An Irish celebration

It has all the earmarks of a holiday. Special foods, green beverages, gift items, shirts proclaiming the wearer’s festive intentions, beads, hats, socks, shamrock sunglasses, greeting cards, and even the occasional lucky green head pin at the bowling alley.

Echoes of a month’s worth of “wearin’ o’ the green” linger. A trip to any local store reveals racks of Irish memorabilia, including souvenirs for sale and islands of green shirts proclaiming the joys of all the cliched vices to which St. Patrick’s Day is given.

Halfway between yuletide festivities and the inherent pleasure that is summer, St. Patrick’s Day gives everyone a chance to be “Irish for a day.” Many non-Irish families enjoy the corned beef and cabbage dinner, a treat as rare and precious as the big Christmas dinner. Parades and special events at venues from bars to bowling alleys crank up the voltage of our spring fever. If it’s St. Patrick’s Day, spring isn’t far behind.

That singular celebration juices up an otherwise mundane late-winter day. But Irish culture offers up a cornucopia of treasures that endure beyond the day’s cliches. Irish writers have produced some of the world’s most imaginative, baffling, and incisive works; James Joyce comes to mind. His Dubliners stories about transcending the limitations of death and stifling routine continue to sift down through generations. Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw still tantalize theatergoers with dramatic stories that display the folly and grandeur of human life.

Admirable too are the poems of W.B. Yeats, especially those featuring the eccentric “Crazy Jane” character, who struggles to teach the local Bishop that bodily impulses can’t be divorced from those of the spirit. What an easy message for us New Age people to grasp. The medical world calls it a “mind-body connection.” In poetic terms, Crazy Jane vindicates an all-out injection of human imagination into the physical world. At its best, St. Patrick’s Day is a celebration of both.

The great Irish-American Sen. Edward Kennedy echoes these sentiments in his memoir, True Compass. He writes, “All of my life, the teachings of my faith have provided solace and hope, as have the wonders of nature, especially the sea, where religion and spirituality meet the physical.” Perhaps that is why so many people travel to places like Myrtle Beach this time of year – to connect with that timeless and eternal warmth and flow that feed body and soul alike.

The history of Irish people in America is as plucky as St. Patrick’s Day itself. Beneath the burnished March celebration lies a story of spirited triumphs and depravities – a human story dominated by waves of immigration. During the Civil War, 150,000 Irish soldiers fought in Union Army regiments, distributed into the Irish Brigade and non-ethnic regiments. Some were fresh immigrants with such a fierce sense of loyalty to their new country as to compel them to fight for its existence. Some fought for the Confederacy with what must certainly have been equal passion, but as history has shown, the fight to preserve the Union served the greater cause of freedom.

Unfortunately, the American Party, formed in protest of immigrants and Catholics and known as “Know-Nothings” for their secretive habits, wreaked havoc on the well-being of Irish immigrants in the 1850s. And many urban Irish people, in turn, wreaked violence on African-American people whose freedom seemed to conflict with their own. The 1850s news reports from the Fredonia Censor recount incidents of violence wrought by ethnic tensions. There is an Anglo-Protestant bias in the paper’s scrutiny of violent Irish men delivering beatings to men in Buffalo and Fredonia who were perceived to be Know-Nothings. Inherent blame falls on the feisty Irish temperament, the very temperament we celebrate nowadays.

Fortunately, these historic problems are safely stowed away. The violence of the past has yielded to a day of rampant admiration and emulation of all things Irish. This should teach us something about how we view immigrants as we advocate for a national immigration policy that is both fair and better than the historic record.

As absurd as it was to have viewed the “filthy” Irish as worthy of only the most degraded employment and living conditions, I can’t help but think of today’s migrant workers, many of whom work locally and suffer in similar ways.

A century and a half of progress from Irish immigration to St. Patrick’s Day revelry has eroded the notion that this group of people is not to be trusted. Perhaps the greatest lesson of any ethnic celebration, including this one, is that when it comes to interpersonal relationships, mistrust based on ethnicity is the only thing not to be trusted after all.

Renee Gravelle is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com