Like any true Irish-American, one of my favorite holidays is St. Patrick’s Day. With the passing of the most recent St. Paddy’s Day, I gained a new perspective on the true meaning of this decorated day.
Sure, the festivities are a good time for pub crawling to the sounds of Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly ringing in my ears, but what used to be more of a religious festival has morphed into the unofficial day to celebrate one’s Irish heritage. In between the green Bud Lights and shamrock-shaped glasses is a day that is for both celebration and reflection on just how far Irish America has really come.
Being raised Irish Catholic, St. Patrick’s Day was different for me growing up than it was for the rest of my friends. When I was younger, my dad made shamrock-shaped pancakes and green orange juice for breakfast for my sister and me before school. We even wore these little green pins on our Catholic school uniforms so the Irish nuns couldn’t give us any grief for not showing reverence to the occasion. As I grew up and began to drift away from the Catholic side of my lineage, my family began to immerse me in my Irish history.
Instead of “kiss me I’m Irish” and some of the other more well-known stereotypes, I learned about the devastating effects of the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s. I learned about the mass Irish immigration to the United States and how the Irish used their numbers to sway the political spectrum in America for the next 100 years. I learned about the resounding, yet complicated legacy of the IRA and the tension between Ireland and the British Empire. For me, it wasn’t enough to claim I was Irish. My family’s expectations of me were to truly know my culture, and I feel like that is where St. Patrick’s Day loses some of its effect.
In past celebration, I’ve seen what many use the holiday for. It seems that the modern day St. Patrick’s Day is to get as drunk as possible while wearing a “Kiss my shamrock” or “Irish yoga” shirt, but it should be much more than that. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy my own brand of Irish yoga. I’m not trying to be the fun police saying one shouldn’t drink for the holiday. Alcohol has had a place in Irish history for centuries, and not only as a means to get drunk.
The local pub was where the community gathered. When the Irish immigrants came to America, the pubs were where political meetings were held and where Irish workers orchestrated the first labor unions. In many cases, the pub owner was the most intelligent member of the community. Laborers who couldn’t read or write would take legal documents or bills from landlords to the pub owners to make sure they weren’t being taken advantage of. A different perspective on an Irish pub compared to a spinoff of an Irish pub like “Filthy McNasty’s,” wouldn’t you say?
What I’m saying is that for future March 17 celebrations, if you’re Irish you should use the holiday to dig into your past and celebrate it. Ask your grandparents about being Irish. Trust me when I say that their experience will be much different from yours. “Irish need not apply” wasn’t just a cliche or something in movies. Maybe take this opportunity to celebrate the 100th anniversary of The Easter Rising, which is basically Ireland’s version of the 4th of July. The song “The Foggy Dew” seems like a drinking song, but it is a lament on the rising and a celebration of an event that changed the course of Irish history forever.
Famous writers like James Joyce and Oscar Wilde, brilliant actors like Liam Neeson, war heroes and freedom fighters like Michael Collins and Bobby Sands, and the individual stories from every Irish family in America are what make Irish culture and history rich and full of substance. These are the stories that have shaped both Ireland’s history and America’s as well.
The next time St. Patrick’s Day comes around, celebrate with pride. If you’re Irish, celebrate how far your family and your people have come. If you’re not, celebrate the story of one of America’s first refugee populations that epitomized the phrase “huddled masses” and how this group of immigrants shaped the course of American history. You have an entire year to discover Irish heritage, but know that this holiday is more than just a punch line. It is a day to show pride in being Irish in whatever way you see fit.
Neil Healy studies communications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @NP_Healy.