WASHINGTON, March 17, 2012 — First off I am of Irish descent. But I do not mist up on St. Paddy’s Day. “Danny Boy” is maudlin treacle, even on a bagpipe. Corn beef and cabbage is only eatable with lots of mustard. I don’t wear green on March 17th. When you have green eyes, why dilute them with unflattering shades of green.
And the last place you want to be on St. Patrick’s Day is at a St. Paddy’s parade where your shoes are apt to be the victim of vomit from someone who is probably not even Irish but who is wearing a Leprechaun hat that says, “Kiss me I’m Irish.”
I am proud of my ancestry and the contribution of the Irish to literature, from Oscar Wilde to Edna O’Brien to Frank McCourt, and to American political life. But spare me that hyphenated Irish-American stuff. I am an American. We all came here to become Americans and we should have left the hyphens on the boat.
My grandparents came over to America in the early 1900s, escaping insufferable poverty, so I am second generation American. Notice no hyphen. Just American.
Fleeing the Tyranny of Poverty
My grandmother was a scullery maid in one of the great DuPont houses in the Brandywine Valley. My grandfather rose to become a foreman in the Pittsburgh steel mills. They finally settled in Chicago in a working-class neighborhood, bought a house, and raised seven Irish Catholic children. I am very proud of my grandparents and all that they achieved by sheer grit and determination.
Like so many immigrants who came here following the American Dream, they achieved it. They were not escaping the devastating potato famine or seeking religious freedom or searching for streets paved for gold. They were fleeing the tyranny of poverty.
And America’s promise was not that you wouldn’t be poor in America, but that you could better yourself and perhaps break out of poverty, something not apt to happen in the old country.
Just ask the German, Bohemian, Italian, Jewish, and, yes, Irish immigrants who were packed into the tenements of New York, scratching for a way to make a living, whether bent over a sewing machine at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company or bent under a hod of bricks. Others succumbed to making a quick buck, working with the Gangs of New York. Some young women became their molls, eschewing working in the sweatshops.
Still others headed West, looking for cheap land, clean air, and the promise of independence. Some stayed rooted in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, learning the ropes and even becoming alderman, working their way up through the Tammany Machine.
Ever wonder why there are so many Irish politicians? Besides the gift of gab, the Irish had the advantage of not having to learn the language even though they spoke with a brogue. Then there was the sheer force of numbers. Five million Irish scrambled off the boats coming into the harbors of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, or slipped in by way of Canada, illegally for the most part.
The Irish Political Dynasties
Just look at the Irish names in American politics: John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Chicago Mayors Daley, father and son, New York Congressman Peter King, Louisiana Governor Huey Long, Wisconsin Congressman Joseph McCarthy, Senator Patrick Moynihan, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, and founder of the Job Corp and Head Start Sargent Shriver. And many more politicians claim some Irish blood and will be found marching in whatever parade is in their city, a shamrock in their lapels.
When I was in college, I threw a St. Patrick’s Day party, serving green beer along with soda bread with cheddar and dyeing the toilet water green with food coloring. The party was a rip-roaring success. And everyone claimed to be Irish and drank to the folks back in County Mayo or Cork, even if their ancestors came from Hamburg or Athens. After all, on St. Paddy’s Day everyone is Irish.
Sadly, St. Patrick’s Day has become an excuse for drinking and sentimental malarkey. Instead, we should be remembering the bigotry our ancestors faced and make sure the new wave of immigrants doesn’t suffer the same discrimination
I would much prefer we partied on March 17th to celebrate our immigrants, all of them, no matter how they found their way here, and their great contributions and energy. Then I could see holding parades and drinking a pint or two. Too often we of Irish descent forget that there were once signs posted that said, “Irish Not Welcomed Here.” And that meant jobs, boarding houses, even the grass in Central Park.
Now that we thrive in America thanks to our Irish grandparents, we often forget that today Latino immigrants suffer the same deplorable bigotry we once faced:
Irish take jobs away from Americans because they work for less;
the Irish choice of religion is an anathema to Protestant America;
Irish are subhuman (just look at some of the cartoons of the 19th century);
Irish are destroying the American way of life.
So, yes, I am proud of my ancestors and the opportunities they gave me by coming to America, facing down discrimination, and striving to make good. However, to descend into the sentimental drivel that passes for Irish culture on March 17 does little to honor the Irish people or their greatness. To be Irish is more than lifting a few Guinness or dyeing the toilet water green.
To contact Catherine Poe, see above. Her work appears in Ad Lib in the Communities at the Washington Times. She can also be heard on the Democrats for America’s Future. She is also a contributor to broadcast, print and online media
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