Every few years I get so fed up with the idiocy of St. Patrick's Day that I can't contain myself. It's boiled over again in the face of the annual avalanche of plastic shamrocks, green beer and fools on TV and in print adding an "O" to their names and promising pots of gold to anyone who would listen to their sales pitch.
Just a few days ago I heard a talk-radio caller saying someone was "as drunk as an Irishman." Some cops still called the police van a Paddy wagon. It is difficult not to trip over all the plastic leprechauns and shillelaghs laying around taverns, stores and restaurants. A lot of politicians run around with name tags that stuck an O' in front of their names and make the usual gratuitous remarks about loving the folks from the Auld Sod.
In this ethnically, religiously and racially diverse nation we have been sensitized to the effects of stereotyping people. We understand when African-Americans and Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans and Jewish-Americans, Arab-Americans and Mexican-Americans -- perhaps even Martian-Americans -- become angry at hurtful, demeaning jokes and remarks about their heritage. But we seem, as a society, incapable of understanding why some Irish-Americans "get their Irish up" when they're regarded as fair game for insults.
Even in Ireland itself, what once was a quiet day of religious contemplation has disintegrated into a booze-fueled mess catering to tourists. Irish authorities last year reported more than 700 violence- and alcohol-connected arrests on St. Patrick's Day.
It is baffling enough that it's happening there. Perhaps it is because the Irish also are widely regarded as amiable folks, the kind of people who take little ethnic slurs as good-natured fun. But in the U.S. it seems seldom remembered the slurs are a nasty holdover from a time when they had their turn at the bottom of American society -- being denied education, being relegated to back-breaking jobs like digging the barge canals, driving the railroad spikes, clawing coal from the bowels of the earth miles down where the air was foul and the life expectancy short.
A time when signs saying "No Irish Need Apply" were commonplace on rooming houses, business places and restaurants. A time when the Irish were jammed into ghettoes later occupied by succeeding generations of immigrant groups; when the "Paddy wagon" hauled a lot of them off to jail on the slightest pretext. A time when the likes of immigrant Kate Mullaney had to risk life and limb to get Troy's laundry workers a modicum of respect and pay and, in the process, formed the first female labor union.
Some say the ideal would be for Americans of all backgrounds to forget about roots and become generic, non-hyphenated Americans. That may be desirable in the sense it could foster a togetherness now missing in our national dialogue, but it never will happen.
People do, to some extent, like to be different. Maintaining ties with one's heritage makes them so, and keeps alive the rich inheritance from that culture that adds to the marvelous American stew.
But, isn't there a classy way to do it?
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