St Patrick's Day celebrates the role of all US migrants

Sat, Mar 17, 2012, 00:00

OPINION:FOR MANY people, whether of Irish descent or not, American St Patrick’s Day observances have increasingly become an object of derision and embarrassment. What is there to admire in a holiday identified with green beer, plastic shamrocks, “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” T-shirts and drunken leprechauns with fake purple or orange hair careening down the streets in a commercialised orgy of ethnic triumphalism?

Things were not always so. For 19th-century post-Famine Irish immigrants, St Patrick’s Day was intended as a celebration of their national saint and cultural heritage. Equally, it was a highly public way for them to claim their rights as American citizens in the face of the widespread prejudice and discrimination directed against them.

The Irish were the first ethnic group to achieve success in the US and the parades in honour of St Patrick were a powerful manifestation of that success.

For the immigrants who succeeded them – the Italians, Jews, Greeks, Poles and others – on the long climb up the ladder of success, the Irish became a model of what could be achieved with determination, hard work and a belief in the American Dream.

What St Patrick’s Day really became over time was a holiday that honoured all the diverse peoples that have contributed to the greatness of America.

Sadly, however, the original reasons for celebrating St Patrick’s Day have largely been lost.

The festivities enthusiastically continue year after year but, with the loss of their historical context, the deeper significance of the holiday has, for the most part, disappeared.

That is why, here in Atlanta, the home of Martin Luther King, the St Patrick’s Day Committee seven years ago instituted an essay contest for high school students throughout the state of Georgia on the meaning of St Patrick’s Day.

The announcement for the contest opens with the statement that St Patrick’s Day is the only ethnic holiday that has, in effect, become a national holiday.

The students are then asked to consider the reasons for this by examining the life of St Patrick himself, including the fact that, as a slave, he was himself a fierce opponent of slavery.

The students are also encouraged to consider the historical circumstances that inspired the holiday as well as its contemporary meaning in light of their own familial or community histories, stories and customs, whether or not they happen to be of Irish extraction.

As the organiser of the contest, which carries a prize of $1,000, I never cease to be amazed by the seriousness with which the students have committed themselves to the project or the remarkable idealism and insight they display in telling their own stories.

In the first year of the contest, a 15-year-old girl described the experience of her grandfather emigrating to the United States to escape the atrocities of Adolf Hitler as well as her mother’s experience fleeing the terrorism of the “Shining Path” of her native Peru.

She concluded her paper by drawing a connection with St Patrick’s Day: “Millions of people who are neither Irish nor Christian celebrate the holiday because the Irish represent us all. The Irish fled their country in search of a better way of life just as other immigrants have.

“They shared their traditions with us and brightened our lives with their celebrations just as many other immigrants have. St Patrick’s Day is really a tribute to all the immigrants, and a way to celebrate our country as well as all the people who helped make it what it is today.”

When she finished reading it, the audience leapt to its feet in a standing ovation.

It is all too easy to be cynical about the extravagant sentimentality, commercialism and overt chauvinism that mar too many American celebrations of St Patrick’s Day.

But are such displays any more egregious than the marketing campaign of Tourism Ireland to turn many famous landmarks green for the day: Niagara Falls, the Empire State Building, the London Eye, al Arab in Dubai, Table Mountain in South Africa, Sky Tower in Auckland and the television tower in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz?

The 2012 Atlanta St Patrick’s Day parade will, in a modest way, follow the same example by, for the first time, concluding with the display of a giant green shamrock held aloft by 100 marchers.

My own belief is that the eloquent testimonies of the high school students of Georgia to the meaning of St Patrick’s Day in their lives is a far more significant indication of what the holiday means to young people today than any of these flashy showpieces.

But I must also admit that, if it weren’t for the sheer appeal of more popular manifestations of the holiday, the correctives offered by the students would lack a great deal of their conviction and power.

One of this year’s contestants concluded her essay with a statement that continues to resonate with me: “When the older generation fails to teach the younger generation, history and heritage will be forgotten and replaced with an ‘It’s all about me’ mentality.”

Maybe, as many of these essays demonstrate, it’s time for the young ones to teach us older folks what we’ve been missing.

My hope is that some day the celebration

of St Patrick’s Day in Atlanta will become a genuine multicultural holiday, with every year a different ethnic group honoured at the

head of the parade.

Imagine a St Patrick’s Day parade that, over time, included Chinese dragons, Mexican mariachi bands, Caribbean steel drummers and Korean acrobats, all marching alongside green-clad Irish pipers and step dancers.

Some of my friends think that this would cost the parade its Irishness. I think precisely the opposite.

Thankfully, there is no longer the same need that once existed in America for the Irish to assert their identity or their rights as citizens. Other ethnic and racial groups, however, still need a helping hand.

What could be more true to the spirit of St Patrick than to welcome others into our home, thereby making this holiday a springtime ritual of hope, renewal and transformation for all the wanderers of the Earth?

James W Flannery is the director of the WB Yeats Foundation at Emory University, Atlanta. He is also a visiting professor in drama studies at University College Dublin, and an international associate artist at the Abbey Theatre