My Problem with St. Patrick’s Day

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47 Responses

  1. BCChase says:

    I’m not disputing the point, but if you talked to 100 revelers on the street, I bet the large majority view St. Pat’s as an excuse to get drunk, and not too much more. Too many people claim Irish blood, as you mention, for the cultural significance to bear so much weight.Report

  2. Isn’t the 4th of July also based on overcoming oppression?

    Various feast days of saints have been celebrated for centuries and in many countries they are still a BIG deal. You will recollect we also just celebrated St.Valentine’s Day. I suspect the reason this one stuck is just that it’s fun and there are a LOT of Irish in the US. Of the ones that aren’t there are also a shit ton of Catholics. And dammit..Guinness is so delicious.Report

    • Matthew Schmitz in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

      There’s still a significant difference between July 4 and St. Pat’s. To wit, July 4 is a national holiday both in what it celebrate and in who celebrates it. St. Pat’s, however, takes on the form of an ethnic holiday, but instead of being tied to one ethnic group, is celebrated by almost everyone. I still assert that St. Pat’s is the Cinco de Mayo of the white majority, and that there’s nothing else really like it.Report

  3. Not only is July 4 about overcoming suffering and oppression, but so are Veterans Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, and most of the Jewish holidays. And Easter, for that matter.

    Also, I can’t help but notice that March 4 — Saint Casimir’s day — came and went in the United States with barely a peep. How many Poles are there in this country? Ten million?Report

  4. Karl says:

    One quibble: the South has a sizable population of Scots-Irish (Jim Webb will tell you all about them), so I think the O’Hara character was Irish more because it fit the the demographics and less to make a more sympathetic lead…Report

  5. Sam M says:

    “But I think it is weird that one of the reasons the holiday exists is to give the privileged a chance to dress up in the drag of historical oppression.”

    I think the holiday “exists” because it’s the feast day of St. Patrick. Of course, why it has caught on is a different question. It would seem that Columbus Day would offer the same opportunity to dress up as “the oppressed,” but it doesn’t have the following.

    In the end, I think it has a lot to do with what was mentioned above: Drinking. Next year go around and ask people what they are doing with green plastic hats on. Maybe 1 in 30 will know about the potato famine and the rest of Irish American history. Of these, maybe 1 in 20 will be able to engage in a productive discussion about ethnicity and privilege.

    On the other hand, I think it’s important that a lot of white people can at least “pass” as Irish, and that the Irish are one of the few ethnic groups it remains acceptable to lampoon. Leprechauns and clovers and whiskey-drinking, potato-eating literary types are acceptable as hilarious in ways that black or Jewish caricatures are not. And people really, really like dressing up as caricatures.

    Is this a sign that people are trying to “sign on” as Irish and share their heritage, or that they are lampooning and disrespecting that heritage? When someone puts on a red beard and a Lucky Charms outfit, for some reason we call that trying to be Irish. We think of something else entirely when someone dresses up in blackface. And we are right to think of it differently. But it’s interesting to see how people react when “privileged” white people do try to emulate, say, black culture in the form of dress or music. Because they do. And a lot of people don’t like it.Report

    • Sam, you touch on the key point which is that it’s okay to sort of lampoon the culture. I would say this stems directly form the ability of the Irish to be extremely self-deprecating and laugh it off. As somone of Irish decent with a red beard and a very Irish name I get called a ‘mick’ by friends frequently and there is no hard feelings. There’s an old saying that no one loves an Irish joke more than an Irishman. Because the Irish are a light-hearted lot, it’s easy to see how St.Pat’s became such a popular holiday. Black History month is quite serious as is MLK day. The same with some other cultures.Report

  6. Will says:

    “Dancing in the end zone of colonial history?” That’s a great line, Matt.

    I just re-watched Peckinpah’s “Major Dundee,” which stars Richard Harris as a Confederate cavalry captain who just happens to be a generation or two removed from the Emerald Isle. His union jailer, played by Heston, needles him about this throughout the movie. Like Scarlet, it’s interesting that the filmmakers couldn’t write the Confederate lead as a straightforward WASP (despite the fact that the vast majority of Confederate officers were undoubtedly Anglo Protestants). Instead, they felt the need to cloak him in the garb of historical oppression.Report

  7. Bob says:

    You have never been to Wisconsin in October than. There a quite a few big Ocktoberfests (Milwaukee/LaCrosse). I have also seen Cinco De Mayo much more celebrated in the last 10 years. They all have drinking involved and more importantly fun. Like New Years, Mardi Gras, etc.

