I normally don’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day at all. It’s a day I make a point to call my (Irish) grandmother, but that’s about as far as it goes for me. But (obviously) a lot of people do, and it’s definitely something I think it’s worth talking about.
I’m specifically talking here about St. Paddy’s Day celebrations as they manifest in North America. Here’s the thing: the fact that this very Irish holiday is recognized and celebrated here is not in itself problematic. The tradition of celebrating St. Paddy’s day here grew out of the celebrations of Irish immigrants who used to day to celebrate and feel connected their heritage. And these days many North Americans continue to value and take pride in their Irish ancestry, and it’s reasonable that they should do so by continuing the celebratory tradition of the first-generation immigrants.
However, a lot of the time, the way the day gets celebrated here is often extremely problematic. On St. Patrick’s Day, “Irishness” becomes a costume that anyone can choose to put on for the day. I’m going to be very clear here: “Everyone’s Irish on St. Paddy’s Day” is an extraordinarily appropriative sentiment. Wearing something that says “Kiss me, I’m Irish” when you’re not, is kind of fucked up. “Irish” is a real category of real people, with real history and culture, and it’s not okay to just shit all over that because you think green beer is cool, and drinking is fun. I mean, I agree; drinking is fun, and green food colouring always makes things better, but it’s possible to have fun without appropriating someone else’s culture and turning it into something unrecognizable to them.
Of course, this is where things start getting a little complex for me. Because, as I mentioned above, a fair number of North American folks do have some cultural claim to St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. But at the same time, a lot of Irish people have some pretty negative views of the ways in which the day is recognized, even by people of Irish ancestry. These feelings range from annoyance (at people claiming to take pride in their Irish heritage without demonstrating any knowledge of that heritage) to actual offense (at the way that present-day celebrations reduce the Irish culture to green costumes and binge drinking). They don’t see themselves in the trappings of North American St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, which is definitely odd, and probably problematic, given that the celebrations are meant to be a recognition of Irish heritage, right?
Well, maybe not.
My thinking is that these days we have people who are many generations divorced from their Irish heritage celebrating the day in a wide variety of ways. But the thing is that many of these people learned to value and celebrate St Patrick’s Day in whatever way they do because that’s how their parents did it. And their parents did it that way because that’s how their parents did it, and so on through parent’s parents and parent’s parent’s parents. And at some point, it goes back to when Irish immigrants in North America first started making St. Patrick’s Day a big deal here.
And yeah, it’s true that the way the day is celebrated in north America is unrelated to the way actual Irish people view the day. It’s certainly not representative of Irish culture or truly connected to Irish heritage. But it just might be a valid aspect of the distinct culture of the Irish diaspora in North America. The over-the-top nature of the celebrations very likely come from a much stronger need to be boisterously and loudly “Irish” as felt by immigrants in a new land who wanted to connect with other Irish people in North America. St. Patrick’s Day may very well have taken on its own new meanings to these early generations in North America, but I don’t think that this evolution can be called appropriation, as it was done by Irish people. It’s simply a different interpretation of the importance of the day. And people of Irish descent who celebrate it today aren’t so much connecting to their actual Irish ancestry, as to their Irish immigrant ancestry, which is a legitimate thing.
It would just be nice if we could acknowledge that that’s what it is, and stop pretending that St Paddy’s Day celebrations here have anything to do with Ireland.
And yeah, stop making “Irish” into a costume, and stop pretending you’re Irish if you’re not (even if you have Irish ancestry; you’re not Irish, you’re of Irish descent (me too!)).