Thursday, March 17, 2011

Why We Celebrate Saint Patrick's Day

I am of Irish descent. Both sides of my family hail, in part, from Ireland. We've other nationalities in the bloodline, too--German, Welsh, Dutch, Swiss, probably a half-dozen more. I'm a mutt with a strong strain of Irish.

So why do we celebrate Saint Patrick's Day? I mean, I've a strong love for soda bread and Guinness, so any excuse. But beyond that, I think that this is why:


King of 'Shanty--cartoon depicting poor Irish as ape-like

And this:

I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country...to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black one would not see it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.
- Cambridge historian Charles Kingsley, letter to his wife from Ireland, 1860

This, too:


A "White" face and bone structure contrasted with an "Irish" face and bone structure--the Irish face is shown with features characteristic of apes.

Though we often characterize racism in America as being a "black and white" issue, our ancestors both here and abroad managed to complicate and convolute the issue of race far beyond skin color. The Irish were caricatured as base, akin to monkeys, and more closely related to "Negroes" than "proper" white people like the English. (The disgust I feel at the comparison to Africans being a bad thing is enough for another post entirely.) Degrading the Irish through monkey-comparisons and slurs reduced them to something less-than-human--and, in the wake of the potato famine and other social/political issues, a people whose needs didn't really matter and who could be denied their voice.

So, it's because of this:

A creature manifestly between the Gorilla and the Negro is to be met with in some of the lowest districts of London and Liverpool by adventurous explorers. It comes from Ireland, whence it has contrived to migrate; it belongs in fact to a tribe of Irish savages: the lowest species of Irish Yahoo. When conversing with its kind it talks a sort of gibberish. It is, moreover, a climbing animal, and may sometimes be seen ascending a ladder ladden with a hod of bricks.
Satire entitled "The Missing Link", from the British magazine Punch, 1862

And this:
An Irish servant, depicted as oafish, brutish and with ape-like features, as well as red hair (and boats for feet--dang!), causes domestic problems for the poor, docile white mistress.

that I celebrate Saint Patrick's Day. The Irish weren't the only group to be marginalized in America's history, and other ethnicities were disparaged across Europe and elsewhere, too. But there's a story of overcoming there--and overcoming intact. Because if any of these cartoons has a grain of truth, I think it's this one:

It depicts the American melting pot, and the stubborn Irish refusing to blend in. Sure, this is a violent and ugly depiction of that. Yet I find some comfort, over 100 years later, that the Irish in this country were eventually accepted--but that they never quite gave up all their identity to do so. It gives me hope that, with time and effort and lots of brave people, we can eventually move past all our self-inflicted racial issues while maintaining pride in our heritage and history.
Happy St. Patty's Day! Have a pint (or a dram...whatever your pleasure!)

5 comments:

Jill said...

I am proud to be Irish! I have a little bit of Anglo, Scots, and Welsh in there, too, but mostly just Irish. Have you ever read Swift's satirical articles about the Irish? He hated the way the English treated the Irish, and his articles were meant to shame the English.

K.B. Owen said...

This is so interesting! I had no idea how bad it was. I knew that Americans felt threatened by the influx of Irish after the potato famine (taking jobs, crowded tenements), but I never knew about these particular cartoons/caricatures. Thanks for the education!

anachronist said...

Irish culture, especially folk music and dance, is very close to my heart although I don't think I have a drop of Irish blood in my veins. Being Irish never was easy - these cartoons prove it once again. An interesting post, thanks!

dolleygurl said...

What a wonderful post! I have never seen these images before. I always understood that the Irish had been one of the immigrant groups to be treated like second class citizens but I never had seen this. Thanks for the enlightenment.

Anonymous said...

What an interesting blog! I'm loving it. My grandmother was born in Belfast, Ireland, in 1899 and her father came from Cork. In 1903 he brought his family to South Africa. I can tell you that in this country the attitude towards the Irish is hardly different to that depicted in the cartoons, it is impossible to erase the ingrained bigotry of South Africans of English descent, and the Afrikaners are deeply prejudiced against anyone who is Catholic.

Incidentally, what really annoys and upsets me are references to the Irish "famine". There was no famine in Ireland at the time of the Great Hunger, the food continued to be produced and exported to England just as it always had been. The English had most of the land and the Irish were forced to work that land in exchange for a hovel to live in and a small patch of land on which they were permitted to grow potatoes to feed themselves and their families. When the blight hit the potatoes, the Irish died. The English were only too happy to let it happen, anything that killed off the Irish was fine with them. As long as all the other crops and meat were still being produced and shipped to England, that's all they cared about. Unfortunately the English will never admit this, even though documented proof is there for anyone to see if they are interested.