    Also Cinco De Mayo is really just an American holiday. It’s isn’t that big a deal in Mexico. It was made important so California teachers could teach about hispanic culture. It eventually become a holiday celebration. So it isn’t St. Patty imitating Cinco it’s the other way around. But both have one thing in common, it’s fun.

    Live a little and stop being so heady.

    Happy St. Patty’s Day!Report

  8. RTod says:

    “But I think it is weird that one of the reasons the holiday exists is to give the privileged a chance to dress up in the drag of historical oppression.”

    I think this may be one of those cases of blogging leading to over-thinking things, leading us to the kind of non-reality based conclusions we all had as college sophomores when trying to impress our lit or soc. professors.

    I suspect that if you cornered 10 random people, Irish-American or not, at your local pub tonight and ask them what the appeal of “[dressing up] in the drag of historical oppression” has for them they’d think you’d had a few too many.

    People do it because it’s traditional, and it’s (usually) fun.Report

    • Matt Schmitz in reply to RTod says:

      That one hurt, RTod. Not to worry, though. I’ll address your point shortly in a follow-up post.Report

    • David Schaengold in reply to RTod says:

      I think you’ve misunderstood the post, RTod. Matt’s point addresses the question: why is it traditional and fun to go out drinking on St. Patrick’s day, instead of, say, Columbus Day, which used to be comparably significant to Italian-Americans? The question is not “why does X person go out drinking on St. Pat’s?”Report

  9. Max Socol says:

    Americans love to drink. The Irish are stereotyped as heavy drinkers. Result: St. Patrick’s day is one of our more prominent holidays of ethnic origin.

    Classic blogger mistake: reading far too much into a simple equation. (If you don’t believe me, take this quiz. How many people will be going to a happy hour today? Of that number, what percentage will get more drunk because of the holiday? Now, compare that to the percentage of happy hour attendees who have any clue that the Irish were ever oppressed. Bonus: the percentage who know who the Irish were oppressed by.)

    Columbus day? Seriously? What are we supposed to do? Eat raw corn and get typhus?Report

  10. Scott says:


    Maybe you need some therapy for all of your white liberal guilt. How do you even know what Marget Mitchell set out to do in writing GWTW?Report

  11. Steve says:

    There’s something to this, Matthew. And I would even say that the comments confirm it. It’s the same reason that “white” Americans will so quickly claim Italian, Greek, or Portuguese ancestry but so often not mention German, English, or Scandinavian roots. It’s an easy way to “absolve” oneself of “whiteness.” (Also, most immigrants from these mainly Catholic groups arrived after the U.S. stopped importing slaves.) This is perhaps the result of an unfortunate notion of collective guilt as opposed to a focus on ongoing systemic racism.Report

  12. Sam M says:

    “Columbus day? Seriously? What are we supposed to do? Eat raw corn and get typhus?”

    I take it you don’t live in an Italian community. I suggest you visit Bloomfield in Pittsburgh on Columbus Day. (Bring your drinking shoes.)Report

    • Max Socol in reply to Sam M says:

      you must tell me more.Report

      • Sam M in reply to Max Socol says:

        Basically the same as St. Patrick’s Day, only a different shade of white. It even has all the obligatory mis-romaticization of the culture. Instead of Leprechauns, their parade has maidens stomping grapes in big vats on top of the floats. Etc. Lots of cookies for sale. Bars are packed.

        It’s can’t miss if you like drinking and cookies and maidens. I happen to!Report

    • Jim in reply to Sam M says:

      That’s a seriously ahistorical reading of the situation. The English in America were disclaiming that identity before the ink was dry on the Treaty of Paris, and it had nothing at all to do with white guilt. People were Anglicizing their German names during WWI and it had nothing at all to do white guilt and everything to do with dealing with anti-German bigotry. And I don’t know where you can have been to think that anyone hides their Scandanavian heritage – certainly nowhere that there are any Scandinavians.

