Tuesday, March 17, 2009

St. Patrick's Day

Today falls another Feast of St. Patrick, the patron of Ireland and of the Irish people. The modern version of this feast day, as an occasion for parades, revelry, 6:00am pub openings in some jurisdictions, and the display of green outfits that would look ridiculous on any other day of the year is a uniquely American custom brought here by Irish Americans as a display of ethnic-and sometimes religious-pride. This way of celebrating St. Patrick's Day has since been exported to Ireland and other parts of the world where the descendants of the Irish diaspora live and thrive.

There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with celebrating in this way. I freely admit that I will probably drink more today than any other day of the year, yet I am not predisposed to behave as a sot. It is fitting to celebrate the pride of being Irish on the feast day of the patron of the Irish nation. Many Irish in Ireland are keen to point out that Irish Americans may be a people of Irish heritage, but we are Americans, not Irish-not the way that they are Irish.

There is some sense of truth to this assertion, since many of our ancestors came from that part of Ireland which to this day remains in dispute whether it should be a part of a united Irish Republic, or whether it should remain-as all of Ireland once was-as part of a union with Britain. Though the present dispute dates from the passage of the Government of Ireland Act of 1922, its roots are centuries deep. The peace in the North of Ireland is making things vastly better in the land of our ancient forebears, but it is a fragile peace. As David McKittrick recently wrote in The Belfast Telegraph, "history and geography dictate that Northern Ireland is never going to be a tranquil, placid place." It is for that reason that so many of our forefathers, Protestant and Catholic alike, came to this country.

Some came here escaping the British-imposed penal codes which forbade both Catholic worship (the single-decade "penal rosary" is still popular among Catholics today, and was used to fool the English public officialdom into thinking that the user was not actually praying the rosary) as well as certain dissenting elements of Protestant belief, such as Presbyterianism or other Calvinist churches-which had at first supported Protestant British rule in Ireland. Others fled to America to escape the artificial "Great Famine" of the 1840's, coming from all parts of Ireland to build a new life and help fashion a new nation to replace the one that they had left which was being destroyed. A very legitimate argument is made by some Irish in Ireland that our ancestors long ago removed us from the day-to-day affairs and conflicts of Irish life, that Irish Americans have lost much of their Irishness.

It is difficult for Irish Americans to understand the complexities which plague the question of Northern Ireland because we have been generations removed from the conflict, and all of the discrimination that Irish people of all faith traditions have faced here is rather mild compared to the conflict in Northern Ireland. We collectively wonder agape at why Ireland has not been easily united or the Irish Question is not easily solved. As people in Belfast and Derry and Down and Antrim pray for the maintenance of peace in the midst of violence by dissidents condemned by all communities, we should remember to study the land of our ancestors with a more careful eye before we pass sweeping judgments about the political situation there.

Irish influence on our country is broad and unmistakable, from the founding until the present day. Irish Americans have done more than make their mark on America, they have built much of it with their own hands. Politics became the way for many Irish Americans to achieve upward mobility in this country, and in civil service and politics we collectively have succeeded, and then in so many other areas of life.

That is worth raising a pint in celebration today.

St. Patrick's Day Last Year

St. Patrick's Day 2007

St. Patrick's Day 2006

St. Patrick's Day 2005

Irish Americans and Politics

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