Mar. 17th, 2011

ashwednesday: blossoms (Spring has sprung)

Oh Dreamwidth, how I have neglected you in favour of Tumblr. Today I brush off the dust with a post about St Patrick's Day.

Let's be clear about something first. I'm not Irish. My mother, and all my mother's family on both sides, are from Northern Ireland, so I could certainly claim to be half-Irish (we're all good Catholic stock, so they're not going to call themselves British!). My religious identity also plays a part in complicating my experiences, which are otherwise very English. But I have spent little time in Ireland, and it seems somewhat appropriative of me to claim to be Irish. However, my Irish heritage is important to me in understanding the way I have grown up and who my family are.

It's funny; I've met a lot of Americans who have a much smaller claim to Irishness talk very proudly about being Irish. It might've been their great-grandfather who stepped on a boat, but the way they talk you'd think their blood ran green. On the other hand, I now live in France, where not only are British people referred to generically as les anglaises, we're also called les anglo-saxons! The first time I heard this my jaw dropped. Anglo Saxons? Are you kidding me? Not only are all British people "English", they're also of the same ethnicity. I may not be sure that "British" is a great label in general - somehow it sounds so insipid - but despite being fair-haired and pale-eyed I'm definitely not a bloody Anglo Saxon. So on the one hand I have a bit of outrage at people appropriating what-could-be my identity, even though I don't claim it as mine, and on the other hand I am pissed off that people completely ignore the issue.

White girl problem is serious, right? If this was really the point of this post you'd be totally justified in thinking I'm a douche. That was just an entryway into thinking about... hm. The dual nature, I suppose one could say, of St Patrick's Day - how on the one hand it can be a day of celebration and on the other a reminder of why Irishness - and the cultural reception of Irishness - is still problematic.

Now, let's get this out of the way first: I have no problems with people having parties on St Patrick's Day. And I don't have problems with people celebrating events from cultures foreign to their own. One of the joys of living in a multicultural society should be the ability to celebrate with one's neighbours. I read an interesting article today by Marc Scully, who talks about the significance of public Irishness in England. During the Troubles, being Irish on the mainland of Britain was problematic. My own family has plenty of experience of casual anti-Irish prejudice in this period. Scully notes that the reinstatement of the St Patrick's Day parade in Birmingham was significant not only for the large Irish population there but also for the city as a whole; "the reinstatement of the parade (with the full backing of the city council) has come to symbolise a form of reconciliation between the city and its Irish population, and a re-emergence of the Irish in the public space of the city." Scully then turns his attention to the problem of an inauthentic Irishness being represented by St Patrick's Day celebrations, and concludes that "those who had had personal experience of anti-Irish discrimination in England tended to draw on this experience to argue for the importance of the popularity of St. Patrick’s Day as an inclusive celebration. Meanwhile, those who had migrated more recently and did not share this collective memory, were more likely to question the authenticity of the festivities as being insufficiently representative of modern Ireland."

I think that Scully makes an important point here - for those who have experienced the brunt of anti-Irish sentiment, symbolic gestures of reconciliation are far more likely to be met with approval than those who have not. Sometimes, curiously enough, forgiveness is easier for those who have more to forgive. But I also wonder how much of this is a generational gap as well - I think Scully's article hints at this implicitly, though I'd have to read his thesis to find out if my hunch is right. For the Irish who moved to England in the 60s and 70s, expectations of not only how their identity would be perceived but also what kind of lives they would be able to lead must have differed so markedly from emigrants of today that necessarily their perceptions of change must be different. And it's certainly true that people of my parents' generation, and of preceding generations, are often more tolerant of prejudice than those of my own. (This is a bit of a sweeping statement, but I'll let it stand for now since this is just a blog post and not a piece of academic writing...) If you grow up expecting prejudice, not only directed towards your ethnic group but towards anyone who isn't a white English-accented Protestant (and perhaps participating in it yourself), then any gestures of inclusiveness may seem more significant to you than to your differently educated children or grandchildren.

The reason I tend to find St Patrick's Day celebrations as problematic is because they're usually a fetishising of particular types of Irishness - or Oirishness. Ireland is a green and pleasant land full of amusing superstitions, charming drunkards and poets. If you ever meet an Irish person, the words they speak in their quaint accent will convey to you some kind of folksy wisdom that you can enjoy over your green-tinted beer. Begorrah! This in itself is actually not that big a deal - celebrations that happen on any large scale about any culture or tradition end up focusing on stereotypes. This is how en masse celebration works. Cliches are comforting, whether we're celebrating things from within our own cultures or not. Think about Christmas, for instance - there are so many inbuilt cultural signifiers associated with the festive period. The problem is more to what extent the celebrations are shaped by the originating group and how much they're shaped by outsiders, and to what extent stereotypes of celebrations become stereotypes about an entire ethnic group.

St Patrick's Day, as it currently exists, has very few cultural links with the Irish. The modern style of celebrations originate in the US, and I would guess, fairly confidently, that most people who celebrate St Patrick's Day have never set foot on Irish soil. St Patrick's Day doesn't celebrate Irishness; it celebrates a perception of Irishness, and a rather narrow one at that. Americans talk about "St Patty's day", as if an Irish person would ever call him that ("Paddy", please), which is a minor example of a more major dislocation of a festival from its origins. It's also problematic when St Patrick's Day is celebrated in a culture that still demonstrates a lot of anti-Irish sentiment. It's true that nowadays no one in England is going to stick up a sign on their hotel saying NO BLACKS, NO DOGS, NO IRISH - but prejudice is still there. Even the "pleasant" sort of prejudice - the perception, for instance, that Irish people are innately creative - is still prejudice. It's very difficult not to have stereotyped perceptions of cultures foreign to one's own, but it does seem like St Patrick's Day brings these stereotypes to the fore.

More significantly, perhaps, is the way that St Patrick's Day also helps overshadow our more unpleasant cultural history. The reconciliation Scully talks about is important, but in some ways it seems quite superficial. I'm constantly amazed at how little my English peers seem to know about Irish history, or that there was essentially civil war going on in Northern Ireland during even our lifetimes, and certainly the lifetimes of our parents. Irishness is complicated, especially for the Irish abroad, whose personal stories are part of a greater narrative of chosen-and-unchosen exile.

I'm ultimately not sure what my conclusions here are. I don't think people should stop celebrating St Patrick's Day. Frankly, anything that brings whole cities a source of what's fairly clean and friendly joy is by and large a good thing. But I would like to see it accompanied by a better understanding of Irish experience and culture.

Hm. Thoughts?


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