      Ther reason so many people celebrate SPD is pretty simple – it started as a Pride Festival where despised Irish put on a parade right down the midle of the main streets of cities whose government they/we controlled like gang territories. That buisness about pinching (or beating into the asphalt) anyone who didn’t wear green in solidarity had the effect of getting everyone into the act. It certainly didn’t hurt that no one’s “authenticity” was questioned when they participated. That’s some more nonsense like white guilt that didn’t come along until much later.Report

  13. Jaybird says:

    As someone with Pagan friends, I find Saint Patrick’s Day to be the equivalent of Columbus Day for Native Americans.

    It’s a day that we celebrate the abuse, exile, and murder of people who had traditional beliefs but were overwhelmed by Western infiltration, assimilation, and…

    Man. I don’t know how people can keep that up.Report

  14. Dr. Beef Wellington says:

    “But I think it is weird that one of the reasons the holiday exists is to give the privileged a chance to dress up in the drag of historical oppression.”

    Oh, good lord. I really like this blog, but if you actually believe that to be true, you’ve never celebrated St. Patty’s Day. How many Americans celebrating St. Pat’s even KNOW that the Irish were oppressed? Outside of people who actually have a strong Irish heritage, I would say it is a very low amount.

    People like to get drunk. On St. Pat’s day, they also get to dress up in green, and do impressions of the Lucky Charms guy. Do not over think this. Please. It comes off as very pathetic.

    It’s just another Mardi Gras.Report

  15. Tom says:

    ” It would be a little weird, not to say unseemly, for Americans of English or German descent to parade in the street celebrating their ethnic heritage. To do so would be like dancing in the end zone of colonial history.”
    Unseemly? Why? I think most Americans have forgiven the English for the whole colonial thing. Heck, I’ve even forgiven them for the War of 1812!Report

  16. Jason says:

    Great observation about Scarlett O’Hara’s Irishness! Set aside the complicated social history espoused by GWTW about African-Americans, a strong theme running through the novel is that Scarlett survives war and humilation of Reconstruction precisely BECAUSE she is half-Irish and not part of the old, anaemic, inbred upper class English Protestant slave-owning families like Ashley’s and Melanie’s.Report

  17. brian says:

    Gawd. Its not St Patty’s Day. Its St Paddy’s day. With 2 ‘D’s.

    Patty is a girls name. Paddy is a boys name. Pat can be either. Paddy is probably from the Gaelic fr Patrick with is Padhraig.Report

  18. Eric says:

    I’m not sure where you live, but it must be some cultural/ethnic backwater. In the Midwest I grew up with a veritable feast of German, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Czech, Bohemian, and Irish festivals.

    I encourage you to travel around the country and take in some of these joyous cultural events.Report

  19. petey says:

    A quibble with Karl’s quibble. Scarlett was NOT Scots-Irish. She was Irish Catholic–that is what sets her apart from the usual portrayal of antebellum aristocracy (outside of Louisiana and isolated pockets elsewhwere)!Report

  20. Joe says:

    It is important to remember that the Irish were not considered “white” until around the 1910s and 1920s in the US — before that, they were considered a lesser race by the Anglo & Protestant elite on par with those of Italian, Spanish, or African descent — one of the underlying elements of “white’s” celebrating St. Patrick’s day is that the holiday emphasizes our US culture’s ability to overcome ethnic division. Compare celebrations in the US with celebrations in Ireland — in the US, the focus is on the celebration itself; in Ireland there are strong historical and cultural elements, almost akin to the US Thanksgiving.Report

    • Debbie in reply to Joe says:

      True, but not just in the U.S. and not only up until the 1920s. There is a line in “The Commitments” by Roddy Doyle to the effect that the Irish are the (n-words) of the world.Report

  21. Rufus F. says:

    I enjoy St. Patrick’s Day. But I really love Dyngus Day, which generally means driving two hours to Buffalo in order to listen to polka, drink beer, and douse my wife with water and pussy willows.Report

  22. svartkatt says:

