St. Patrick's Day in New York City celebrates the long presence of the Irish in the metropolis they once dominated. This Monday, tens of thousands of people will line up along Fifth Avenue to watch a colorful parade, featuring bagpipe bands, pretty red-haired, blue-eyed girls, and police and fire regiments. Of course, the celebration will be accompanied by the quaffing of untold gallons of beer. But the parade (and all other related celebrations) will likely have very little to do with St. Patrick himself, the Christian missionary who journeyed to Ireland more than 1,600 years ago and became the patron saint of the Emerald Isle. Indeed, St. Patrick's Day (like many other American holidays, including Christmas) has degraded into a vulgar, commercial enterprise that has completely undermined its original purpose.
In New York City, this annual demonstration of “Irish pride” features excessive drinking, fights, public urination and many arrests for public intoxication and criminal assaults. Moreover, St. Patrick's Day is gradually becoming anachronistic, given New York City's rapidly changing demographics. In fact, the annual West Indian Day parade in Brooklyn, which celebrates Afro-Caribbean culture, actually attracts bigger crowds now than does dear old Saint Paddy.
Virtually every major ethnic group and nationality in New York City, Italians, Puerto Ricans, Greeks, Germans, Indians, Jews-Israelis, Dominicans, etc., have their day in the sun in Gotham. But nothing seems to compare with the Irish St. Patrick's Day in terms of public appeal and media coverage. But it all seems rather cheap, tawdry, superficial and vulgar.
Irish Americans I have known are either apathetic about St. Patrick's Day or they enjoy it on a kitschy level. Irish-Americans dominated New York City life roughly from the mid-19th century (when the famine in Ireland prompted a huge wave of emigration) roughly until the 1970s. During that glorious period, the Irish largely controlled New York City's police force, firefighters, unions, politics, courts and the docks. But New York City has not had a full-blooded Irishman in City Hall since William O’Dwyer (who was born in County Mayo) resigned in 1950, partly over accusations that he had links to organized crime figures. Prior to O’Dwyer, New York witnessed a steady array of Irish mayors, at least nine, the most famous of which was probably Jimmy Walker, the wildly colorful, charismatic (and corrupt) dandy who embodied the “Roaring Twenties” as much as Babe Ruth and Louis Armstrong.
Indeed, the legendary Tammany Hall became a center of Irish political strength by the late 19th century, a powerful Democratic Party machine that not only guaranteed votes for Irish lawmakers, but helped fill the city’s civil services, especially the police and fire departments, with Irishmen. One of the most famous Irish New York politicians of them all was Al Smith, the Tammany product and governor, who unsuccessfully ran for president (a Catholic) in 1928.
The days of an “Irish New York” are long gone, just after the Great Famine of the 1840s triggered massive emigration to the U.S., the Irish accounted for as much as one-quarter of the city’s residents. As of the 2000 Census, the number of Irish in New York City numbered about 520,000 (or only about 6 percent of the total population). Of course, Hibernians still have a large presence in some of these institutions, but many of these Irish now live in the suburbs. As such, a great many of the people who watch Monday’s parade (or actually even participate in it) will likely be non-Irish.
The sad thing is that most Irish-Americans know or care little about the real Ireland, a fantastically beautiful country with a rich, deep and tragic history and culture most of them have never visited and likely have no genuine interest in. St. Patrick's Day in New York City reduces that beautiful and complex history into a day of inebriation, mindless sloganeering, plastic shamrocks and green beer.
Some 40-million Americans can trace their ancestry to Ireland, making the Irish one of the largest ethnic groups in the country. As such, they are now almost totally assimilated into “mainstream” U.S.; I am sure you have heard of the Kennedy clan? I suspect that their huge numbers and “submerged” profile has completely diluted and undermined traditional Irish culture in this country. Being “Irish” has become almost meaningless, a wonderful, fascinating culture has been reduced to cheap, shallow stereotypes and jokes about drunkenness.
Except for a few pockets in small corners of Queens, Brooklyn and The Bronx, there are practically no “Irish neighborhoods” anymore in New York, and, by extension, “Irish identity” has been co-opted and subsumed by a bland nebulous “whiteness.”
Indeed, how many Irish-Americans know or care about Eamon de Valera, James Joyce, Charles Stewart Parnell, Daniel O'Connell or Wolfe Tone?
There is something else quite interesting about the evolution of the Irish in America. In contemporary U.S. media, “Irish” has become virtually synonymous with “white Christian American.” That is, the Irish are “ethnic,” but not “too ethnic” (which makes them both “appealing” and “acceptable” to the mass audience). How many TV shows and movies have leads with Irish surnames? Almost all of them. In exchange for complete acceptance and assimilation, the Irish in the U.S. have almost obliterated their culture and identity (just like the Germans have). After all, when was the last time you heard the term “British-American?”
I have known and loved Irish people almost all of my life -- and through them I learned about the extraordinary outpouring of literature, music and art produced by that tiny, tortured, rain-soaked island over the centuries. On a per capita basis, no other country on earth has produced such a magnitude of art. It is that legacy that should be celebrated, rather than an orgy of drinking and violence. It is an appalling shame that I, someone with no Irish blood whatsoever and who was born 5,000 miles away from Eire, know and care more about Irish culture and history than most Irish-Americans do.
Of course, in America, the prejudice and bigotry directed against the Irish (and, in particular, Irish Catholics) has long since vanished, and it is precisely this that has led to the assimilation of the Irish into the “white majority” and the concurrent dilution of Irish identity. Irish-Americans should know more about their ancestors’ struggles, not only in the U.S., but also in the United Kingdom, where until as recently as the 1960s, homeowners advertising for rooms placed signs on their doors which read, “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs.”
There's nothing wrong with living in a so-called post-racial, post-ethnic America, but do we really want to exist in a society where we no longer care about who we really are and where we came from?