Happy St. Patrick’s Day: A Sobering Point of View

Well here it is, March 18, and I have managed to survive yet another onslaught of Celtic madness better known as St. Patrick’s Day. Of course, the vast majority of that madness is neither Irish nor Celtic, but rather the “shenanigans” of legions of non-Irish who are not descended from, nor the slightest bit aware of, the proud Celtic tradition I bear. (By the way, the “C” in Celtic is pronounced as a hard “K,” otherwise you’re talking about a Boston basketball team.) Most of these people spent the better part of St. Patrick’s Day running around screaming “Erin Go Baugh” at the top of their lungs, wearing silly buttons saying “Kiss me I’m Irish” (when they are not), drinking green beer (saints preserve us!), and telling their favorite Irish jokes at the top of their lungs:

  • What’s an Irish seven course dinner? A six pack and a potato!
  • Who is the corpse at an Irish wake? The sober one in the corner!
  • What is the thinnest book in the library? Great Irish cooking!
  • What’s Irish Alzheimer’s? You forget everything but the grudges!

Not once do many glance over their shoulders to make sure no one Irish is around who might overhear their ethnically marginalizing humor and file a grievance. One has to wonder at the willingness of so many to enjoy a laugh at their own ethnic expense at the hands of those other than their own. Then, saints preserve us, they start signing “Irish” songs, written by Americans who have never been to Ireland and most of which are totally unknown in Ireland, or if known are referred to as American music. “Too-rah-la-lura-lura?” Excuse me? Even worse, these “faux Irish” only know the words to the first three stanzas, and after that they start humming. So even if they do hit on a real Irish song, they blow it! “At the rising of the moon, the rising of the moon, with my pike upon my shoulder…hmm hmm hmm…” So, somewhere around last call you have a bunch of wannabe Irish wearing silly buttons, talking in fake accents, humming songs about a country they have never been to or a people they do not know the least bit about. My people, my culture, and my heritage are condensed into an excuse to drink to excess, talk too loud, and giggle incessantly in an insulting miming of my cultural accent. Everybody effects a brogue that would even be over the top in a Barry Fitzgerald movie. By the end of the day I swear I’d just like to take “me black thorn walkin’ stick and have at them in a grand to-doo, followed by a wee dram at the pub and some drunken singing!” Of course:

  • When Europe was plunged into the dark ages, the average Irishman could read and write.
  • We kept the knowledge of the ages alive while the rest of Europe thought leeches were medicinal.
  • When the lights came back on in Europe, it was the Irish who carried the torch of education back to the mainland.
  • Our noble conquerors, whomever they were, sought Irish tutors for their children rather than their own poor teachers.
  • Alcoholism is lower in Ireland, today and in the past, than it is in any other European country or even the U.S.

No, we are not perfect. There are individuals, groups, and events as shameful and as cruel in Irish history, ancient and recent, as any other ethnic group worthy of note. But we are legions better than the published stereotype that is not merely spoken in private, hushed conversations but openly advertised in print, radio, and television:

  • How many cops on TV are not Irish?
  • Ever see an Irishman on TV who wasn’t “charmin'” and always looking for, or offering, a “wee dram” after having a “wee fight”?
  • Irish Spring commercials are just two degrees shy of making the Irish appear like a simple and stupid people.
  • On TV there is always some funny old guy, who always seems a little tight, who is portrayed as a cute little funny tipsy Irishman nicknamed “Paddy.”

By the way, even today you will hear the expression “paddy wagon” on TV or in a movie or joke. But do you know the origin? Well, it goes back to the early days of the Irish immigration to America, where the anti-Irish would say, “There are either crocked Irish cops riding on them, or Irish criminals in them.” The word “Paddy” is an ethnic slur on par with the “N” word to a real Irishman. But you meant it in fun, right? I wonder what the results would be if similar treatment was given to any other ethnic group in today’s PC environment. Would my Italian, Polish, Jewish, African American, Hispanic, Native American brethren or others submit quietly to a day of national humiliation and ethnic impersonations? Sort of like Al Jolsin, only this time he is wearing shamrocks. What is even more astounding than the excessive liberty people take marginalizing, diminishing, and outright slandering of my people, for fun or not, is the absolute absence of any objection from the insulted, the Irish, or even from the usual defenders of diversity and our new world of multicultural celebration and regulation:

  • Been to any good anti-Celtic defamation lectures lately?
  • How many hostile work environment filings have crossed your desk submitted by a person of Irish cultural background over the sight of a “kiss me I’m Irish” button?
  • Anybody filing suit for not offering scones as well as bagels for morning meetings? (If you’ve never had a real Irish scone, don’t talk to me about heaven!)
  • Tell any good Irish jokes lately? Ever tell one that didn’t start, “There was an Irishman in a bar…”
  • No outcry on NPR about Celtic slander.
  • No segment on 60 Minutes denouncing the prejudice the Irish still must bear on primetime TV as stereotype alcoholics.
  • No bills before congress to make beating up Leprechauns a hate crime.