    Matthew, please come join us in Seattle for Syttende Mai in May, when Norwegian-Americans will “parade in the street celebrating (our) ethnic heritage”, as we have done here for over 100 years (and yes, there is actually a parade). We do not consider it weird or unseemly, as I’m sure my fellow Seattleites of Czech, German, French, Vietnamese, Polish, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Hmong, Mexican, African-American and yes, Irish descent do not consider it “unseemly” to celebrate their ethnic heritage in public, even here in uber-politically-correct Seattle.Report

  23. Colleen says:

    Another reason for the popularity of St. Pat’s Day celebration is that it is a celebration of the return of Spring. Here in upstate NY the temperature reached 60 and people came out in droves to join the celebration. Think “green” and everyone wants to celebrate the end of a long winter whether they realize it or not. Celebrations of the changing season were part of the traditional Celtic calendar long before St. Patrick arrived on the island. Our Halloween is also the date of the Celtic Samhain celebration where wikipedia says Samhain marked the end of the harvest, the end of the “lighter half” of the year and beginning of the “darker half”. The Irish continued welcoming back the light in a more Christianized celebration on March 17th.Report

  24. Lyle says:

    The largest ethnic group in the us is those of german descent. However there was a very traumatic event for this group World War I. One of my great grandfathers was born in germany but came over as a 1 year old. However his father did not take out citizenship papers, so in 1917 he was on a list of aliens published in the local paper, and his door got painted yellow. Also in a graveyard in Darmstadt Indiana is a gravestone which has a man who died in 1914 with the stone in german and the woman who died in 1921 with the stone in english. Many german language papers stopped publishing at the time, due to being told that oh there just might happen to be a fire at your offices if you keep publishing. So for about 60 years at least in IN german heritage was suppressed. It took the dieing off of the WWI generation for the octoberfests etc to come back. Note that in 1921 the Wisc legislature passed a law forbidding teaching school in German as well.Report

  25. Troy says:

    You need to have a few beers and get laid ASAP.Report

    • jusdoit in reply to Troy says:

      plain n simple. i drink on this day and have fun because SPD, just like every other controversial holiday, is a day where something happened in the past and people will bicker bout it. In the end, i say f**k it, I’m going to drink and have fun not for what the day marks, but for the fact that people are willing to gather together, have a drink, and have fun…as long as this can happen peacefully without violence, togetherness along with peace and joy is all good. F**k saint patty’s day, just celebrate with friends family and strangers…like another wooodstock, treat it as a national (nation’s) holiday where everyone can chill together. this is how any and every holiday should be spent, with peace and joy amongst the people who celebrate it, so jump in and celebrate it. plain n simple. by the way, i’m a brown californian. born n raised. n while knowing the history behind st. patty’s day, like i said, i say f**k it, let’s go out to drink to have fun. BOONDOCK SAINTS!Report

  26. Eric says:

    I don’t see St. Patty’s Day as being substantially different from Cinqo De Mayo, Oktoberfest, Halloween, New Years, Mardi Gras, or Saturdays. For the vast, vast, vast majority of people celebrating, they’re excuses to have a party and get drunk, and they’re completely oblivious to the cultural significance of the holidays or their symbolds. The main cultural contribution of the Irish which leads us to treat St. Patty’s day as a somewhat bigger celebration starts and ends with Guinness Beer. I really don’t think it’s worth analyzing beyond that.Report

  27. Eats Wombats says:

    Americans on the subject of their Irish heritage often raise some wry smiles in Ireland and among exiles.

    St. Patty’s day? Good grief. As has been pointed out already, Patty is a girl’s name. Reminds me of the following, clipped from The Guardian comments

    Following Siobhan as Sy-o- bahn – story from a parent’s evening that definitely is best heard rather than read

    “So you’re Sean’s (pronounced Shawn’s) mother?”
    “No, Sean’s (pronounced Seen’s)”
    “Seen? (pronounced puzzedly)”
    “Yes, Seen (pronounced firmly) as in Sean(pronounced Seen) Connery”

    It’s St.Patrick, St.Pat’s or Paddy’s day.

    Indeed, it’s a quiet holiday in Ireland — where nobody ever eats corned beef and cabbage (an American fantasy) or says “top of the mornin’ to you”.Report

  28. Eats Wombats says:

    Well, perhaps not entirely quiet. But, indeed, without much razzamatazz. I always felt sorry for the Americans who thought Paddy’s day in Dublin would be the be all and end all.Report