March 17, 2003
On the wearin' of the green

So today is Saint Patrick's Day, a day for the wearin' of the green, when people say things like "Begorrah!" and "Erin go bragh!" (whatever they mean) and the general spirit is that Everyone Is Irish On Saint Patrick's Day. It's a day for green hair, green beer, and green rivers. The luck of the Irish, the Order of Hibernia, corned beef and cabbage, bagpipes and get the idea.

As someone who actually is part Irish (though far removed from any sense of ethnic identity), I'm always amused by Saint Patrick's Day. It's amazing how a Catholic feast day that celebrates the life of a man whose mission was converting pagans has turned into a secular excuse for partying and commercialism. How did we get here?

Well, I don't know the answer to that question. What I do know is that a hundred years ago, Irish immigrants faced all kinds of discrimination - one reason why there's a stereotyped Irish police officer is because such dangerous jobs were the only ones available to them. To go from that to Everyone Is Irish On Saint Patrick's Day is pretty incredible, I think.

Of course, one of the costs of such societal acceptance is a distancing from the original meaning of the holiday and the culture that spawned it. I'm willing to bet that only the more serious Catholic revelers could explain the significance of the shamrock (its three leaves symbolize the Holy Trinity), for example. As the holiday and its heritage become more mainstream, the details get blurred and eventually caricatured. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing - it's a true sign that a group is no longer considered marginal when a school nickname like The Fighting Irish and its associated icons are considered a source of pride rather than a cause for protest.

I'm not personally convinced that that's all for the good, but I don't see any point in complaining. I am left to wonder, however, if other ethnic-in-origin celebrations will someday be fully coopted by the great melting pot as St. Patrick's Day and Shrove TuesdayMardi Gras have been, and if their respective celebrants will be as happy about it. In other words, if a hundred years' hence we say that Everyone Is Mexican On Cinco de Mayo and Everyone Is Chinese On Chinese New Year, will we consider that a good thing or a bad thing?

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 17, 2003 to Society and cultcha | TrackBack

Personally, I find it ironic that the best known representative of the Irish-American experience was my 11th grade English teacher. At the time, he was constantly saying, "Dammit, I want to be published".

I believe Mr. McCourt got his wish.

Posted by: William Hughes on March 17, 2003 2:41 PM

Yes, I'd say he did. In spades.

Funnily enough, I don't recall him making a big deal about March 17. Not to say that he didn't celebrate it (I've no doubt he did his cultural duty after school), just that I don't remember him wearing green or talking about St. Paddy's Day.

Of course, that was a million years ago, so it could just be my failing memory. :-)

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on March 17, 2003 3:07 PM

Well, Saint Patrick's Day (as it is celebrated) is completely an American celebration. In Ireland, it's a Saint's Day, and you'd be hard pressed to find a day that doesn't belong to some Saint.

Still, since I am Irish-American, with very close ties to my Irish heritage (both parents and entire extended family born in Ireland), I will say that the American St. Paddy's Day celebration is entirely superior to these other religious festivals, because we have Guinness, baby.

Posted by: Maureen on March 17, 2003 3:15 PM

As long as they don't dye the Guinness green, Maureen, I agree with you. :-)

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on March 17, 2003 3:35 PM

I'm not sure how you get Mardi Gras as ethnic, since there are a great many similar Carnivale celebrations around the world.

Posted by: Rob on March 17, 2003 3:41 PM

What I do know is that a hundred years ago, Irish immigrants faced all kinds of discrimination ...

Interestingly, on Sunday, the Boston Globe reported:

"In the December 2002 issue of the Journal of Social History, Richard J. Jensen of the University of Illinois at Chicago claims that there is scant evidence of the 'No Irish' signs in the historical record. An electronic search of several hundred thousand pages of newspapers, magazines, and books yielded only a handful of ads that included 'No Irish' phrases. As for signs in store windows, he writes, 'There are no contemporary or retrospective accounts of a specific sign at a specific location.... No historian, archivist, or museum curator has ever located one; no photograph or drawing exists.' The signs available on eBay and elsewhere, he states, are 'modern fakes.'"

The Jensen article isn't online, but there is an abstract.

Posted by: alkali on March 17, 2003 4:27 PM

Interesting indeed. I would think, though, that even if the "No Irish" signs are more legend than fact, a fair amount of discrimination occurred. I base that on the fact that immigrants, especially large waves of them, have always faced discrimination. Nonetheless, that's news to me. Thanks for the tip.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on March 17, 2003 5:02 PM

Ireland did not really celebrate St. Patrick's Day the way we do until about 1980. Now Dublin's parade is almost as popular as New York's.

By the way, I can assure you that Guiness is better on the other side of the Atlantic. The Irish natives that come to New York assure me that something was lost on the way over.

Finally, I saw Mr. McCourt the other day doing a reading of stories about Irish immigration at the World Financial Center. He looks pretty much the same as he did, and he's still a great storyteller. He told the story about choir practice and his voice changing, which I remember from a million (or just 20 years) ago.

Posted by: William Hughes on March 17, 2003 7:48 PM

Rob, you're right, Mardi Gras is not specific to one ethnic group, though I'd say that in the US it's mostly identified with the French/Cajun heritage of Louisiana. Given that, there are both ethnic and religious aspects (Shrove Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, which is a time of prayer and abstinence) that are increasingly overlooked.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on March 18, 2003 7:21 AM

Update to my earlier post: the Jensen article is online, although it comes with a musical rendition of the song "No Irish Need Apply" which you may find annoying.

Posted by: alkali on March 18, 2003 8:53 AM

I've heard of Jensen's work (online here). It may be that there were not many "No Irish Need Apply" signs, but I don't think he proves his thesis that there was therefore no discrimination. It seems more like a political thesis than an historical one, and at a guess is intended to undercut black politicial claims of discrimination and reinforce the right-wing view of "the myth of victimization."

I think he misses the forest in his rush to 'disprove' a particular tree.

I've meant for some time to read How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev, but I just haven't gotten around to it. Ignatiev's hypothesis is that Irish Americans played the race card in the 1820s-1840s to differentiate themselves from free northern blacks.

Maybe now that the Heights branch of the HPL is open again, I'll pick it up. It would be interesting to compare the two.

Posted by: Michael on March 18, 2003 9:31 AM