Thursday, February 22, 2024

Bits o' Irish will shine out of everyone's mug this St. Paddy's

March 15, 2004

Despite what breakfast cereals and a horrible Jennifer Aniston movie (pre-nose job) will tell you, leprechauns are not real.

As a people, the Irish have had a rough go of it. The Potato Famine in the 1840s reportedly killed more than one million from the Emerald Isle, they've had England pushing them around since forever, anti-English terrorists take the lives of innocents in the name of a free Ireland, and if that isn't enough, Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz have both been paid handsomely to butcher the brogue.

So in fairness, perpetuating Irish stereotypes and folklore as legitimate seems like a slap in the face to a relatively downtrodden - yet fiercely proud - nationality. Ask an 8-year-old to draw an Irish person, and they'll most likely produce a crude green blob next to what would appear to be a smaller, blackish blob with yellow "bright" lines drawn from the top for emphasis.

Simply enough, the tradition and pride the Irish have in their heritage is reduced to the leprechaun - or shamrock, or Kennedy - to everyone else. Admittedly, this is not unique to the Irish, but you're getting the benefit of the doubt that every other national or ethnic group hasn't had a cake walk into 2004 either.

So, why will the 8-year-old - and thousands of other schoolchildren - create the leprechaun in response to St. Patrick's Day this week? Mostly because 8-year-olds are stupid and overrated, and their teachers are probably a rung or two above them and underpaid. But no one really has a problem with Irish heritage and tradition being boiled down to the stub of a green Crayola and a second-grader with sticky hands and a vacant stare, and everyone is seemingly all right with that.

Which is probably why the notion of the Irish as a nationally misrepresented people seems fairly ludicrous. Be honest, if someone made a startling clear and adamant deconstruction of why Irish people are misrepresented by much of America, they'd probably get a raised eyebrow and not much else. "The treatment of Blacks, Jews, Native Americans and Latinos throughout history" (just off the top of my head) is pretty much all that needs to be said to counter that and effectively shut the Emerald-ophile up.

So, there we are. Like most other nationalities, the stereotype is all most people know of the Irish. But unlike most, no one's feelings are really hurt and we're all generally OK with that. Why? Beer.

This Wednesday, everyone is a little bit Irish. Depending on your levels of dependence, this is expressed by planting your ass to a barstool, leaving with a green dye ring around your mouth and singing the familiar parts of Irish drinking songs and doing your drunken best to harmonize on the rest. "Finnegans Wake" and "Whiskey in the Jar" are probably the only two songs in the world to have the distinction of being sung the most loudly and proudly on the same day they are sung incoherently.

The Chicago River is dyed bright green. Bagpipes (Scottish?), corned beef (only the royals) and green plastic Mardi Gras beads (N'Awlins?) abound, all in the conglomeration of Irish culture into one day of celebration. It's a day of great inclusive celebration - one doesn't need to be Irish to have a good time celebrating the Irish on the day set aside to do so.

Other ethnic and nationality groups have holidays similar in cadence and purpose, but they remain much like the music of Sonic Youth - it's familiar and respected in name, but name one Sonic Youth song and that's frankly impressive. Basically, the other nationalities and ethnic groups are still selling cassettes from their trunk while the Irish are selling out Madison Square Garden every March 17. Mainstream, thy name is St. Paddy's Day.

On my best days, I toe the fringe of Irish descent. The first name helps a lot, and since I'm mostly a Western European mutt without a discernible heritage to cling to, I choose the shamrock. I'm not Catholic, I don't have an "O" in front of my name and I certainly can't trace my roots to the rotted potato crop in 19th century Ireland. My attempts at Irish brogue are more like an impression of Conan O'Brien's old gold prospector-meets-pirate attempt than anything genuine.

But the beauty of Irish heritage is that no matter how destitute circumstance has been or how discouraging it's been to be an Irish person (living in Ireland), the perpetuated myths and folklore are still selling out arenas like Van Halen and a remarkable sense of humor and inclusion has made it attractive to be "a little bit Irish."

The link from Hi-C-stained second grader with a dull crayon to green-lipped, mid-afternoon reveler isn't really that different after all. Kiss me, we're both sort of Irish.

Patrick Walters is The State News opinion writer. He can be reached at walter88@msu.edu.

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