Some Thoughts On March 17

It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and I could post some Irish music, maybe some Clannad or the Corrs or something from deep in the files. But if there are ten thousand music blogs out there, then I would guess that at least one-third of them will mark in just that way the Irish holiday that seems to be far more important in the U.S. than it does in Ireland.

If that’s the case – and I do think from what I’ve heard and seen over the years that St. Patrick’s Day is observed with far more intensity here than it is in Ireland – then why is that so? Well, I think that the central function of those American parades and celebrations over the years has been to maintain a connection to the homeland, a link to the marchers’ Irish heritage. That means, I would guess, that the St. Patrick’s Day parades in Boston and New York and elsewhere are remnants of a time when being Irish in the U.S. was almost as much of a drawback as was being black.

That may sound like overstatement, but in my reading over the years, I’ve seen photos and citations of many Nineteenth Century job postings and notices that clearly indicated that those of Irish and African descent need not apply. The Irish certainly served their time – as a class – on the lower rungs of America’s ladder. I’ve also seen numerous citations in my reading about the American Civil War noting that Union soldiers of Irish heritage were glad to fight to preserve the Union, but when the purpose of the war metamorphosed into freedom for the slaves, the Irish in general were far less than enthusiastic, because freed slaves in the postwar world would mean, basically, greater competition for jobs. Again, that’s an indication that the Irish at the time – especially in the cities – were quite low in the nation’s cultural and social structure.

In such circumstances, then, it’s not unreasonable to have ethnic celebrations like St. Patrick’s Day, celebrations linked to the spiritual and cultural traditions that the emigrants left behind. It’s also worth keeping in mind that in the Nineteenth Century, those who left Ireland or any other foreign shore for the United States were almost certainly seeing their homelands – and the relatives and friends who remained there – for the final time. We tend to take for granted intercontinental travel these days, but in historical terms, the opportunity for an emigrant to return to the homeland is a very recent development. Easy and inexpensive travel by air is a late arrival, spanning at most – depending on one’s definitions of “easy” and “inexpensive” – the sixty-five years since the end of World War II. Until then, memory was all there was.

So for those people who arrived here in years earlier, home was a memory and not a place they could realistically hope to see again. Celebrations like St. Patrick’s Day – or the Swedes’ Svenskarnasdag or any number of other ethnic celebrations – were cultural and spiritual connections to the places and the people left behind. As years passed and the Irish – and similar ethnics groups – were accepted and took their places in the American mosaic, the parades and celebrations became as well an expression of accomplishment and belonging in the New World.

In one sense, it’s sad that over the years, March 17 has evolved into a day of silliness and unrelieved drunkery, of green balloons, green hats and green beer. On the other hand, it’s both interesting and in a way encouraging that vast numbers of Americans gather together to celebrate – even if it’s in the most oblique way – a people and a culture that not all that long ago, as history runs, were considered only a small step above animals.

It’s also worth remembering that – from my interpretation, which I think is well-founded, based on reading over the years – it was a simple thing that the Irish trying to do with those earliest St. Patrick’s Day parades. They were trying to remember what it was like to be home. And that’s something that belongs to everyone.

“Home” by Blue Rose from Blue Rose [1972]

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2 Responses to “Some Thoughts On March 17”

  1. Larry Grogan says:

    VERY well said. My sentiments exactly.

  2. jb says:

    I remember reading a few years ago about some Americans of Scandinavian descent who finally got to visit Sweden, or wherever they were from, and they were disappointed to find that the Swedes dressed and acted like “regular people”–that they didn’t walk around in charming ethnic costumes and sing traditional songs all the time, like Swedish-Americans did whenever they got together to celebrate their heritage.

    I don’t know, but I suspect that the Irish in Ireland or the Swedes in Sweden spend less time thinking about their ethnicities than Americans spend thinking about their identity as “Americans.” Or as Irish-Americans and Swedish-Americans, for that matter.

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