So, it’s that time of year again. A time to commemorate the godly work of the world’s greatest reptile hunter. A time for excessive drinking and the violent use of leprechaun paraphernalia. And of course a time for people across the globe, although mostly Americans, to make dubious claims about their Irish ‘ancestry’: “My great, great, great, great grandmother’s second cousin’s half brother once shook hands with an Irishman, so I guess that makes me part Irish!” An entire nation collectively rolls its eyes. I’m partial to this attitude myself and have become increasingly agitated by this tiresome obsession with ‘Irishness’ that the modern world has embraced. Of late, however, my relationship to St. Patrick’s day has changed entirely. After familiarising myself with the racism and xenophobia levelled against Irish people here at home and abroad throughout history, I’ve come to fully welcome and appreciate the willingness of diverse groups around the world in claiming even a small piece of Irish heritage as their own.
It is not an exaggeration to state that the Irish were once an unfavourable and distrusted group. Dating back to the first colonisation of the island in the early 12th century, the British empire categorised the Irish as a different ‘race’, who were in need of ‘civilising’ their ‘barbarism’. This is unsurprising as all of Europe’s colonial powers sought to justify their actions of subjugation, control and domination along these lines. The Irish people were to be feared and distrusted, as infamous documents at the time proclaim, they were ‘viceful’, ‘filthy’ and even subject to ‘cannibalistic’ tendencies. More importantly, these early documentations by the British continued to pollute the reputation of the Irish throughout history. Most notably, the mass immigration of the Irish population during the famine in the mid-19th century, increased xenophobic hostilities and even violence towards Irish immigrant populations in countries like America. For example, in Philadelphia, the Irish became the largest immigrant population in the region during this period. As a result, the ‘natives’ of this area became increasingly suspicious and vitriolic towards these newcomers, a sentiment only heightened by growing economic and social insecurity in America at the time. Continuing into the modern period, Irish immigrants noted troubling anti-Irish sentiments across British society in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, including the now infamous and contested appearance of signs reading; “No blacks, no dogs, no Irish”. Closer to home still, the terrorist attacks committed by the IRA during the Troubles led to the increased profiling of all Irish citizens travelling internationally, particularly between Britain and Ireland.
Considering these historical examples of the discrimination faced by the Irish population, it would seem ludicrous that the national holiday of this group would eventually become a global phenomenon. Today, St. Patrick’s day celebrations take place extensively, with over 70 million people proudly proclaiming their Irish ancestry. In 2020 the Global Greening project marked its 10th anniversary, led by Tourism Ireland this became a new St Patrick’s day tradition where countries around the globe light ancient and contemporary monuments green in honour of our national holiday. From the Eiffel Tower and Sydney Opera House to Niagara Falls and Christ the Redeemer, it is truly a spectacular sight to witness these iconic features shining in glorious green hues in honour of Ireland. The Irish diaspora appears limitless, and the willingness of diverse countries to engage in this commemoration is astounding.
St. Patrick’s day in its current manifestation is a day that essentially celebrates everything Irish, including the food, history, symbols, mythology, cultural norms and indeed the Irish people themselves. All over the world we find examples of those who long to prove their Irish lineage, searching far back into family trees to claim even a minute fraction of the Emerald Isle. But why is this the case, why do people ‘love’ the Irish? The reality is that nothing in particular about our ‘Irishness’ is why St. Patrick’s is commemorated globally. Ultimately, as much as we’d all love to believe it, there is nothing special about us. I think the real root of the phenomenon of St. Patrick’s day has much more to do with the celebration of the ‘underdog’ than of the ‘Irish’. The Irish nation and people represent the little guy, the underling of national history with a traumatic past defined by bullying, harassment and control conducted by stronger adversaries, as well as being torn apart by internal ruptures. In the end, the rise of the Irish nation represents a rare success story of overcoming some of the very worst that humanity can throw at you, so why wouldn’t the international community celebrate this?
