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Kiss Me, I’m [Pretending to be] Irish:   St. Patrick’s Day Drinking Culture in Historical Context

Race & Ethnicity

Kiss Me, I’m [Pretending to be] Irish: St. Patrick’s Day Drinking Culture in Historical Context

Radix Admin

By Guest Writers Eileen O'Grady '18 and Sarah McCool '18

Flashback to kindergarten. It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and my teacher has just announced that to honor the special day, we’ll be baking a traditional Irish Soda Bread. I remember the excitement I felt bubbling up inside me – Irish Soda Bread was a tradition in my family. In fact, the teacher had borrowed the recipe we were going to use from my own Grandmother’s cookbook. I felt proud to share that small bit of my heritage with my classmates. But my excitement quickly turned to confusion when I saw that my teacher had put green food coloring in the bread dough.

“Why is it green?” I remember asking her in bewilderment. When my Irish grandmother made soda bread, she never made it green.

“For St. Patrick’s Day,” was my teacher’s perky response. I watched the other children patting and shaping the green bread dough, and I was still confused. My family didn’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by dying food green. Was my teacher even Irish? Were the other children going to assume that dying things green is what being Irish is all about?

Fifteen years later, as an Irish-American college student, I look ahead to Saint Patrick’s day with a lot of mixed feelings. On one hand, I am glad to have a day to honor my roots and recollect happy times from my childhood celebrating with family. But the older I get, the more I begin to realize that the holiday has become a twisted and gross misrepresentation of Irish culture in modern-day society.

It’s not even Saint Patrick’s Day yet, and already the number of people who are dressed in green and getting as drunk as possible is outrageous. UMass Amherst has already held their traditional “Blarney Blowout,” a large scale annual day-drinking celebration that happens in the first week of March. These people, most of whom are not Irish-Americans, simply use Saint Patrick’s Day as an excuse to be drunk and disorderly, and the tradition has seeped its way deep into modern-day culture. One only has to take a wander down the holiday aisle at the drugstore to locate a rack of handy plastic “Drunk O’Meters” that will rate your level of intoxication on a scale of “slightly buzzed” to “Irish.” Or perhaps you would prefer to pick up one of any number of green t-shirts that have variations on the phrase “Irish I were drunk right now.” My issue is that as a result of this culture, a lot of participants end up propagating stereotypes in a way that they don’t even consider or understand. Drunkenness and disorderly conduct was used historically as a cultural stereotype to justify discrimination against the Irish people. Now that same drunkenness and disorderly conduct is on display at colleges and universities across the country. Only, instead of being used as an excuse to justify discrimination against the Irish, the stereotype is now being used by entitled college kids to justify being drunk. These celebrations only serve to perpetuate the stereotype that modern-day Irish Americans are drunk and disorderly, which isn’t true, and it is both destructive and offensive to the Irish legacy.

Some people may say that St. Patrick’s Day and its celebrations are totally American - that Irish-Americans don’t have a distinct culture. But they do. Irish-Americans have their own, distinct set of cultural practices that are rooted in Irish mainland culture, but of course, are vastly different due to the passage of time and a vast ocean between us. However, the origins of Irish-American cultural stereotypes are rooted in history. The Irish Diaspora to America was a result of two things- the potato blight, now referred to by Americans as the Irish Potato Famine, and political relationships with the landowning British who controlled Ireland at the time.

As a result of starvation and persecution by the British, one million Irish people fled to the United States. One million people out of a country of three million. One third of the country’s population left. My ancestors came to America on what were called “coffin boats”, because of the number of people who died at sea. Newly arrived Irish immigrants discovered that they were unwelcome in America, as “no Irish need apply” signs were prominently displayed in businesses across the country. They moved to tenements and small buildings such as the Five Points district in New York City. Five Points is known for having been a horrendous and unsanitary place to live, but at least the Irish who lived there had company in other immigrants. Those who tried to move to better neighborhoods were often discriminated against, and forced to pay more. They were shunned because of their different cultural practices, which included attending public houses, spaces that fostered a sense of familiarity and community in what was, for them, a foreign country.

