Thursday, March 17, 2011

St. Patrick's Day =/= Ireland

Every year at around this time... no, actually, specifically on this very day, I start to get into internet arguments with Irish people, that is, actual Irish people living in Ireland, about St. Patrick's day.

Their argument usually amounts to some variation on being offended that it's celebrated by drinking green beer (which they don't drink in Ireland), eating corned beef brisket (which they don't eat in Ireland), and talk of stereotypical leprechauns, shamrocks, drunks, etc.

To which I say: It's not really about you at all.

I guess to an outside observer, St. Patrick's day in America looks like yet another American tradition cobbled together from ideas stolen from other cultures. And in a way, it is. But if anyone truly thinks that St. Patrick's day in America has anything to do with present day Ireland, they don't know the whole story. In fact, it has very little to do with Ireland at all. American St. Patrick's day is a wholly American celebration.

Some of my ancestors, like the ancestors of many, many people in the United States, came here during the potato famine. Though my name, through marriages and happenstance, is the bastardized German "Armintrout", you'll find Loudens, Cahills, and Smiths in my family tree. In the Louden family, especially, they're proud to be the decendants of Irish immigrants, and most of us describe ourselves as Irish. But we're not so thoroughly American and thick as to assume that we can just stroll on into Ireland and claim we live there, nor do we feel kinship with the Ireland of today. The Ireland we celebrate on St. Patrick's day is an Ireland that no longer exists, that never existed in the first place. An Ireland born in our family histories, out of the stories (read: lies) our parents and grandparents tell us about a magical place where everything was super great and magical and full of wonder and pride, but our ancestors left because they just felt like it, okay? Stop asking so many questions and do not, under any circumstances, read any Frank McCourt books.

It's the same with most decendents of Irish immigrants. Say Sam McIrish immigrates to America in 1875. He marries a Polish girl, but he raises his children telling them constantly that they're Irish. He tells them stories of Ireland and how wonderful it was, but also stories about the terrible hardships he endured. Those children grow up rolling their eyes at the tales of how horrible life was for their father, because they're usually told in conjunction with phrases like, "You kids have it sooooo easy," and "When I was your age." So, when they have children of their own, they leave those bits out. They raise that third generation with tales of how great Ireland was, how proud they should be to be Irish (Okay, yes, and a little Polish or Italian or whatever got mixed in there, but that's not as important as IRISH). Somewhere along the line, it becomes vogue to eat corned beef brisket to celebrate ones' Irishness, though I'm pretty sure corned beef was invented by Jewish people. And out of all of this comes our weird, effed up traditions. The drinking probably arose because, well, let's face it, when you're a poor immigrant, you probably want to get good a tore up any opportunity you can get, just to escape the harsh realities of life.

So, if you're Irish, like, born in Ireland, and St. Patrick's day is super upsetting to you, please know that we don't really think you're all drunken red-headed short people jealously guarding your pots o' gold, saying things like "wee" and "blarney" all the time. Only the severely ignorant think that, and they probably think equally demeaning things about other countries as well. We're just over here, celebrating our ancestors the way we have for generations, regardless of whether or not the tradition makes sense. And it's not like you can get upset at that, Ireland. I mean, come on. Pot, kettle, you know?

And as for the saying, "Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick's day," the truth is, nearly everyone in America probably does have some Irish heritage, whether they're aware of it or not. That's because Irish immigrants got over here and got their swerve on, big time. If you're an American with more than four generations in America behind you, chances are you got some Irish in there somewhere.

So, Americans, celebrate your awesome affinity for turning nearly any mundane weekday into an occassion for public intoxication and the wearing of dopey hats. Do it with pride and as much dignity as you can muster while vomiting up green beer and cabbage in the backseat of a cab. Because you're not celebrating Ireland or being Irish. You're celebrating being an Irish-American, because we're pretty much super awesome.

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