While it is undoubtedly true that Irish people across the intricate tapestry of human history have experienced racist abuse, economic and social discrimination and the perpetuation of the very worst stereotypes of the population, the Irish represent a very particular case in world history. It is a disturbing trend to witness the Irish story being used by right-wing and conservative groups to provide some evidence and platform for the victimisation of the white European. Instead of showcasing the true beauty in this story which saw a nation of people and their descendents turn from vilified immigrants to venerated victors of the promise of integration, modern commentators desperate to prove the hardship suffered by their ancestors, are twisting this tale to undermine the current manifestations of racism against other oppressed groups, most notably African-Americans in the US. While it’s certainly true that Irish immigrants transformed their fate, there are a few important factors that helped fuel this Cinderella story. At the end of the day, a majority of Irish people were still white, European and Christian. Importantly, this meant that even with internalised xenophobia levelled against the Irish, a slight change in accent, vernacular and mannerisms and voilá, Irish immigrants could blend right in to the majority. Unfortunately for other minority groups, racism based on more distinguishable ‘differences’ can run a lot deeper in the human consciousness, resulting in a prolonged and arduous battle for equality.
Despite these obvious advantages that the Irish had when immigrating overseas and building a better reputation as a new republic in the 20th century, there are still important reminders in the redemption of the Irish of how we can improve the ways in which immigrants, refugees and ethnic minorities are treated in modern society. Last summer the protests that erupted following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police were a powerful indicator of peoples willingness to create a fairer, more equal, and ultimately, more humane society. These events sparked a global movement in support of Black Lives Matter and forced many to confront the brutal consequences of colonial history. Statues fell, violence ensued, damage was done, but in the end a discourse began to emerge across the world. What can we do to combat centuries worth of colonial precedent? What can we do to make today’s world better for all, but more importantly, for those who suffer most at the hands of institutional racism? At times the answers to these questions seem overwhelming. Yet, if there is anything that the success of the Irish teaches us, is that these changes can occur. It is not some hopeful pipe dream that the fate of specific groups can transform entirely in a relatively short space of time. As much as it can seem chaotic and confounding to tackle the deepest and worst tendencies of humanity, things can improve, and people can begin to act and think with their better nature, one which promotes tolerance, respect and inclusion.
In our own backyard, the White Paper published recently detailing the plan to end the direct provision system in Ireland is another example of the prospect for tangible change to take place. The paper proposed a human rights based approach to the processing of asylum seekers, to focus on quality of life in areas such as privacy, accessibility to education and healthcare and equal job opportunities. It emphasised the promotion of social integration, a process imperative to the success of those joining a new society. The paper was a promising sign for asylum seekers and advocates who have fought for so many years against this system of processing refugees in this country. Many commentators have noted that of all national groups, the Irish should understand the plight of forced emigration and the pain and suffering it can produce among individuals as well as in larger groups and communities. Irish immigrants too faced hostility, distrust and resentment across recent history, so it seems only right that this country of all others should be willing to approach a complicated system with compassion, empathy and respect.
On this St. Patrick’s day, I ask you to quieten the more cynical aspect of your character and fully embrace and revel in the celebration of our national holiday. I can’t help but feel that so many of us, particularly those from younger generations, truly take for granted the ‘love’ of the Irish. It wasn’t so long ago that this holiday was a vain attempt made by the new Irish state to consolidate national identity in a time of political and social unrest. So much has changed for the Irish nation since then, and Irish immigrants and the global diaspora are fondly looked upon throughout the world. In addition, unlike what the de Valera era government envisaged for this holiday, Paddy’s day is no longer swamped in anti-British sentiment and the promotion of the Catholic church. The meaning of this national celebration has become more inclusive and diverse. Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s day, no matter what religious creed or ethnic background you hail from, no matter what gender or sexuality you identify as, we all come from the same family. This family has now even grown to include those who, without any claim to Irish ancestry, simply want to celebrate this nation and the success of its people in transforming their reputation in the global community. More importantly, this holiday serves as a constant reminder of the mercurial nature of human societies. It reminds us to explore our own prejudices and to confront the most pressing examples of the ways in which we are committing the same sins we once suffered from, against other marginalised and vulnerable groups around us. This is what St. Patrick’s day means to me, this is what the Irish story truly represents, and this is ultimately what we are celebrating together every March 17th.