Where are my outraged liberal defenders? But maybe that is the point. We don’t want to be defended. Who do you think started all jokes, laughing, and fun poking in the first place? We did, and it worked! Nobody enjoys a good laugh more than an Irishman, especially one delivered at his or her own expense. Not because we are the world’s clowns or lack self-esteem. Just the opposite, in fact. The lesson to be learned from the Irish is the secret to assimilation in America, without being ethnically diluted or destroyed. We defeated our detractors by not always taking offense at their insults and thereby empowering them. We allowed them their jokes and then laughed louder than anyone in the room. Then we followed up by telling a few of our own tales. The weapon of mirth and self-deprecation is the most potent form of self-empowerment! Of course, while everyone was having a good laugh, we took over, and nobody noticed till it was too late. My grandmother was born in a sod hut. My father was born in a five story flat in a working-class neighborhood. I was born in a middle-income suburban community (lace curtains and all the trimmings). Now my family goes to Ireland for vacations. The Irish whiskey I drink costs $35 a quart. We don’t clean “his lordship’s” Waterford crystal, we own it. We have arrived. (Want to hear an Irish joke?) Whether politics, civil service, finance, industry or other fields, the Irish kept laughing while infiltrating and working our way into the very fabric of the entrenched upper class society that looked down on us “wee poor children of the bogs.” Now, don’t fall victim to the misconception that, among Caucasians, the loss of ancestral accents erases the evidence of our ethnic, tribal, or national origins. As an American-born descendent of Irish parents, my father was refused service in a fine old Boston hotel restaurant in the early 1940s. He was told the only way for him to get in the dining room was to bus tables. We all still laugh at that story at family gatherings. I had my wedding at that hotel and my anniversary dinner at the restaurant. The chain is now owned by a man whose people were once farmers in County Cork. For my part, nobody has ever asked what part of England, France, or Germany, my people came from. To this day, three generations from the original brogue, nobody doubts by Irish roots. It’s not just about lost accents and altered last names. You see, the chief weapon of those who seek to diminish or harm you will always be their efforts to make you ashamed of yourself or your people. In your angry reaction to the lies and filth they say about you, you lay the seeds of confirmation that their beliefs must be founded on fact. They are ready and prepared to use your verbal or physical violent reaction to their idiocy to further their own goals and to diminish you further. They may be the driving the engines of hate, but without your reaction for fuel, they can’t get started. Well, the Irish have been oppressed, invaded, enslaved, and diminished for centuries. We can teach subjugation at the doctorate level in any university. We are something of experts at being under other people’s feet in our history. Yet, at home or wherever we have traveled, we have ultimately survived, flourished, and yes, we have eventually taken over ó laughing at, and with, those who underrate us as opponents. The Irish were once even on the Klu Klux Klan’s hate list. (I actually wish we still were ó sometimes there is a lot to be proud of based on who hates you.) There are several ways to fight for justice, and sometimes issues and circumstances in that fight require words, or blows, or both (thank you Frederick Douglas). In the Irish assimilation there were moments where blows were resorted to in lieu of a good laugh. But, whenever possible and circumstances permitted, we chose laughter. Nobody gets hurt, and there is nothing funnier than a bigot walking away frustrated at his or her failure to get a rise out of you with a barrage of epithets or slogans of hate. The fact they only created laughter and mirth really ticks them off. They do not even get a chance to light their cross. The Irish assimilation plan in America worked so well that not only does everybody love us, but once a year everybody wants to be us! “Irene Goes Bra!” Sigh. Close enough boy-o. So, please, enjoy next year’s Saint Patrick’s Day with the passion it was meant to be enjoyed. I will. Do not even for a moment feel that you have diminished or marginalized me or my people by your poor non-Irish efforts to sing that silly song about unicorns with a feigned accent. We loved every minute of it, and are flattered that you tried. So have a grand day on us. Drink green beer, wear a funny button, and have a bowl of Lucky Charms on me. If you run out of funny Irish jokes ó no problem, just ask the nearest son or daughter of the Emerald Isle, they will gladly share one with you and laugh the loudest of all at the telling of the tale, if it is done well. The sad truth is, on the 18th you will no longer be Irish and have to wait another whole year to enjoy yourself this much again. Have a grand day recruiting.

Ken Gaffey (kengaffey@comcast.net) is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services (www.cps.ca.gov) and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE, Monster.com, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.

Topics