Two Views of That Day

I’ve written about this before. I know I have, and yet I feel compelled to do it again. “This” being my feelings on St. Patrick’s Day, which have evolved over the years from seething hatred to an uneasy truce (think Korean DMZ).

My animus has faded due partly to the mellowing of age. The older I get, the less I am able to muster the energy to despise things when I can merely hate them. But the other main reason for my change in feeling is because at some point, I realized my dislike of St. Patty’s Day was just a parroted expression of my father’s dislike of the day, and Ireland, and Irishness in general, or at least the most pronounced expressions thereof.

My dad hated Ireland because he was born there, and his formative years in the Emerald Isle were not happy, to hear him tell it. He had plenty of stories of sadistic Christian Brothers at his school and crushing poverty, all of which were very funny, as Irish stories tend to be. But behind the yucks, you could feel the privation and shame and pain.

He couldn’t stand to go back there, and did everything in his power not to, especially after my grandparents died. His work, whatever the hell it was (psst: spook), took him on insane business trips to India, Africa, former Soviet republics (the Icky-stans, as he called them), former Yugoslav republics, Afghanistan, Jordan…and the only place he expressed any real hesitation to travel to was Ireland. It made him nervous, I think because it made him feel emotions, which most Irish folks can’t deal with. That’s why they invented whiskey and dances where your upper body remains rigid.

However, most of his contempt didn’t go so much toward the Irish-Irish as it did toward Irish-Americans who celebrated some twee, Quiet Man, harp-and-leprechaun idea of Ireland that was long dead, if it ever existed. “Lace-curtain Irish” he called them, the ones who had a sanitized notion of saintly Eire that bore no resemblance to the reality.

Not that he was much of a proletarian either. Truth be told, he was a bit of a snob, and when confronted with more earthy expressions of Irish pride, he ran screaming. In this Ireland of his youth, St. Patrick’s Day was a patriotic/quasi-religious day celebrated solemnly. Which is why, when he moved to New York as a kid and was taken to the St. Patrick’s Parade, he was horrified by what he saw. People getting blind drunk, puking, fighting in the street–and that was just the cops. (*rimshot*)

And yet, for all that, there was definitely some pride there. I distinctly remember him turning down a job opportunity at Reuters because “they’re a British company,” as if that were a political impossibility for him. (This was the same person who made sure I watched Monty Python at a criminally young age.) He hated corned beef and cabbage not because of its quote-unquote Irishness (or because it’s terrible), but because that’s what they fed Irish laborers who worked on the Erie Canal, that being the cheapest garbage they could find. And he enjoyed The Commitments and other Roddy Doyle books a great deal. Doyle’s view of Dublin was one he recognized.

He would get into arguments with my mother over Who Has the Better Ethnicity? It would always start jokingly and degenerate into actual hostility. My dad’s trump card against my mother, of German descent, would always be, “At least we didn’t start two world wars.” My mother would counter, “At least we got something done!”

He was entitled to his feelings about St. Patrick’s Day. It just took me a very long time to realize that I’m under no obligation to carry them along with me for the rest of my life. If people have a good time on that day–and don’t hurt anyone else in the process–who am I to judge?

I’m still getting the hell out of the city this weekend, though.

* * *

There is a very small sliver of the Lower East Side that has looked virtually the same for the last 150 years. It’s at the farthest eastern reaches of Chinatown, in the general vicinity of the Manhattan Bridge. There’s not much of it, and who knows how long it will last, but for now it’s still there, and when you’re there you know it. I can only compare it walking through London, or another city that has been standing for so long, whose streets and buildings are so oppressively fraught with history. You can feel the age.

This neighborhood was the city’s first slum, approximately where the infamous Five Points once roiled. It was the first stop for every group that came here looking for a new life. Among the first folks to land here were Irish. It’s the neighborhood where Al Smith, first Catholic presidential candidate and Robert Moses’ mentor (boo), cut his political teeth. There’s not much evidence of that influence now, except for a modest, almost Protestant-looking church, St. James, where the first Ancient Order of the Hibernians in America was founded.

It is these humble beginnings that the AOH–which runs the St. Patrick’s Day Parade–likes to invoke when speaking of the Irish in America. They mention the potato famine and the No Irish Need Apply laws and all the other injustices of the past as a reason to celebrate Irish resilience. The problem is, that world is long dead, and it’s really in no danger of coming back.

Every ethnic group that ever came to these shores was slandered by the people who already lived here. Then they fought back and convinced everyone that such prejudiced speech is destructive and hurtful, until everyone else realized You’re right, that’s kinda messed up. Eventually, if you’ve been here long enough, your stereotypes become funny again.*

* May not happen for every ethnic group, no matter how long you’ve lived in this country. Sorry Native Americans and black people!

There is no group this is more true of than the Irish. Stereotyping of the Irish is funny. Pretending to hate the Irish is old timey, and therefore hilarious. (See Old Hoss Radbourn or last night’s 30 Rock.) That’s because none of this comes from a place of hate, and because officially or otherwise, no one is trying to deny the Irish, as a group, anything. You know you’ve truly made it when everyone can joke about how once upon a time they hated you.

And yet, you don’t have to google too far to find people six generations removed from Black ’47 and institutionalized anti-Irish racism who are still very angry about. Why?

It’s been called the MOPE Syndrome, or Most Oppressed People Ever. It is the impulse to prove that your People, and your People alone, have suffered indignities that could not possibly be endured by nations of a lesser character. In this condition, you actively compare your ethnic suffering (no matter how far in the distant past) to other groups’ suffering to prove that your history is more miserable.

There is something in the Irish DNA that wants to hold on to MOPE, no matter how long ago their suffering happened. That kind of woe-is-me-ism just feels good to them. It reminds me of John Mulaney’s bit about how the Irish simply don’t want to be comfortable. (“Have you ever seen an Irish sweater?”)

This, I would surmise, is why St. Patrick’s Day became the huge event it is in America. It’s why I feel compelled to write about it each year even though I feel no such impulse on Steuben Day (or why you probably don’t even know what Steuben Day is). Other groups that came over in large numbers at the same time as the Irish–Germans, Scots-Irish, Scandinavians–did not have the same impulse to hang on to their suffering. I’m sure all these people suffered in their way, trying to make a life for themselves in the New World, not speaking the language, feeling the contempt and mockery of “natives.” But at some point in the past, these folks let it go, and thus their assimilation was completed.

Not the Irish. They held on to their resentment for so long that they roped everyone, regardless of background, into their celebration of pride. That’s why we all celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. It’s because of that unique ethnic condition called Irish Alzheimer’s: You forget everything but the grudges.