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When everybody's Irish, nobody's Irish

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Mar 17, 2009

Everybody's Irish on St. Patrick's Day. I'm equally Irish the other 364 days of the year.

My mother's family (Collins) is Irish to the core.  My father's family is also Irish, with just enough German ancestors tossed in to make things interesting. There's no need to put an "O" in front of my surname for the day. As a matter of fact, somewhere along the line my ancestors chose to take the "O" out, in a process of simplification that boiled down "O'Leathlobhair" into the more manageable "Lawler." I'm grateful for that change, even though I usually prefer to old, authentic version of things. (From boyhood I remember a family friend named Kelley,  who objected vociferously to the streamlined form of that name. If anyone seemed likely to misspell his name he would break into the old ditty: "If you knock the 'e' out of Kelley, I'll knock the 'l' out of you.")

Right. As I said, I'm Irish. Growing up in Boston, where we tended to think that everyone who mattered was Irish, I learned to make finer distinctions: to say not simply that I'm from an Irish background, but rather that I'm from a family of two-boaters and dear-Os. If you're from Boston, and speak that arcane language, you now have me pegged. Even if you're not, if you've ever met me, you probably didn't need any background on my ethnic heritage. Have you ever heard the saying that someone has "the map of Ireland on his face"? That's me.

But having said all that, what does it mean that I'm Irish? I'm not really Irish, after all; I'm American. All of my ancestors have been in the US for well over a century now. The village in County Wexford that my great-great-great-grandfather left sometime around 1820 is just a spot on the map to me. As far as I know I have no relatives living there today. I pass for Irish in Harvard Yard, but in Skibbereen I suspect I'd be identified very quickly as an American. Rather than saying simply that I'm Irish I suppose it would be more accurate to say that I'm "Boston Irish"-- a member of an odd sort of clan. We're not a particularly cohesive group, we Boston Irish. About half the members of that clan would dearly love to punch me in the nose, and the feeling is mutual. That's the sort of people we are. Yet we're ferociously loyal to the ties that bind us together-- and thus keep us at each other's throats. It's a confusing heritage. Don't try to understand it. I don't. It's just who I am.

So what am I celebrating today? What are we all celebrating? There's much to be said for the celebration of ethnic heritage: for fiddling and step-dancing and telling stories about leprechauns, and even for hoisting a jar of the creature, if Lenten resolutions allow it. But if it's just a sort of tribal celebration... Well, frankly, we Irish don't need any extra encouragement to be clannish. Nor to hoist a pint. As we Americanized Irishmen grow further removed from the old country, and the clannish aspects of the celebration become increasingly prominent, St. Patrick's Day has become a very odd sort of observance. I don't see how we honor our heritage by putting on green plastic hats, drinking gallons of green lager beer, and blearily singing maudlin songs: acting out Hollywood's condescending vision of what it means to be Irish.

Personally, I'll be celebrating a different sort of heritage. It's the feast of Saint Patrick, after all: the feast of the great saint who made Ireland a bastion of the Catholic faith. It's a day to celebrate not just the tribal heritage but the Christian culture that has endured for centuries. Today, unfortunately, that Christian heritage is endangered-- not just among the Irish in the diaspora, but even in Ireland itself. That's all the more reason to celebrate what we have, and acknowledge what we should cling to. 

St. Patrick himself would no doubt enjoy the fiddling and step-dancing and story-telling. He might even join in the singing (although I can't vouch for the quality of his voice; remember he himself wasn't Irish). But I can't imagine that he would be pleased with the misguided, pugnacious triumphalism of a clan that seems intent on celebrating the sale of its birthright, and drowning the memory of its most precious inheritance.

Everybody's Irish today. I'll be Irish tomorrow. Irish-Catholic. Without a hangover.

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