Yes, the Irish drank. Pub culture is and was important in Ireland, and it was important to Irish immigrants who came to America. However, this was about more than a few drinks at the end of the day. Many of the Irish turned to drink to help them escape from the lives of poverty, shame, starvation and persecution they had faced back in Ireland and were continuing to face in America - it resulted in alcoholism. To many Protestant Americans who were already established in the United States, drinking was the root of all evil. They didn’t drink, but the new Irish Catholics did. Protestant Americans used the casual drinking of Catholics as fuel to treat them poorly, and to discriminate against them, creating and propagating the stereotype of the typical Irishman as a rowdy and belligerent drunk. Part of Prohibition was about getting the Irish to stop drinking, and the Prohibition movement was led by Protestant temperance advocates more intent on eradicating the evil Catholics than truly prohibiting the consumption of alcohol. In modern-day America, although Irish-American discrimination may be a thing of the past, the stereotype has stuck. And as a result, St. Patrick’s Day in America has come to be associated with the one thing everyone associates with the Irish - drinking.

This brings us to our friends at UMass Amherst, and their traditional “Blarney Blowout.” The campus-wide day drinking tradition began in 1999 when a downtown bar decided to capitalize on St. Patrick’s Day and created the event to promote business.  Since then, the event has continued to grow rapidly in size, visibility and craziness, inciting police crackdowns starting in 2012. Six UMass students were arrested for disorderly conduct in 2013. Unable to make a dent on curbing the enormity of the party weekend, the UMass administration has come full circle and has ended up contributing to Blarney Blowout, putting thousands of dollars into the weekend’s activities. In 2014 UMass Amherst reportedly spent a total of $367, 477 on campus security and $305,000 on a free concert event (featuring Ke$ha, Ludacris and Juicy J.) to round out the weekend’s activities. Although the administration originally planned these events thinking they would help cut down on the amount of drinking by providing an alternate activity, it turns out it has only contributed to the festival aspect of Blarney weekend, encouraging party behavior. In 2014, 73 students were arrested for disorderly conduct. This type of behavior is considered the norm at colleges and universities across the country because it is “justified” by St. Patrick’s Day and the stereotype of the drunken Irish.

Some may argue that attending events like Blarney Blowout is just another way to have Irish pride and to honor your heritage. But what part of your heritage is being honored? The desperation of your immigrant ancestors who were pushed to alcoholism by the abhorrent conditions of daily life in an 1800s inner-city slum? St. Patrick’s Day is absolutely an appropriate time to celebrate your Irish heritage (if you have some). But please be aware of your actions. If you want to drink, go to a pub and have a drink or two. But don’t paint yourself green at a frat party, don’t flip over a car, or set anything on fire. It doesn’t matter if you want to have a drunken weekend, but don’t do it in the name of Saint Patrick’s Day, because having an event like Blarney Blowout doesn’t honor Irish culture. It degrades it. Taking pride in your heritage doesn’t meaning going crazy- it means creating something that you can have pride in, something that you can pass on to your children and enjoy with others in your community. You can’t do that if your pride involves puking into a trashcan at noon on a Saturday.

So this year when you’re celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, consider embracing the best parts of your culture. Read some Joyce, or some Yeats. Knit a sweater, go to church, or listen to some traditional Irish music. But don’t use this day as an excuse to be drunk and disorderly, regardless of whether you are Irish or not. Remember the sad history of Irish-American poverty and discrimination, and try to recognize the correlation between the 1800’s cultural stereotypes and modern-day drinking culture. Remember that the traditional history of St. Patrick’s day is an important religious and cultural holiday for the Irish people, and should not be celebrated through obnoxious drunkenness and disorderly conduct. Don’t prolong stereotypes that Irish-Americans have worked for generations to overcome. Instead, take a moment to reflect on the rich and beautiful culture of Ireland and the historical hardships that many of our ancestors endured so that we could be here celebrating today.