The cultural (mis)appropriation of St. Patrick's Day

(The is a reprint of my 2018 St. Patrick’s Day column.)

Some examples: A white guy wears dreadlocks. Black Americans wearing African-style clothing. Wearing a Native American feather headdress. Actors performing in roles not of their race or ethnicity. (Except, of course, for Hamilton but not for Othello.) Miley Cyrus trying to adopt black female sexuality. And lots more. You’d think there was an epidemic. 

Sometimes, it’s kind of hard to know. Some of us are from the “dominant” society. So, if you’re confused, here’s a definition:

Cultural appropriation, often framed as cultural misappropriation, is a concept in sociology dealing with the adoption of the elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. It is distinguished from equal cultural exchange due to the presence of a colonial element and imbalance of power. Cultural (mis)appropriation is often portrayed as harmful in contemporary cultures, and is claimed to be a violation of the collective intellectual property rights of the originating, minority cultures, notably Indigenous cultures and those living under colonial rule. Often unavoidable when multiple cultures come together, cultural exchange, as well as misappropriation, can include using other cultures’ cultural and religious traditions, fashion, symbols, language, and songs.

Oh, you mean like the appropriation of Irish culture? If you’re wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day, marching in a St. Pat’s Day parade, drinking green beer, aren’t you a racist or some kind of awful person? By what right to you appropriate my culture? Strutting around like you’re Irish and sharing the same music, literature, folklore and, this above all else, suffering. Then insulting it by considering St. Patrick’s Day is an opportunity to get vomiting drunk.

Of course I’m kidding. I’m delighted that everyone is sharing my culture, singing Danny Boy

Starving Irish beg for food at an overflowing workhouse.

Starving Irish beg for food at an overflowing workhouse.

with the same deep emotion as did the Irish when people left the stricken island for good.

Well, my critics will tell me, that the Irish are a part of the dominant society, sharing white privilege and harboring racism. What victimhood can we claim? If that’s your reaction, your victimhood ignorance is showing. You can find the details here. It was a colony of England, suffering all the maltreatments suffered by other colonies.

From my historical novel, Madness: The War of 1812:

English conquest and domination of Ireland were a centuries-long endeavor. The English stripped the Irish of countless human and civil rights, including the right to vote, own property and arms, serve in the military, sit in Parliament, receive equal education, assemble in the name of representing the Irish people, habeas corpus and, most notably, to practice religion. Cleansing Ireland of the Catholic faith was a priority; church property was confiscated and priests sometimes were driven into hiding to celebrate mass or teach the catechism. Catholics were required to tithe to the established Protestant church, and in an additional slap at the nation of Catholics, the Anglican Church was officially named the Church of Ireland.

Trying to wipe out all vestiges of Irish culture, the English suppressed the native language,

The Notre Dame leprechaun. No offense take.

The Notre Dame leprechaun. No offense taken.

Gaelic, and made English the official language. A million people died in the Great Potato Famine, which wasn’t a natural disaster but was caused by the English Corn Laws and other oppressions. People were left to starve and die on the roads and in the ditches. Talk about genocide: The Irish population in 1841 was 8.2 million. It fell to 6.6 million in 1851 and to 4.7 million in 1930.

To escape hunger and oppression as many as 4.5 million immigrated to American between 1820 and 1930, not counting the uncounted (I’ve seen figures as high as 1 million) who died from the horrible conditions while in transit.  Once in America that met with hostility, discrimination, unemployment, segregation and worse. Many of the things that today trouble black Americans and immigrants. With an exception: There were no speech codes and cultural police to stem that anti-Irish hatred.

Yes, the Irish assimilated into America society while breathing life into their endangered culture. Today, the idea of assimilation is regarded as offensive. Not to me. It is how my grandfather and my father beat the prejudices they had to endure and straightjackets they had to wear.

I’m proud of my Irish ancestors. They overcame incredible odds just to survive. St. Patrick’s Day to me is symbolic of their strength and their faith. And instead of being pissed about some kind of appropriation of the Irish culture, I welcome everyone of whatever ethnicity or race who wants to celebrate the Irish vigor and successes. It makes me feel good when I see and hear so many Americans showing an appreciation for Irish cultural. In no way is it an insult.

Éirinn go Brách.


My historical novel: Madness: The War of 1812

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