Point Green Beer? Pog Mo Thoin!
by Anna Clements
Counterpoint Kiss Me, I'm Irish-American
by Rachel Blanzy
On March 17th every year, Irish heritage becomes a point of pride for people throughout the world. Particularly in the US, where nearly everyone has immigrant ancestry, there is a certain dignity gained through the ability to claim an Irish lineage on that day. For me, having an Irish immigrant mother has always had social benefits; since Kindergarten, people have enjoyed hearing her Irish accent and then proceeded to share their own families’ cultural heritage. I don’t know of any other immigrant group in the United States that receives the same type of attention as the Irish; it’s quite peculiar, really. Though the Irish are afforded a special sort of attention in the U.S. and some treatments of Irish cultural heritage are certainly positive, the way Ireland is represented in the US often makes me uncomfortable.
All over the country, nearing St. Patrick’s Day, one can spot t-shirts proclaiming “Instant Irish: Just Add Beer,” “Irish Today, Hungover Tomorrow,” and “I’m So Irish I Bleed Whiskey.” These slogans many students sport around campus reinforce the stereotype of the ‘drunken Irishman.’ Nearly 80% of Irish adults consume alcohol, and more than half of alcohol drinkers in Ireland have a “harmful pattern” of drinking. So over 40% adults in Ireland are alcoholics; shall we raise a glass to that?
Stereotypes are not inherently bad, but we ought to be aware of them in order to be careful with how far we take them, and how they reflect on different communities. Joking about Irish drunkenness can be okay, but the way in which this stereotype permeates US society’s view of Ireland, Irish culture, and Irish immigration inhibits a balanced understanding of these subjects. When people here think of what it means to be Irish, they first think of green beer (and sometimes, as an afterthought, of Catholicism and the Northern Ireland conflict). This both reflects poorly on Irish culture, and promotes problematic perceptions of Irish people themselves. Maybe, to understand this cultural simplification, it might help to look at some ideas outsiders have of what Americans are like.
When my mother was growing up in Ireland, her idea of Americans was based largely on television. One show that stood out was “The Waltons,” about a large family in rural Virginia during World War II. My mother and her siblings as children would mimic the Waltons’ classic closing: “goodnight, Daddy,” “goodnight, John-Boy,” “goodnight, Jim-Bob,” etc. (in the USA, all boys apparently had two names). Their attempt at American ac- cents sounded about as real as do the faux-Irish accents I hear everywhere around this time of year—that is to say, they were grossly exaggerated.
When I was growing up in the U.S., I likewise had a few different ideas of what characterizes Ireland. Once I asked my mother if she and her brothers and sisters had fought a lot growing up. “We fought, but not more than most kids do; why?” she asked. “Well, do Irish people fight a lot?” I explained my reason for asking. As a child, I hadn’t figured out that the “Fighting Irish” of Notre Dame’s football team referred to the athletes’ fierceness on the field, and not to the combative nature of Irish people. Just as U of M chose a fierce, rodent-like animal to use as our mascot, Notre Dame’s mascot must be based on some sort of Irish cultural reality and Irish people must just fight a lot.
This memory is more remarkable when taken in context: I first started school in Ireland, and I had friends there. I knew that Irish people are not more aggressive than anyone else (and less than many, one could argue). But the pervasiveness of the stereotypes made me question that knowledge which I’d gained through experience. Irish people must wear green and drink a lot. They’re quaint, Catholic, superstitious, and they have red hair (never mind the fact that most sources report that less than 10% of Irish people actually have red hair). Stereotypes in the US about Irish people are so powerful that few question them. St. Patrick’s Day should challenge these stereotypes by celebrating Irish history, not reinforce them by ignoring it.
The difference between using beer to celebrate St. Patrick ’s Day, versus drinking on other holidays, is in what it represents. On most holidays, alcohol adds to the festivity. On St. Patrick’s Day, drinking is the main festivity.
Upon running a Google search for “St. Patrick’s Day Ann Arbor,” the first entry listed is from www.annarbor. com: the local beer-drinker’s guide to St. Patrick’s Day.
Conversations about Irish culture and Irish-American heritage, which could be facilitated by this holiday, are instead reduced to conversations about how to get as drunk as possible. Why don’t we focus on the fact that Irish immigrants played a large role in building railroads in the US Midwest—a task that was so dangerous at the time that slaveholders did not want to risk the lives of their slaves to complete it? I have yet to see a shirt that says “My Ancestors Paved the Way for Your Ancestors to Get Here.” No, we stick with drinking slogans.
