Everyone is Green (Not Necessarily Irish)

Celtic knots in the Book of Kells. Photo at Wikipedia.

Ninety percent of Americans are not Irish. Thus, it has always confused me that everyone wants to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. If your heritage is Irish, more power to you, please feel free to immerse yourself in your culture. If you are in Ireland, I have no doubt it was a gay old time. I don’t mean to burst anyone’s bubble –so much so that I have waited two days, until after the last vestiges of the green beer hangovers are gone, not wanting to interrupt merrymaking. Far be it for me to throw shade at frivolity.

Is Everyone Really Irish in America on St. Patrick’s Day?

But why in the sam heck is March 17 so entrenched as an annual holiday? Every U.S. calendar in the month of March has a giant shamrock symbol on it. Yet, the vast majority of us aren’t Irish, and we don’t all get our own cultural holidays, do we?

It particularly never ceases to amaze me when my diverse Bay Area colleagues, whose English is heavily tinged with accents from the Philippines, Ecuador, Hong Kong, and Mumbai, remind me that we will all need to wear green. What color do I get to wear on Polish heritage day? When is Diwali again? What’s that traditional German dish that we all eat on …. really, there’s no German-American day? That’s particularly surprising when Germans comprise nearly 17% of our ancestry.

Map of U.S. ancestry by county. Photo from Vivid Maps.

This is what the ancestry in America looks like… notice, not so much Irish. Much more German and African-American. Where I live, on the left coast, settled by Don Guillermo Castro, not Finnegan Castro. By the way, did you know that there’s half as many Polish-Americans as there are Italian-Americans? We’re just more stealthy. (I was going to say not as loud, but I only know some Italian-Americans who are loud. Well, quite a few.) Also, not to mention the Finns, who are up in Minnesota, nodding when people ask if we’re Norwegian.

St. Patrick, Not Originally Irish, Very Much a Colonizer

Patrick was from a Roman-British aristocratic family, supposedly kidnapped by Irish raiders and held captive in Ireland for several years. This is according to his biographers who wrote down what he said at the time. Maybe. Parchment from back then, kind of sketchy. He escaped back to England and immersed himself in Christianity until he could return back to Ireland as a missionary. Later Catholic legend implies that the Pope sent him off as an onward Christian soldier, but writing in the 600s suggests that Pope Boniface IV thought a bishop named Palladius converted the Irish, not Patrick. But Palladius didn’t have pirates, so tends not to get so much credit.

The Pope personally sends Paddy off to Ireland, mosaic in Kilkenny Cathedral. Photo at wikipedia.

The legend of Paddy (yes, I got it, “d” not “t”) includes banishing snakes, using the shamrock to explain Trinitarianism–established at the Second Council of Nicea (not the first)–and boss battling with druids. Special Weaponry–Crosier. Weakness–Intolerance. Of course, there were as many snakes in Ireland as grasshoppers in Finland, but St. Urho took care of the latter–twinsies!

The Irish symbol is the harp, but ok, shamrocks, fine. Photo from Boston Public Library.

I’m sure Patrick was a nice enough fellow, but Catholic missionaries were not known for their acceptance of other people’s lifestyles. Many sites lauding Patrick bend over backward to claim that the stories about Patrick fighting against druids were far, far exaggerated. Paganism, of course, lasted for so many years after the Catholics began usurping their holidays and “convincing” women to join convents and changing the language. Is it to his credit that Patrick imposed the pagan symbol of the sun on the Christian cross to create the Celtic cross? or is that cultural appropriation?

Before the Catholics came in, Irish women had a strong role in the family. People focused more on their life on the land rather than spiritual reward afterward. And they didn’t give giant sums to the church. Patrick, by the way, faced accusations of financial impropriety at some point. Legend hotly claims that he got in trouble for not accepting money from the local “kings,” which may be true. The money wasn’t for him. It was for so many churches, which were built, so many monasteries, so many gilt-edged baptismal fonts.

I don’t have a problem saying Hooray for Ireland. Just not for Catholic missionaries, whose express purpose was to compel people to change their belief system. Plus, there’s all the symbolic cannibalism thing, but that’s fine–you can keep your communion. I’ll keep looking forward to Beltane.

The Poulnabrome dolmen in the Burren. Photo by kajmeister.

Green is Coming

I found it curious to discover that March 17th is formally Patrick’s day of death, not birthday, but perhaps this was the key clue! Ireland and the Catholic church celebrated this solemn occasion for centuries with church ceremonies, not drinking beer and parading and partying. But March 17 is so darned close to what else? Ah…. The Vernal Equinox, which happens in two days. Spring is coming–green is coming.

Suddenly, this all clicked into place. We’re not celebrating the Irish or Catholic missionaries. We’re celebrating spring.

Oh, well, THAT! I can get behind. I do get Ireland–one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited, no doubt. Full of singing, dancing, tall tales, and the mists of a thousand years of people living off the land. Not Patrick. But the green island of music and mystery. Plus, as one of the Irish folks on Facebook replied when someone said, y’should celebrate St. Gertrude, not St. Patrick… the answer might best be Feck it, any good reason is a good ‘un to celebrate these days… Feel free to celebrate your ancestry. Invent your own days if you need to.

I can get behind Green.

Ireland, the ring of Dingle, photo by kajmeister.

4 Replies to “Everyone is Green (Not Necessarily Irish)”

  1. No quibbling with any of the points you’ve made in this post. I do offer a differing point of view (respectfully). I think that people in America celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with such feavor because a) it’s March. There’s nothing else going on (unless Easter happens to fall in March on the odd year), so why not have something to anticipate? b) Many of us (me among them) married ‘real’ Irish, so I consider myself an honorary Irish citizen (no legal standing of course). c) America is a melting pot. We celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in March, and Cinco de Mayo in May. Although there are substantial number of Mexican citizens in America, not everyone is Mexican either, but May 5th gets a lot of notice and more every year. I think maybe the simplest answer might be that Americans like partying.

  2. Totally agree (and it doesn’t help that I don’t drink alcohol, so any alcohol-themed holiday is completely useless to me). Plus, it’s bothered me that Cinco de Mayo is also an Americanized holiday, not especially celebrated in Mexico, and it doesn’t gotten the same kind of press. Though it should. Plus tons of Latinos are not Mexican. Having said all that, I agree — it’s March!! Let’s party.

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