Saturday, March 15, 2008


What St. Patrick's Day Means to Me

Saint Patrick’s Day is one of the High Holy Days on our family calendar. Family legend holds that one of our clan has marched in every New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade since the 1920’s, not long after my paternal grandparents arrived here from County Clare. I myself have marched since childhood.

Some people mock the New York Irish and our embrace of March 17th. They say, with the hint of a sneer, that in Ireland they don’t go this crazy about St. Pat’s Day. They note that nobody in Ireland listens to Irish music anymore – that they disdain it as “trad” (i.e. traditional). Or if they’re feeling particularly snide, they’ll take a shot at the creeping Hallmarkization of the holiday, as beers and bagels are dyed green and businesses try to get a piece of the action.

What they are really saying, of course, is that Irish Americans don’t truly understand Ireland, and that our celebration of the holiday is somehow inauthentic. But here is what they don’t understand: on March 17th, we are not really celebrating Saint Patrick, and we are not even celebrating Ireland. We are celebrating Irish Americans and their story, the story of our ancestors. And for the people gathered on 5th Avenue between 44th Street and 86th Streets, we are very specifically celebrating being New York Irish Americans.

My Irish Epiphany
I didn’t realize this for many years. St. Patrick’s Day was just something our family did. I was excited that it got me out of school. I enjoyed walking up 5th Avenue staring at the skyscrapers. It was fun to see the occasional “celebrity” like Ed Koch or Gerry Cooney wearing Irish sweaters. And I loved the soda bread at my grandmother’s apartment in Astoria afterwards.

Then one year in my early 20’s, I wanted to blow off the parade. I was working in the city and began to believe marching was a little ridiculous. It would be more fun to have a late Guinness-soaked lunch with work friends. But I knew how much my Dad cared, and reluctantly headed from my office to the parade.

As I walked over, though, I realized that the city was somehow…different. I’d been working in New York over a year, and it had become commonplace to me. But as I continued my stroll over, though, I noticed the changes. Bagpipes skirled in the distance and the rat-a-tat-tat of drums ricocheted off the skyscrapers. Street vendors barked out their wares. I passed Irish bars, filled at 10:30 AM, resounding with good cheer and good music.

And the faces! Pretty young ones with shamrocks emblazoned on their cheeks; old men with ruddy cheeks ‘neath twill caps; cops and firefighters, in dress blues, with bushy moustaches. And my favorite, Hispanics and Italians and African-Americans and Asians in Irish sweaters or green plastic hats. If you don’t understand the expression “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”, go to the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City, and you’ll know.

I realized that on this day, the city again became the magical place of my youth. Magical in a way that Christmastime, with its massive influx of tourists, could never be. This wasn’t about Ireland. Or rather, it wasn’t just about Ireland. It was about being an Irish-American descendant in the greatest city in the world.

"The Golden Door"

And of course America, and New York, is where the Irish came in massive numbers for hundreds of years. In the 2000 census, over 30 million Americans claimed Irish ancestry, 11% of the total U.S. population, and 7 times greater than the population of Ireland. Twenty-three American Presidents, including Washington, Jackson, Grant, TR, and of course JFK can claim Irish ancestry. It's something the Clintons and Bushes share. Our greatest living writer is Irish-American, as is the last movie star, and America's newest sports hero. Even Barack O’Bama’s great-great grandfather, Fulmuth Kearney, comes from Moneygall in County Offaly.

The point is that Irish-American culture isn't just a pale imitation of Irish culture; it is a formidable culture unto itself. It dates back hundreds of years, counts numerous notables among its members, and has a powerful and fascinating history. Many Gael-Mheiriceánach, or Irish-Americans, myself included, have stories of our own family’s emigration, stories that are as powerful to us as creation myths. On Saint Patrick’s Day we are not trying to imitate Ireland – we are being Irish America.

So don’t worry about the differences between the Irish in America and the Irish in Ireland. Instead, take a day off work on Monday, grab the kids out of school, and head to Fifth Avenue in New York to soak in some Irish-American culture.

And one tip…Tullamore Dew looks an awful lot like apple juice, so if you’d like a little nip now and then, grab a Snapple Apple bottle and fill it with the juice of the barley

Book tip: For years I've tried, without success, to persuade book-loving friends to read Thomas Flanagan's excellent trilogy of Irish history. This blogger does as good a job as any of summing up this excellent trio of novels.

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