Kiss Me, I’m Irish? I Think Not

By Jennifer Allen

“When anyone asks me about the Irish character, I say look at the trees. Maimed, stark and misshapen, but ferociously tenacious." ~ Edna O'Brien

March 17 is an odd celebration in the world today. It's known commercially as St. Patrick's Day, and known religiously as the Day of the Festival of Patrick commemorating his death in 461 AD.

Most folks in America remember this day as an excuse to wear green, drink beer, visit parades, and wear an abundance of 4 leaf shamrocks/clovers.

A lot of folks don't really question any other meaning behind the holiday other than it's named after some Catholic dude who's also the patron saint of Ireland.

The man, himself, was a Roman-British noble who was kidnapped and spent part of his youth in Ireland where he “found God" and eventually returned to England to become a priest. He then would come back to Ireland for the sole purpose of converting local Pagans (the “snakes" often mentioned in lore) to Catholicism.

St. Patrick's Day has been celebrated in some form since the 9th century, but it didn't really become a holiday in the US until the late 1700's. But the more notable traditions of green clothing and dyeing various waterways green came in the 20th century. In 1991, the US Congress officially made March Irish-American Heritage Month to coincide with the holiday.

We all seem to make an effort to at least be temporarily Irish on St. Pat's Day, but just like the holiday itself, many do not seem to grasp the full meaning of the culture and their place in American society.

The first influx of Scots-Irish (Protestant farmers seeking to leave a Catholic dominated Ireland) in North America arrived with some of the very first settlers, and many participated in the battles leading up to America's Independence from England. Most of those who identify as Scots-Irish are now in the Appalachian regions including the Carolinas and were a big influence on the Bluegrass and Country music genres popular today.

A second large immigration was spurred from huge famine in Ireland between 1820 and 1860. This continued throughout the 19th century due to a mixture of people seeking the “American dream" and those who were sent there to work off a debt or their prison time.

My father's family came over to America around the early 1800's. In fact, my great-great grandfather settled in North Carolina to become a millworker. My mother's family (also Irish) eventually settled in Missouri after the American Civil War. Both of my grandmothers were from Scottish families. My husband's family has a mixture of Welsh, Scottish and Irish ancestry as well.

So while I am basically a “mutt" like so many other Americans these days, most of my blood and culture originates from that part of the globe.

One thing that I think a lot of folks don't realize is that the Irish throughout the 19th century and early 20th century were seen in the same light that are often equated with Latinos, East Asians and South Asians nowadays. The Irish immigrants were the ones who did many of the blue collar professions that no one else wanted. To become a part of the “American Dream" many sought out work in factories, railroad expansion, town and street construction, as police and firemen, and other low paying jobs. The ones sent over as indentured laborers often were house servants or farmhands. Just like their African-American counterparts in the South, these workers were essentially slaves. Unlike their counterparts, however, once they had worked off their sentence they had a choice to either return to Ireland or settle as a free citizen in America.

Often these Irish workers were seen as no better than their darker skinned co-workers and racial slurs were tossed at them as well. A common view of Irish women working as maids was that she had “about the same intelligence as that of an old grey-headed Negro." Ironically the conflict of the American Civil War caused the Irish immigrants to especially despise African-Americans. Firstly, the Irish were being conscripted by the North into a War they didn't feel they needed to fight. After the War, the newly freed slaves were now a part of the same blue collar work force the Irish had been a part of for decades. This was not much different than the animosity towards immigrants today for “taking away our jobs."

It wasn't until more Irish Catholics came to America (who were often more educated than their Protestant counterparts) that they started to seek positions such as doctors, lawyers, politicians, and businessmen. The Prohibition era of the 1920's was especially generous for Irish businessmen who would ship whiskey and beer at top dollars to supply the bootleggers of the day.

All in all, Irish and the South Asian peoples may seem very different, but in truth we are not. Both were oppressed by British rule to the point that we had to struggle to maintain our cultures and way of life. Both have had to deal with decades of being seen as little more than “the help" or stereotyped into a specific social-economic category. Not all Irish are drunken policemen or Catholic priests just like not all Indians are vegetarians who run convenience stores or drive taxis.

So before you think about pinning that green clover on your shirt and heading over to your favorite Irish pub on March 17, remember that for a good deal of American history being Irish was not all it was cracked up to be. Whether you have dark skin or light, enjoy the holiday as not only a celebration of Irish culture, but also to understanding the hardships many of our Irish ancestors had to endure and help make America into what it is today.

Jennifer Allen works at Saathee and is also a Podcaster, Blogger, Photographer & Graphic Artist