Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Authenticity and St Patrick's Day

I had to do a little reflecting before I felt I could speak clearly about this. I truly feel that after Valentine's Day, St Paddy's Day may be one of the most contrived of all the holidays. The term I was introduced to many years ago was "plastic Irish". This refers to all the cheesiness that accompanies those that express their "Irishness" once a year. The obvious allusion is to the cheap, New Years Eve or Mardi Gras style, throw away, gear that people are so quick to don: tiny green bowler hats, Kiss me I'm Irish shirts (or some offensive derivative), green beer, orange beards, rub-on Notre Dame mascot tattoos... in the same sense, it refers to the Irish-American music from the 40s and 50s. You know them: When Irish Eyes are Smiling, Toora Loora, pretty much anything by Bing Crosby.

Don't get me wrong. I freaking love Saint Patrick's Day. And I love being of Irish decent. My problem is that the commercialized treatment of the holiday does get a little old. I'm not even talking about the stereotypes of the holiday, like over-drinking and general debauchery. I'm talking about turning a real people into comic strip characters. There is a thin line between laughing with someone and laughing at them. The Irish have never been a people who were afraid to poke fun at themselves. The problem lies in the struggle of the Irish in America for acceptance. The cartoon-like images of the Irish people as leprechauns or drunken brawlers or Papist sheep tend to dehumanize the popular view of them. There is a danger in taking away even a bit of another person's humanity. These type of jokes have a dark history in America. Our modern images are not as funny when we look at their origins.

Needless to say, these portrayals weren't meant to be whimsical or good natured. Imagine these images planted firmly underneath a "No Irish Need Apply" sign. When you've truly educated yourself on what it means to understand a people, or the background behind a "tradition", you start to see them in a different light. Sadly, most of these insensitivities are perpetuated by Irish-Americans themselves. I think if any were to dig deep and see the simmering hate, hidden in jokes and comics, that this country felt for Irish immigrants, they would soon feel like they are Al Jolson in black face.

Ireland is a place with a rich and extremely interesting history. Irish-American history is even more fascinating. The culture, music, literature and (dare I say?) cuisine are distinct and deep and rewarding. So what is left if we take away all the inauthentic Irishness of the day? I would reflect on my St Patrick's Day weekend to answer that. A special Irish Mass, marching in a Parade with proud Irish-Americans (particularly a congressman and a lieutenant governor), eating traditional Irish food, and listening to music that would be recognizable to someone actually from Ireland (some of it even in Gaelic!), was how I felt I was authentically celebrating being Irish and celebrating the feast day of the man that has so much to do with making Ireland so distinctly Irish.