St. Patrick’s Day prompts reflection on Irish identity

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St. Patrick’s Day has long stood alongside Cinco de Mayo as the easiest holiday to culturally appropriate in the name of inebriation. Those of us with a Catholic upbringing share a vague knowledge of the story of Patrick the Briton, kidnapped from Roman Britain and sold into slavery in Ireland. After six years of slavery, Patrick managed to escape bondage and returned to Britain. However, his stay in Britain was brief, as he soon returned to Ireland to spread Christianity among Irish pagans and build churches and monasteries. Today, Patrick is honored as the patron saint of Ireland. But currently when most people celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, they aren’t intending to honor the religious legacy of St. Patrick. This article doesn’t aim to gatekeep St. Patrick’s Day.

Instead, we hope to explain the political importance of Irish culture for the citizens of the Republic of Ireland—and to briefly dote on Irish-American positionality to Irishness, spatially and culturally thousands of miles away from each other.

Though Ireland possesses a wealth of culture dating back thousands of years, what concerns us here is its modern history, much of which is shaped by the colonization, systematic oppression and enslavement of the Irish people at the hands of the English government. The infamous Irish Potato Famine, the catalyst to one of the largest waves of Irish emigration to the United States, is often painted by Western scholars to absolve the English of what historian Tim Pat Coogan has argued constitutes genocide. Over one million people died of starvation and at least another million emigrated. Coogan argues that the English government’s force and seizure of Irish crops were at the root of these deaths (“The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy” 11.27.2012) (Encyclopedia Britannica, “Great Famine” 02.05.2000). Though this is an oft-disputed figure, the population decrease of two million represents the murder and displacement of a quarter of the island’s population at that time.

In addition to bringing starvation to Ireland, the English also brought their own religion and language, Protestantism and English. They aggressively repressed Catholicism and other elements of Irish culture, claiming that there was no culture or history in Ireland to begin with (a common theme in English imperialism). Thus, the legacy of St. Patrick began inextricably tied to the Irish-Catholic political struggle for independence from Britain.

But how does this tie into Irish-American identity? It should come as no surprise that the founding of the Irish Republican organizations—the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the New York-based Fenian Brotherhood—fell on the familiar date of March 17, 1858 (The New York Times, “How the Irish Won their Freedom,” 01.21.2019). The founding of each organization began a legacy of Ireland-centric political activism outside of Ireland (hence the controversial “England get out of Ireland” banner that has been in the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade for decades). This is why St. Patrick’s Day is of political importance to the citizens of Ireland. But what is the role of the holiday—and of Irish culture altogether—to the Irish-American descendant?

We and people like us have ended up in the United States because of the toil and suffering of ancestors far removed from us. At the same time, we’re the beneficiaries of white privilege. While our cousins in Ireland still experience political tension with England one Brexit-hardened border away, as white people in the United States, we needn’t worry about our own rights nearly as much as the Irish or as much as ethnic minorities in America. Plainly, our ancestors were Irish, but we are situated in America. The best thing we can do to respect our heritage is to study integral parts of Irish culture while remaining cognizant of the disparity between the atmosphere we’ve been raised in and that of the Irish.

We’re grateful that Vassar lets us ground ourselves in our heritage by offering an independent language study program in Irish Gaelic, the original tongue of the Irish people that English suppression failed at eradicating. Through various legislations, the English government restricted the use of Irish in interaction with English citizens and in courts. It also removed Irish language from school curriculums, preventing future generations from learning the language of their ancestors. However, during the Irish struggle for independence, the language was revived as a symbol of Irish nationalism and defiance (The Irish Story, “‘To extinguish their sinister traditions and customs’ – the historic bans on the legal use of the Irish and Welsh languages,” 11.10.2018). State-sponsored programs have made gains in reviving the language. Abroad, the study of Irish has taken the shape of students wishing to reconnect with their roots—an opportunity we think that all students should be able to access, regardless of cultural background. Though Irish is on the rise, in the United States there is barely a chance that we’ll meet anyone else who speaks the language without seeking them out at an academic conference or cultural convention. Therefore, when we—an American citizen of Irish descent and a dual-citizen daughter of an Irish immigrant—study for our Intermediate Irish class, it is an act of spiritual medication and meditation, an intimate discovery and rumination on Irish essence long lost to one but remnant with the other.

So we’ll tell you exactly what we’ll be doing on St. Patrick’s Day this year. We’ll be headed to New York City for the parade and immerse ourselves in a crowd of non-Irish people merrymaking for the sake of merrymaking. Whether or not those celebrating understand the meaning of the holiday, we do not know; however, we will enjoy the fun of St. Patrick’s Day understanding that the raucous celebration has meaning as a bold symbol of Irish defiance and resilience. And, as the day’s events unfold, we will feel proud to be a product of a lineage of people fleeing tyranny and making something of themselves in another land. Is fearr Gaeilge briste ná Béarla clíste.

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