Having grown up in the mostly Irish working-class St. Michael’s Parish in Flint, Michigan, I remember St. Patrick’s Day as a religious holy day. Every year, that son of the old sod, Monsignor Earl V. Sheridan would regal us with tales of St. Patrick and the Irish monks “saving civilization as we know it.”
I got the same story from my grandparents. They were the first to explain that “St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland” was code for “converting the Pagans.” Later on I found out it more likely meant ethnic cleansing of the indigenous pagans.
My classmates and I would wear green every year. Once, Tim Donlan and I died our hair green. It became a competition to prove who was “as Irish as Paddy’s pig.” We’d read about how Chicagoans would die the river green. Other places painted the yellow street lines green for the day. Seemingly all harmless fun and some quaint Catholic-centric history. Once a year, then over.
St. Patrick’s Day is still a once a year feel good about being Irish event. Some 34 million Americans claim some Irish ancestry. Like it is for other ethnic groups, such a holiday can be a bonding event. And, one that can lessen ethnic frictions that occur the rest of the year.
But, somewhere along the line, St. Paddy’s Day was hijacked by the alcohol industry. A few St. Patrick’s Days ago, I went out on the town in Portland with my buddy, Paul Delehanty, looking for an Irish pub where we could get some Corned Beef and Cabbage and otherwise revel in our Irishness.
We walked the downtown and came upon huge crowds of drunken revelers outside the pubs and eateries. Bagpipers droned their way from crowd to crowd. We never did get into any place, but we watched in fascination as the crowds got more and more rowdy.
Now St. Patrick’s Day is synonymous with such drunken reveling. Major alcohol suppliers advertise for days before. In a country where over 125,000 people die each year as the result of alcohol abuse, many from being the victims of drunken drivers, how can anyone get behind a holiday that has the primary purpose of getting smashed?
My Irish grandparents were teetotalers, having seen the turn of the last century’s toll from this state-sanctioned drug. They and quite a few others obviously, went overboard and backed Prohibition. I don’t drink – I never liked the effect. But, I’m not some priggish dolt who cares that others do. What I do care about is that my ethnicity is tarnished with never ending drinking-related jokes (year-around) and by the demeaning of what should be a once a year celebration of all good things Irish.
Please rethink this “holiday.” Stereotyping of any kind is always suspect.
MICHAEL DONNELLY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org