I usually look forward to St. Patrick’s Day, the feast day of my diaspora’s patron saint, and what over the generations has become the day each year when the wider Irish-American community parades in front of the country as a whole celebrating our heritage and continued deep ties to our ancestral homeland. Yet St. Patrick’s Day is a holiday that brings me mixed emotions. Every year when I march in the parade down Broadway in Midtown Kansas City with my division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, I feel a series of emotions rolling over me like a quick succession of tides. On the one hand there’s the exhilaration of seeing around 200,000 people lining the street to see the parade and the fantastic public exposure that our group gets from that crowd. Equally though I also feel a pang of helpless exasperation at the tired clichés and old stereotypes kept alive by the American public’s acceptance of the holiday as a day for excess, partying, drinking, and lots and lots of green.
My personal identity has always been a complicated matter to explain. For starters, I was born and spent the first few years of my childhood in the Chicago Suburbs, have lived in Kansas City for the last two decades, yet I’ve always seen my family, particularly my paternal family, as being Irish not only in name but also in character. Despite having lived in the United States since my great-grandfather stepped off the boat in Boston in February 1914, we’ve managed to keep up our ties to Ireland, existing in a sort of parallel society to the one back in our family’s hometown in Mayo, something that I honestly didn’t realize had been as potent as it was until I visited my great-grandparents’ hometown for the first time in July 2016.
To us, we’re just as ethnically Irish as anyone back in Ireland, even though our cousins who stayed behind may merely see us as Americans. That dual, hyphenated identity is a uniquely American concept, after all the United States is a settler-society, a country whose majority population does not have deep ethnic roots in this country but came from somewhere else. In the United States it’s possible to have multiple parts to your identity, to be both ethnically Irish and by nationality American, or for short to simply be Irish-American. Yet there are plenty of people on both sides of the Atlantic who disagree with me on that statement, who live by the melting pot ideal that says that every immigrant who comes to America has their native culture and identity melted down into the great soup, coming out of the melting pot as only an American and nothing else. This all-or-nothing mentality doesn’t help foster dialogue and discourse, nor does it benefit our society as a whole in detracting from diversity. It’s just as narrow-minded as the conservative American Catholics who say that you can’t be a Catholic and vote for the Democratic Party. There are strong pressures on this side, and I find myself asking the question, is there a point where we’ve been living in the United States for long enough that our Irishness really begins to fade away?
On the other side, I often feel a deep irritation and frank dismay every St. Patrick’s Day
when I come across the same old stereotypes and clichés about Irish people that in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were expressions of deep-seated anti-Irish prejudices in Protestant societies throughout the English-speaking world. In a 2015 opinion piece for Time, Professor Mike Cronin reminded readers that in the nineteenth century, St. Patrick’s Day was a day for Irish-Americans “to display their civic pride and the strength of their identity,” particularly in the face of “nativist detractors who characterized them as drunken, violent, criminalized, and diseased.” The greatest irony of how our community slowly became an accepted part of mainstream American society is that our day to celebrate our heritage and the fact that we as a diaspora have prospered so well in the face of discrimination here in the United States has been adopted, commercialized, and appropriated into one of a number of days each year when it’s perfectly alright to adopt to excess that “drunken, violent, criminalized, and diseased” behavior that our ancestors were so vehemently accused of. Any notion among the wider public that St. Patrick’s Day is a day to celebrate and honor the accomplishments of the Irish diaspora in the United States, or the fact that we were able to largely overcome discrimination and, in general, as a community make it in America is lost in a sea of green.
In past semesters when discussing the underlying emotions and causes of racism with my students, a common theme often arises, an understanding that race is fundamentally tied to skin color and therefore that one cannot be racist toward white people. Now, for starters the whole American concept of race is flawed from the very beginning, as is any manner of racism from anywhere around the globe. But here after centuries of institutionalized racism we have so deeply codified that understanding of race as being attached to skin color that in order to fill out any official paperwork, whether it be for a driver’s license or the forms necessary to visit a doctor’s office, one always has to check one of those boxes identifying one’s race. Being of largely Irish descent, with the rest of my ancestors all coming from elsewhere in Northern Europe, I always mark the box that’s labelled “white”, yet I can’t help but feel a pang of frustration in doing so. After all, in order to maintain an understanding that people with darker colored skin are somehow “inferior,” we have to set a standard of superiority. In the United States that standard is being white.
By the simple definition of whiteness, namely having light skin that honestly is more a shade of very pale to slightly red pink rather than categorically white, we Irish-Americans are labelled as white people. But when they were arriving in the coffin ships in the 1840s or on the steamers in the 1910s our ancestors certainly weren’t seen as equals to the White Americans who traced their ancestry back to the English, Scottish, and Dutch Protestants who settled those original thirteen colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In part through the very stupidity of categorizing people by their skin color we, along with other European immigrant communities like the Italians, Jews, Poles, Greeks, Russians, and Germans were eventually accepted into the fold of whiteness in order to keep the charade of racial superiority going. Honestly though, the older Americans who insisted on these biologically-baseless racial hierarchies wouldn’t have accepted us into the upper-most level of the American racial hierarchy if we hadn’t forced our way in and proved our worth. In some parts of this country it took the election, and more probably the assassination of President Kennedy for our community to truly become fully accepted in wider American society.
St. Patrick’s Day is a day when we Irish-Americans ought to be proud of all our community has achieved in this country. When we march through our cities before the watching eyes of the rest of the country, we should do so with our heads held high, reminding America that the Irish-American immigrant story is a success story, a story of a community rising from the bottom up, as my friend Pat O’Neill’s book on Kansas City Irish history is entitled. Yet we should be more active in dispelling some of the current narratives and trends associated with St. Patrick’s Day in the wider community. Today in the United States it’s alright to say that you’re Irish for the day and to express that Irishness by living up to the drunken Irishman stereotype, whether you’re ethnically Irish or not. As one of my students said, “you can’t be racist towards white people.” The fact that we’ve been accepted into the dominant racial majority in this country makes it all the more acceptable for all Americans to play into the same racist clichés of generations past.