pride. I had been taught by my school system that all people were of some color. But it was learning what I did about Irish history that I started to identify as an Irish-American. I even have a few subtle ways of showing my pride – wearing subtle hints of orange and green, telling people how much I love salt potatoes and soda bread, trying to stay up to date on old Celtic gods, and learning the origins of several well-known St. Patrick’s Day traditions. Even though I have an English surname, grew up as a practicing Protestant, and am the first to say what a huge asshole the real St. Patrick was (really, we’re talking Columbus-level assholery here), I always held true to my Irish lineage.
I was excited to move to Chicago and celebrate my first St. Patrick’s Day in my new home. I had heard all the stories about the parade in Chicago and the way the Chicago River was dyed green every year. So as I left work at the Symphony that Saturday, I made a zipline path right to the Michigan Avenue bridge, where everything was taking place. Now, I’m not a dummy – I’ve seen all the ridiculous hats and loud horns and novelty t-shirts in stores. I also thought, who buys this crap? I had never seen anything like them being worn around in Buffalo.
In Chicago, they were everywhere, and my heart just sank as the realization hit me: The people around me saw St. Patrick’s Day as nothing but a reason to have their heads in the bar at the top of the morning. I was finally wearing the moccasins of all the Native Americans I had once denounced. What they felt during Thanksgiving was now what I was thinking of St. Patrick’s Day. Hell, I even have my own version of the people telling me that I should just suck it up and get over it because it was supposed to be an honor that celebrated something good. All the liberals who were jumping on people about Thanksgiving being a bastardization of real history were now telling me to kiss their blarney stones over St. Patrick’s Day.
Maybe it’s the Catholic guilt present everywhere in my home neighborhood eating at me, but I never forgot that. As I walked along the Chicago River watching the drunken revelers, I couldn’t help but feel like there was something very wrong with the whole scene. Were these people even Irish? Did they have any kind of lineage to call their own? Why did they feel the need to claim mine, and why did they just want to hold the Hollywood version of it?
I’m not sure how many of the old Irish stereotypes I live up to, but I do identify as an Irish-American. I think one of the most important things I got out of that St. Patrick’s Day was the fact that I see it as my duty to tell people about Irish history and the origins of many of the Irish traditions they’ve come to know, and correct their perceptions of them when I can. Fortunately, I’ve found that most people are pretty receptive.