On March 17, 1987, I experienced my first American St. Patrick’s Day, my first offshore glimpse of my own country, cast and broadcast in psychedelic green. Now, years later, I recall that day as a scrum of bodies, beer, and mushy corned beef.
Back then, I was working as a waitress in an Irish-American pub and restaurant in upstate New York. Three months earlier, I had flown into JFK Airport from Ireland.
On St. Patrick’s Eve, I telephoned my parents back home, explaining that the pub would be too loud and choc-a-block to call on the actual day itself. “Why?” My late-mother asked. “What’s all the fuss about?”
The “fuss” started the next morning with an 11 a.m. queue outside the pub door. It ended at 5 a.m. the following morning as taxi drivers waited for the last party-goers to navigate the sidewalk between snow banks dribbled with human vomit. The middle hours had been a mosh pit of sweating bodies swaying to a Wild Rover band. All this for St. Patrick, a holy man from Wales who banished snakes and Celtic paganism from Ireland.
This was all a million miles from my childhood memories of St. Patrick’s Day. Back then, we walked to church in our best winter coats, sporting our sprigs of freshly-pulled shamrocks from the fields. And that homegrown, 1960s version is another million miles from Ireland’s current Disney-fied extravaganza which borrows backward from its American counterpart.
The next day, I soaked my blistered waitress’ feet, and then tallied the day’s tips. I was saving up for my first year in an American graduate program, and, in one very long day of pushing through the crowds with trays of beer in plastic cups, I had doubled my weekly salary as a primary (elementary) school teacher back home. Only three months in my new and adopted country, and I’d already learned that the wearin’ o’ the green has both a payoff and a price.
For the next twenty-one years I would learn just what that price was (and is) each time someone mimicked my accent back to me—the ‘faith `n begorrah, Barry Fitzgerald version. Or each time someone called me Colleen, because “that’s what all you Irish girls are named.” Or each time I was told the “seven-course-Irish-dinner” joke (a six pack and a potato). Or when I reneged on that drink for the road, and someone commented, “Aw, Jesus, you’re Irish. You must drink.”
Amidst all of this mimicry and mirth, I always wonder if this same jokester would mimic any other non-native or regional accent back to its speaker. Or if he or she would regale a (insert national or ethnic group) woman with a joke about (insert corresponding stereotypical food or beverage).
Now, let me confess here: Except for a wincing look, I’ve only spoken up once—a silence I never keep in the face of homophobic or xenophobic slurs that demean other sub-groups. So in twenty-one years, have I, too, internalized that message that the Irish in America are exempt from the standard politesse that tries to purge insult from our sidewalks, our workplaces, and our public discourse? From Hollywood to Haverhill, from the St. Patrick morning’s roasts to the “devil-knows-your-dead” toasts, we Irish have fed this sense of ourselves as the group in America who can take the joke—however demeaning and stereotypical that joke is.
Historically, a series of Punch cartoons (“The Bogtrotters,” “The Irish Ogre”) in the mid-to-late 1800s portrayed the newly arrived Irish in America as drunk, illiterate, ape-like, and racially inferior. Back then, the cartoonists gave us a flat nose, pronounced mouth and lips, low forehead, and a general air of brutishness. According to one historian, “Americans in the mid-1800s were just beginning to consider the theory of evolution … in the Irishmen, they detected animalistic qualities …”
As the new-kid-on-the-block scapegoats, the Irish were not alone. Others, including the Chinese, the African Americans, and the Germans, had their ethnic or national traits misrepresented, exaggerated, and mocked.
Every year, our gift shops and drug stores replace their gyrating Santas with pea-green leprechauns and the racks of “Happy St. Patty’s” greeting cards with their palsied face drunks and overflowing beer mugs. Granted, the 1800s insult has become the 21st-century gag (and retail sales targets), but there’s nothing happy about having one’s country drawn as loutish and drunken. And nothing can convince me that all of it is fully divorced from those 1800s Punch cartoons.
Two centuries ago, the Irish might have shared the insult-podium with other national or ethnic groups. But if we apply some real equity of standards, when’s the last time you saw a Kwanza, a Hanukah, or a Chinese New Year card which depicted its own annual celebration and its celebrants via such buffoonish cartoons? So here’s the bottom-line truth: There’s little of today’s St. Patrick’s iconography that I would want my children interpreting or internalizing as being part of them or their heritage.
This March 17th, I’ll get up and go downstairs and feed the cat. Then I’ll put on some coffee to take back upstairs to my attic office that looks out over the back garden. Until our New England spring comes and the trees fill in, I work within eye-view of the Merrimack River and Salisbury Point—at the crossroads of two major American waterways and the country’s industrial and maritime histories. From my attic window, I look up-river toward the mill-girls and my own immigrant and laboring past. I look down-river to the Atlantic and all of our journeys and hopes out and back, west and east.
While my computer boots up, I clean off my erasable white-board, replace the March 16 “To-Do” list with one for March 17. On-screen, the Google page is sporting a few green shamrocks. “Gosh, yes,” I’ll think. “It’s a great day to be Irish.”