When I say St. Patrick’s Day, you probably immediately think of 1) wearing the color green, 2) drinking pints of beer, and 3) being—or pretending to be—of Irish decent. Many have analyzed the “Kiss me I’m Irish” shirts swarming the streets and unauthentic Irish pride as offensive, claiming that it propagates negative stereotypes of Irish culture and heritage. However, before arriving to this conclusion, let me offer a different perspective on this beloved mid-March holiday.
St. Patrick’s Day, as we know it today, was actually born in America, not Ireland. The yearly celebration started in 1767 as a parade in New York City when Irish soldiers marched in the spirit of their Irish pride. Also in the nineteenth century, Irish immigrants flooded into the United States and subsequently, areas became anti-Irish because of the influx. Eventually, the Irish immigrants joined together finding strength and pride in their common heritage. Going even further back in history, to the fourth century, Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland wasn’t even Irish; he was English. And according to National Geographic, St. Patrick’s Day was supposedly “a minor religious holiday”—characterized by a special family feast during the season of lent— for centuries in Ireland before it became a “party” in the United States.
But perhaps our perception of this day as a wild party is obscured because we are surrounded by it on an active college campus. Remember the old days in elementary school when you had to wear green to school to prevent yourself from being pinched by all your peers? Hardly the tradition these days, right? And despite the reputation of being a designated party day on college campuses, statistics now report that the vast majority of adults do not plan on celebrating with a traditional pint of Guinness (an authentic Irish brand). The trend of adult drinkers on St. Patrick’s Day has actually been dwindling in the past couple years, meaning that students are potentially the only, or at least prominent, demographic that is giving this holiday such a controversial reputation.
In 2010, the US Census Bureau reported that over 34 million Americans claimed to have Irish ancestry, which is “more than seven times the population of Ireland itself!” This is also the second most popular reported ancestry in the United States, behind German ancestry. Personally, I am about 1/16th Irish, but celebrating St. Patrick’s Day this week isn’t about celebrating deep-rooted Irish traditions for me, nor do I expect it is for most people, whether or not they are truly Irish. And while I know that there are plenty of people who do maintain cultural traditions in their families. I am inclined to think that perhaps the loss of specific, ancestral traditions is the by-product of American culture being that of a “melting pot.” But who says this has to be a bad thing? Who says we can’t find our own subcultures with traditions that are born from the collision of multiple cultural ancestries?
After researching more about the history of St. Patrick’s Day, and learning about numerous facts and myths, I believe the biggest misconception of the holiday is the fact that our celebrations today are not the celebrations that originated from the time this holiday was established. To counter this misconception, we need to recognize that our “Americanized” tradition for this holiday actually originated here in the U.S as Irish immigrants began to call themselves “Irish-Americans.” By acknowledging thus, it is may be accurate to say that this kind of celebration is authentically ours. Instead of criticizing the different observances of the traditionally Irish holiday, we can rather take the opportunity to embrace a community that can celebrate something in common.
Two years ago on St. Patrick’s Day, a friend shouted in the midst of celebration, “Erin Go Bragh!” and I looked at her like she was already slurring her words considering I had no idea what it meant. Unbeknownst to me, it means: “Ireland Forever,” and it is a phrase used to express Irish pride. Though it may sound cheesy, had I not gone out to celebrate that day, I probably would not have learned this phrase—unless of course I took the time to do my homework before I celebrated my historically religious holidays. This is not to say that I don’t respect those who still do regard such holidays as traditionally religious. On the contrary, I think it is very important that we realize we have deviated from the holiday’s religious traditions and understand these implications instead of merely thinking that we celebrate them as an accurate reflection of that culture. So for this St. Patty’s Day, go out and drink your green beer, have fun with your friends, but don’t think that being Irish (or pretending to be for a day) ultimately means being a drunken, green blur.
About the Issue
Point author: Anna Clements is a senior studying Social Theory and Practice, with a minor in Program in the Environment. She spent some of her childhood in Ireland, and frequently returns there to visit family.
Counterpoint author: Rachel Blanzy is a junior at the University of Michigan, majoring in English and Art & Design.
Edited by: Mike Guisinger and Lauren Opatowski
Cover by: Laura Gillmore and Lulu Tang