I was shopping in Kensington Market last week, when I wandered by a store displaying manikins wearing St. Patrick’s day gear. This included lots of green fabric, t shirts with slogans like “sex, drugs and leprechauns” and oddly, plastic “Grinch” face masks. I rolled my eyes, and walked on, but something bothered me about those manikins and the feeling has clung to me like static ever since. After consideration, I have put together four reasons you should stop celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day (North American style anyway)…
1) What’s Saint Patrick’s Day without drinking?
Part of this celebration of all things related to alcohol consumption is a romanticization of drunkenness. The effects of alcoholism are serious, so why are we promoting a clearly unhealthy relationship to alcohol? Celebrating extreme drunkenness in this way is not only disrespectful to those who are affected by alcoholism, it also promotes a culture of irresponsibility and recklessness. In 2012, students celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day in London, Ontario caused $100,000 worth of damage when their riotous, alcohol fueled party turned into a riot.
Compounding this romanticization of drunkenness is the way it plays on negative stereotypes of Irish people. Since when is it appropriate for us to hold a holiday which revolves around celebrating negative stereotypes of one particular ethnicity? I realize that many different ethnicities put up with this kind of treatment on a daily basis. That isn’t right. But just because it’s only for one day doesn’t make propagating tired, old stereotypes about the Irish as drunkards appropriate either.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, displays in shop windows boldly stated “Help wanted – No Irish need apply.” Eugenicists debated which position the Irish occupied in the racial hierarchy in relation to “Whites” and “Blacks.” Even into the 1900s, prominent authors discussed the “Neanderthal characteristics of the native Irish – the great upper lip, the bridgeless nose, beetling brow with low growing hair, and wild and savage aspect.”
Furthermore, “political cartoons during the 19th century questioned how and if the Irish were fit for American democracy by depicting them as apes, and comparing them with similarly caricatured and stereotyped images of African-Americans. The question of “how” and “if” the Irish were suitable for American democracy also emphasized their Catholic religion, and cast doubt on if “papists” were capable of being proper and loyal citizens.” Suddenly, those Grinch masks don’t seem so innocent…
2) Celebrating the Christianisation of Ireland and the loss of autochthonous belief systems
The legend goes that Saint Patrick banished all the snakes from Ireland. But many hold that the archaeological record contains no evidence of snakes having ever been native to Ireland. In fact, some archeologists and historians claim that the snakes of the legend actually represent the banishment of the Druids, for whom the snake was a powerful symbol of rebirth, ancient wisdom, and the old spiritual practices. Christianity, although it has played such a deeply intertwined role in modern Irish history, was not native to its soil. The shamrock grew there before it ever took on the symbolism of the Holy Trinity. Linking Saint Patrick’s Day to Irish identity results in a homogenizing and flattening of Irish history as always having been Christian, resulting in an oddly ahistorical portrayal.
3) “The Wearing of the Green”
The colours of the modern Republic of Ireland flag are green, orange, and white. Each colour correlates to a specific idea: green for the Catholic Irish, orange for the Protestant Irish, and white for hard won peace. An older tradition involved wearing orange if you were of Protestant descent and green if you were of Catholic descent. If you wore green, you made sure to pinch anyone who wore orange on the day, and vice versa. In North America, the colour green has now become synonymous with the celebrations. I’m quite confident that if I went out and polled a random selection of drunken revelers decked out in plastic shamrock bikini tops, ridiculous felt top hats festooned in shamrocks, and mardi gras style green beaded necklaces, most would not have a clue what the colour orange symbolizes on the flag. Not wishing to delve into partisan politics at this time, I will only say this: if you’re going to celebrate someone else’s holiday, the least you could do is educate yourself on the (long, complicated, bloody) history involved.
4) LGBTQ Exclusion.
As if all of this weren’t enough, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Boston is being boycotted because of the parade organizers’ treatment of LGBTQ community members. Guiness, Heineken, Westin, Gillette, and the Boston Beer Company (the makers of Samuel Adams Lager) have pulled their sponsorship from the Parade, after parade organizers decided to ban LGBTQ members from marching with “any and all signage about sexual orientation.” If Saint Patrick’s Day in North America is a celebration of Irish heritage, then why are LGBTQ members of the diaspora not welcome?
Celebrating my Irish heritage is something that I should be able to do in a way that honours my ancestors, does not romanticize a serious illness, and that draws on a remembrance of the full, rich history of Ireland, rather than a stale, inaccurate, homogenized, sugar coated, ahistorical, “Plastic Paddy” version. Furthermore, why are we participating in a capitalistic, consumer driven binge on consumption when we could be using our time to learn so much from the history of the Irish? With so many struggles and so much political upheaval going on around the world today, why not look at the Irish case to further our political knowledge, deepen our understanding of history, and maybe even find a little revolutionary inspiration?
Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh.