Thursday, March 17, 2016

Oh Irish Day is a day of which I rarely took note until recently. I mean, barring elementary school when I had to wear green so no one would pinch me. (And then middle school and high school when I would happily warn anyone that a pinch to me would result in a punch to them.) Nowadays, this random holiday that means extremely little to me, still pops up on my radar because of the internet...and because of annoying decorations put up in nearly every public establishment. I hadn't given much thought to today, because I just didn't fucking care.

Am I of Irish descent? Yes, although more Welsh and more English I have discovered. But did I feel particularly Irish? Not really.

My given name comes from a famous Irish folk song, "Molly Malone" and it was enough to make anyone comment on who I was every March. Couple the name with the freckles and the round face, and everyone just assumes I'm a cute little Irish girl. But I've really only ever identified as American. Before I started learning about my own heritage, I knew that my family had been in America since before the Revolution. I grew up in Ohio, after many generations of ancestors who had lived in Ohio...since before the Revolution. What I knew of myself and the small family I had was all centered around NEOhio. I feel, in my heart, a deep connection to this land. I used to feel guilty for that, because like most Americans, I was taught to feel guilty for taking this land from someone else. It wasn't until I was older, met some Native Americans, learned about the history of the world and America's part in it, and learned about my own personal ancestry, that the guilt faded away. What resides in me now, and has for over a decade, is a deep love of Ohio and a feeling of being from this land, not another land across a sea.

But then I had to meet a man of Irish descent. Not your average American idea of that descent, but actually traceable descent. On top of that, I've followed an Irish girl on Instagram and Twitter for over a year now, so I get her side of it. She has recently retweeted streams of tweets from young Irish people, living in Ireland, dealing with their feelings about Ireland and its oppression.

So here we are again, with all the Tweets about those stupid Americans who want to drink green beer and spell the name of the holiday wrong. But the thing is, all of this noise is largely wrong. And so, I'm gonna tell you about it.

Let's start with the myth of "St. Patty's Day" as an incorrect form of the name of today's holiday. First of all, those who would assert that "Patty" is a shortened version of the female name, "Patricia," and not the Irish-Gaelic name, "Pádraig," have got it all wrong. The Saint for whom this day is named, was "Patricius." The Latin name came first, the Gaelic names came later, and they changed over time, including a female version. So the reality is that Patricius used only that Latin name and never the Gaelic name, since he wasn't actually Irish. Which means, if we want to talk about Saint Patricius, we can certainly call him "St. Patty," a shortened version of the original Latin name.

The thing is, the modern Irish seem to have forgotten the Latin roots of the name that was then changed to have a Gaelic form (originally, Cothrige, in the Old Irish). The Irish also seem to forget that people and language change over time. If Americans who rarely or never use the Gaelic form of the name, "Patrick," want to shorten the name of the holiday as it's celebrated here to, "St. Patty," because of the American name, then they can. It's language. It changes.

But that actually brings me to some other disturbing patterns I've noticed on Twitter. There are many young Irish who are railing against the oppression they feel they still experience from the way England has treated the Irish through the years. The Irish have a long history of various political struggles, and I am not educated enough to go into it. You can start reading in history books and continue to online sources and find a variety of conflicting ideas about the actual oppression of the Irish. Some say it was the Normans who oppressed Ireland after they had already changed Britain's native culture. I can't go into that, honestly. I can't argue for a country in which I've never lived and a history I have never studied. What I can say is that some of what was said on Twitter is wrong.

I replied to a long thread about the oppression of the Irish. It had a lot of historical points about England's decisions in the history of Ireland. It was interesting but it was also partly wrong, because it excluded the Irish Diaspora and all of those of Irish descent who had to flee Ireland for various reasons, including being sold into slavery in the U.S., an extremely dangerous situation. In fact, when the Irish first came to the U.S., they weren't even considered white. Whatever they felt they had escaped in Ireland, might suddenly have become worse here. It was only through decades of struggle that the Irish were, eventually, able to assimilate into the dominant culture of the U.S.

Continuing with this theme of Irish youth taking to Twitter to express their feelings on the oppression of the Irish is this idea that those not of Ireland are somehow not actually Irish. It's a very hurtful idea, to many descendants of Ireland and the Irish Diaspora, and it's extremely exclusionary. It's an interesting point of view that directly opposes the history of the Irish Clann System. In that system, a person did not have to be born into a clan to be part of that clan. In fact, a person could become part of a plan through fostering or even through political strategy. This is the basis for the civilization of Ireland. Deciding, as a modern Irish person, that only some people can called themselves Irish goes against the very history of their culture. Furthermore, excluding the millions of Irish who fled due to the potato famine, the aforementioned slave trade, or any of the reasons that anyone of Irish birth might need to leave their own country (which has a history of fast growing population due to religious beliefs), sets up a specific type of privilege. Claiming that the only people who can be Irish are those born in Ireland ignores centuries of Irish history and rich Irish culture that has been preserved and honored as the Irish have had to leave their own country.

To put it plainly, it's ignorance. Ignorance of the original name of Saint Patrick. Ignorance of how language changes over time. Ignorance of the culture of Irish and the hierarchy of the clan system. Ignorance of the modern history of poverty and oppression that forced indigenous Irish people to find homes elsewhere.

It's also pretty fucking stupid. To express sadness and bitterness about oppression and to use that sadness and bitterness to exclude others isn't the way to end oppression. Oppression ends with equality and acceptance. When we see everyone, even those from somewhere else or who look different from us, as equal to us, then we have no reason to oppress. Blaming Irish-Americans for misunderstanding "true Irish culture," is antithetical to desiring a life free from oppression.

It's easy to ridicule Americans and Irish-Americans. It's extremely popular to call out Americans for cultural appropriation. It's become a trend recently to strip Americans of their identities and to tell them that they have no right to experience another culture or to participate in another culture. However, doing so to Irish-Americans is wrong. The Irish came to America for a variety of reasons, often through no fault of their own and often to escape poverty and oppression. What they discovered when they arrived was decades of slavery and discrimination and a struggle to be accepted into American society. Through those decades, instead of abandoning their culture, changing their names, and doing whatever it took to fit in; they actually preserved their culture and continued to celebrate it and to express it. Using this Irish holiday or any other reason to ridicule and exclude Irish-Americans is as wrong as any oppression delivered through British politics. It speaks to a lack of understanding of culture and history.

I feel sad for these Irish youth, because I was always taught that the Irish are a loving and welcoming culture who have managed to maintain their own identities despite whatever obstacles where thrown their way, and managed to maintain a friendly and accepting culture. To see Irish youth take that same history and twist it into something it isn't and express bitterness and angst in the face of adversity seems to go against the very culture that has given the world something to love. There is a reason that so many people want to participate in this Irish Holiday, and it's not because of the green beer. It's because the Irish have preserved a beautiful culture, rich in music and dance, full of good humor, despite all the years of oppression, poverty, and various troubles they experience.

I hope what I've seen on Twitter is a phase or an expression of a tiny minority. I would hate to see Irish culture become bogged down in the same volatile behavior I see among many youth today who feel the proper reaction to inequality is to bring down others, both literally and figuratively. That's not the way, and that is not Irish to me.


  1. This is a REALLY GREAT post! My roots are almost completely Scottish and Irish (I'm not sure if they were Scotch-Irish), and a tiny bit of Cherokee. I've always felt pretty connected to Scotland and Ireland and that heritage. I have a pretty rich history and I really try to follow it back.

    Fun random facts, Davy Crockett is my great-great-great-great-great grandfather. The author Joel Chandler Harris was my great-great uncle.