Last week, I was struck by sheer terror when an online listicle about St. Patrick’s Day Parades caught my eye, and briefly made me think I had been caught out of the house on the dreaded holiday. Luckily, I still had several days to prepare, and hide.
It shouldn’t be like this. As you might guess from my name, I was brought up to be excessively Irish, or as Irish as a little Midwestern girl whose ancestors hadn’t seen Europe since the potato famine could be. I was given picture books of the beautiful home country, that I might perchance return there some day. I was shown documentaries about famine, colonialism, and the many persecutions that had visited my people. My young mind was filled with Joyce and Yeats; my young ears, with Enya and U2.[*] I witnessed step-dancing, and by God, I was moved.
In those days, I loved St. Patrick’s Day. I had special green outfits, and abundant home decorations. Light-up shamrock pins and coffee mugs insisting that others kiss me were involved. And there was, in the middle of all the gimmickry, something like a celebration of cultural heritage. But no more.
It’s become clear to me that the holiday I saw as a celebration of history is in fact nothing but a national competition to see who can go quickest from the bar to the overnight holding cell. A culture’s proudest day shouldn’t be marked by anticipatory police ramp-ups. The fine Irish men and women who emigrated to this country wanted many things for their descendants. One thing they did not want was for us to be hailed with headlines like “St. Patrick’s Day Parade celebrations a success with little crime” (only ten arrests for “public intoxication” and “simple assault!” Hurrah), “All Time Low for Crime During Hoboken St. Patrick’s Celebration” (that’s eleven arrests, plus thirty-nine ambulance calls) and “No Arrests in Syracuse St. Patrick’s Day Brawl.” This holiday is now so thoroughly associated with substance abuse and random violence that it’s news when we don’t assault anybody.
To this, I imagine, some of my Irish-American compatriots will respond by lifting (yet another) glass and proclaiming that we are a wild and party-prone people. But there’s a term for when your community gets to reserve an entire day for public intoxication and petty crime without being stigmatized. That term is “white privilege.”
There were, and are, progressive reasons to celebrate Irish heritage. Some of them are even embedded in St. Patrick’s Day itself. The commandment to wear green, irritating as it may be, is derived from radical history: The “wearing o’ the green” was a sign that you identified with Irish revolutionaries against their British colonizers, and, like the song says, you could get hanged for it. It’s an anti-colonialist statement that’s since been wrapped up in Hallmark and stripped of its meaning. Similarly, Irish-American history is largely working-class history—a history of poverty as the colonized Other in Ireland that soon became poverty as the immigrant Other in America.
In this context, Saint Patrick mattered. I grew up with cigarette-voiced old women reverently repeating his miracles: He heard the voice of Ireland itself, calling out to him for the Word of Christ! He drove the snakes out of Ireland to symbolize that the Devil had no hold over its people! Whether you take the magical view of Patrick that I grew up with, or the far less inspiring historical version, a Christianized Roman missionary responsible for stomping out the indigenous religion, he’s traditionally remembered as a poor person’s saint, a man who was chiefly known for protecting a land of colonized people, and for watching over their exploited and marginalized descendants in a new country. Like a lot of folk heroes, his purpose was to assure people who didn’t matter to the ruling class that they still mattered to God.
Radical uprisings, working-class solidarity, a God who loves the poor; if I were to come up with the least appropriate symbol for any or all of the above, alcohol poisoning would have to be at the top of my list. The popular conception of a jolly, leprechaun-esque “Irish drunk” is probably a picture of a working-class guy without access to health care, self-medicating to deal with an exceptionally painful and debilitating illness. It’s possibly the least celebratory image you can come up with. Yet Americans have stuck with it, probably because getting blasted is a lot easier than developing class politics.
Irish assimilation has come and gone; the last time anyone was scandalized by an Irish Catholic getting a job took place on January 20, 1961, and even then, people were only shocked because it was such a good job. (The guy’s last name, if you’ll recall, was Kennedy.)
There are a lot of things you can still do to celebrate Irish history: You can recognize how for-profit prisons continue the same history of labor exploitation that Irish-Americans historically claimed as their own, and you can organize against them. You can develop your sense of working-class solidarity and learn how to support immigrant communities that are still seen as outsiders. If you’re Catholic, you can celebrate the history of radical Catholic activism and ministry to the poor. Hell, you can even put on some Enya while you do it.
But you can’t do St. Patrick’s Day. That holiday, I’m sorry to report, has been ruined. It’s time to cancel it—and all the more or less meaningless hoo-hah about “Irishness” that’s been built up around it. If it helps, I’m sure you’ll make Paddy happy by doing so. Even in his lofty perch in the no-snakes section of Heaven, surrounded by shamrocks and worshipful Irish great-aunts knitting him sweaters, I’m sure Saint Patrick is tired of people puking on subway cars in his name.
[*] Correction: Because of a typo, in an earlier version, this sentence had “Keats” instead of “Yeats.” It has since been corrected; apologies!