For most people in the United States, St. Patrick’s Day is a day to wear green clothing and wacky, cheap shamrock encrusted jewelry bought on a whim from the dollar store. There are parades, green food, and the best excuse for drinking, second (or third?) only to New Year’s Eve and the Super Bowl. For people of Irish heritage, it is a day to celebrate who we are, and where our people came from.
All my life, I’ve known that I was from a family of mixed Anglo-European stock, and percentage-wise my heritage is probably more Germanic, but I always identified most with my Irish side. I didn’t have any relatives that were born in Ireland, so my connection to my Celtic roots were shaky at best. When I was a child, my self-identification as Irish came mostly from my paternal grandfather, who rather eccentrically adopted a brogue whenever speaking to me on the phone, which, at that young age, I believed was the way he actually spoke. It confused me, and amused my grandparents no end, when I showed up for a visit to their home in Vermont, only to be confronted by an American-voiced grandfather in place of my brogue-riddled phone grandfather. I think that vignette probably explains a lot about why I am the odd adult I am now.
My tenuous grasp on being Irish showed as I made some of the mistakes that other non-Irish Americans make. I didn’t know, for example, that all of the “Happy St. Patty’s Day” greetings I’d grown up with were actually a terribly incorrect and somewhat offensive abbreviation for the holiday. St. Patrick was obviously a saint, so attempting to abbreviate his name into some too familiar form is not exactly a way to celebrate and venerate him. Worse, the abbreviation for Patrick is Paddy, and Patty would mean Patricia, a female. So, in effect, “St. Patty’s Day” turned a saint into a female buddy. Way to go, Hallmark.
On the subject of Paddy…my family was far enough removed from the ancestors who came here during the Potato Famine that no one told me that the children’s games we played, such as sending someone through the “Paddywhack Machine”, which was actually based on a slur meaning an Irishman prone to brawling. No doubt, we also spoke about “Paddywagons” which were the term for police cars full of Irish arrested while rioting due to bone-crushing poverty when they first arrived in America. I learned as a young adult about the Irish diaspora due to famine, and the continuing fight for independence fought by the Irish against their English oppressors. I saw the “Help Wanted-No Irish Need Apply” signs that littered the advertisements for employment during those years, and I’ve heard the slurs about “shanty Irish” and all of the drunken Irish jokes.
It wasn’t until I’d gone to Ireland, and saw the incredible lush, green landscapes, experienced the feeling of a true “soft rain” on my face, and felt a burst of pride and familiarity with the personalities and senses of humor of the people, that I truly understood what it was to be Irish. There is a rich mix of dignity, humor and scrappiness to the Irish that makes me identify with my people even more strongly, and makes me proud that all of the Americans of Irish descent made it through those first days of bigotry and struggle.
I hope that today, while you are spilling bits of corned beef and cabbage on your green sweater, and perhaps enjoying some Irish soda bread, you will take a moment to think about how the people who are now an ingrained part of the American culture and history were once considered the dirty and unwanted immigrants – and how it all turned out just fine in the end. Happy St. Patrick’s Day to one and all. Drink responsibly, and avoid the green beer.