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St. Patrick’s Day

This piece is a repeat from two years ago – I don’t have anything to add.  The re-run gives me more time to enjoy the day.  Sláinte!

Good people go to Heaven, but the Celts went everywhere. There isn’t a corner of the globe where you can’t find us if you look hard enough. Nations as far flung as Canada and Australia are largely Celtic in origin, and the majority of those Celts came from Ireland.

Our people have wandered the earth like almost no other, and for one day we all return home with the help of a hyphen. Many of us become Irish-Americans or Irish-Canadians on Saint Patrick’s day when any other day American or Canadian would be enough. We drink up well in pubs, cheer on the bagpipers, and think back to what our ancestors must have gone through to get us where we are.

It’s not easy, even if it is a lot of fun. To be a Celt is to regale in cheers and tears with equal zest, proud of the fact that the hard work that punctuated our wanderings wasn’t enough to kill us. We remember the “No Irish need apply” signs as if they were up just yesterday, and mourn the loss of our harsh yet expressive language.

Many of us are, in fact, permanent immigrants – even across many generations.

What I enjoy most about Saint Patrick’s Day isn’t the Guinness or the pipers, and it certainly isn’t the crowds. What moves me deeply is the realization that we have the stories and the stubborn Celtic memories that show the way for so many immigrants still arriving every day.

While every immigrant story is different, every immigrant story is the same. The first generation suffers in silence, the next learns to fight. It’s up to the third generation to make sense of it all, and by the fourth or fifth the stories about grandma’s grandpa are all that remain. The hyphens are dropped, and Italian-Americans and Greek-Americans and Mexican-Americans gradually become plain Americans. We Irish were only the first to experience this, and our story leads the way. It believe is a lot to be proud of.

This weekend, however, we can pull out the hyphens again and recall the stories and songs that every family gets to pretend are unique. They aren’t, of course, and if you change the dates and tunes a bit you’ll find the stories of nearly everyone else who came to this rugged continent of great opportunity and trial.

What does it mean, in the end? As we wave the tricolor of Orange, Green, and White we aren’t just celebrating the day we add the hyphen back in. We are celebrating the ongoing story of the USofA and every other nation that has been built by immigrants such as us. It’s our day, but it’s everyone’s day. We made it, you see, and you can, too. We haven’t totally lost our hyphenated status, but we made it both more personal and more universal at the same time. We don’t have to be Irish-Americans or Irish-Canadians because there’s a good hunk of Irish built into the definition of American and Canadian.

In a few weeks, we’ll celebrate Cinco de Mayo in much the same way. Yes, there will be better food and better weather, and the people will on average be far fewer generations removed from the homeland. But the stories will have a similar ring to them, even if they aren’t quite complete yet. These stories might have a rawness that makes them more personal, but the lesson of Saint Patrick’s Day is that one day, generations from now, is that these stories will one day belong to all of us. We might break out the hyphens and mariachis just one day a year or so, but that will only come to pass because all the lines will have blurred. We will all be Americans, and the definition of what that means will have plenty of room for everyone.

Our nation, like all nations built primarily by immigrants, is far bigger than most people can even understand. We do grasp this reality one day a year, one pint at a time, with plenty of stories and songs. It’s not really enough, but it’s a great time while it lasts. Sláinte!

10 thoughts on “St. Patrick’s Day

  1. We are a nation of immigrants but the Irish were not really the first. I guess they were the first that people really tried to keep out though. It had a lot to do with being Catholic, which is to say different than the people who were here. We do keep making some of the same mistakes over and over.

  2. Gwei: Sadly, I have so little of my people’s old language in me that I can make out the words for Patrick, festival, and day – and that’s about it. 🙂 Thank you!

    Dale: Yes, the story keeps moving the same way all the time. It’s been that way for well over 150 years. It’s like Fraternity’s initiation hazing to treat the latest “different” people badly for a while before they get to be full members. But today, we’re all Frat Brothers of a kind, at least in the sense that we’ll drink too much and get sick. 🙂

  3. This is a lot better way to look at the day than just as an excuse to drink. I never got how people celebrated their heritage by getting sick.

  4. I’ve always thought that the way we celebrate St Patrick’s Day comes from the simple fact that there were a lot of young men who emigrated beyond the ties of family, getting together a little bit of scratch but totally on their own. It is more of a religious holiday in Ireland, or at least it used to be, until they started to pick up on a celebration of the Irish Diaspora and make it their own cause.

  5. Just wanted to add that I went to check out the scene up on West Seventh, and the sound of bagpipes filled the air. The idea of a “Celtic Brotherhood” that unites Scots, Irish, Welsh, Manx, Bretons – and American, Canadian, Australian Celts – is a wonderful thing to see. It’s something remarkably new in the world, although the idea of Slavic or Hellenic or even German brotherhood has often been strong among equally diverse groups.

    The thing of it is that the sound of bagpipes in the distance makes me think that there’s a call to war of some kind, ala “Danny Boy”. I always get the feeling that Celtic Brotherhood means that someone’s gonna get getback, more likely not by the sword than by the pen. Maybe we are a more civilized people than our status as being from “beyond the pale” would suggest? 🙂

  6. Cinco de Mayo is St Patrick’s Day with better food – oh, how I wish it was so! Maybe some day it will be that simple, I hope so. I guess the Irish once felt they had a lot to prove, too!

  7. Pingback: Cinco de Mayo « Barataria – the work of Erik Hare

  8. Pingback: Irish Pride | Barataria – The work of Erik Hare

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