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An Irishman Critiques the American Celebration of St. Patrick’s Day

Michael Tobin, Advertising Editor

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Ah, March 17 — Saint Patrick’s Day. That annual day of celebration when Irish Americans everywhere flaunt their national superiority over their compatriots. The day Irish Americans dig through their closets looking for anything green to wear — not an easy task considering green has never really been the “it” color in the fashion world. The day Irish Americans don shamrock necklaces and “kiss-me-I’m Irish” pins. The day corned beef and cabbage is for dinner. Finally, the day everyone, regardless of their heritage, is invited to party and pinch anyone who is not wearing green. Personally, I love Saint Patrick’s Day, but I find I have two major issues with the way Americans celebrate the holiday: first, it’s a holiday most people know nothing about, and second, it’s a holiday that singles out a particular nationality for boasting.

To understand Saint Patrick’s Day, one must know who Saint Patrick was. Patrick, the “Patron Saint of Ireland” and a major symbol of the Irish national identity, was born sometime in the 5th century in present day Great Britain. At that time, Britain was Roman possession, and Christianity had already spread to Britain to some degree. Patrick’s father was a deacon (an ordained minister), but Patrick himself was not particularly religious. At the age of 16, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish pirates and taken back to Ireland as a slave. While in captivity, Patrick converted to Christianity. He eventually escaped Ireland and returned to his family. Ultimately, Patrick had a vision to return to Ireland as a missionary, which he did after he was ordained.  Although his missionary work in Ireland was not immediately accepted, Saint Patrick did succeed in converting many, ranging from chieftains’ sons, to Irish warriors to slaves.

Saint Patrick is famous for several things. First, he is remembered for using the shamrock, or clover, to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity to the Irish. The Holy Trinity is a belief amongst many Christians, including Catholics, that God is three persons: the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit, all in one. The clover, a three lobed leaf, was apt symbolism. Today, the three-leafed clover is not just a symbol associated with Saint Patrick and the day of his death; it is also a symbol of Ireland itself. Saint Patrick is also credited with banishing all the snakes from Ireland after they attacked him during a 40-day fast. Ultimately though, Saint Patrick is recognized for converting the Irish to Christianity. He spent over 30 years traveling throughout the country setting up monasteries, schools and churches, often while angering the native Celtic Druids (the country’s original religious leaders). Patrick was arrested many times, but always managed to escape. Historians believe Patrick died on March 17, 461 AD.

Now with Saint Patrick’s life covered, any reader is educated enough to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day properly.  Having given the background required to properly celebrate this holiday (after all, it seems a shame to celebrate a holiday one has no knowledge of), I’d like to now address the second issue I have with Saint Patrick’s Day: national superiority days.

I am mostly of Irish descent. Yet, like our country itself, I too have mixed heritage. Naturally, it is a bit difficult to champion only one ethnicity, and perhaps from this difficulty my dislike for the American celebration of holidays like Saint Patrick’s Day arises. I believe national ethnic boasting days cause a major problem. It drives a wedge between the various races in America. For proof, look at what happened a few years ago at Live Oak High School in San Jose. Live Oak, a school already simmering with racial tensions between the whites and Latinos, made national headlines in 2010 when school officials told white students they must wear their American flag t-shirts inside out on Cinco de Mayo day. The federal courts got involved upholding the ban. I can’t help but wonder, did the courts do the right thing? Nevertheless, the turmoil at Live Oak shows how a national ethnicity day can indeed divide a community by race. Personally, I believe we must cease to look at our fellow citizens as members of the same or different races, but as fellow American brethren.

When asked how we should put an end to racism, Morgan Freeman once said, “Stop talking about it. I’m going to stop calling you a white man, and I’m going to ask you to stop calling me a black man.” In other words, it’s time Americans put race and nationality behind them.

Does my position mean I am not proud of my Irish heritage? No … it just means I value my American heritage more.

Once, during a family discussion about Saint Patrick’s Day, my great grandfather, a second generation Irish immigrant, asked my father, “If Ireland was so great, why did we leave?”

I wonder if any other immigrants to America (or their descendants) feel the same way about their own ancestral homes. Certainly, it’s a concept worth contemplating.  So when Saint Patrick’s Day rolls around this year, and we Irish raise our mugs in celebration, remember that these holidays have an original purpose. They are not about boasting, but about remembering something great.

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An Irishman Critiques the American Celebration of St. Patrick’s Day