Like millions and millions of Americans, I’ve always been incredibly proud of my Irish heritage. In the Coonan house as kids, “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral” was a lullaby. So was the “Notre Dame Victory March.” My mom considered it a central tenet of her parenting obligations to ensure that we kids all knew we were Irish. We did.
In my late teens, particularly my college years, I embraced it beyond her wildest dreams. And that had everything to do with St. Patrick’s Day. I absolutely adore St. Patrick’s Day. It’s right up there with Christmas morning. I’ve experienced so many memorable ones through the years, including in Chicago and New York, two of the very best. I’ve had no shortage of good buddies who proudly sported kilts for the day, but personally, I drew the line there.
My Congresswoman recently was torched on Twitter for declaring she’d be appearing in a “St. Patty’s Day” parade. In the last several years, I’ve noticed an increasingly aggressive, sometimes meanspirited, pushback by those who insist that everyone immediately stop referring to that day as “St. Patty’s Day” and instead use the more authentic Irish version, “St. Paddy’s Day.” Paddy, after all, is the proper shortened version of Patrick, or Padraig, in Ireland. I believe some view the common usage of “St. Patty’s Day” by many Americans to demonstrate a deafness to authentic Irish culture, with perhaps a touch of ugly American mixed in. While I understand that viewpoint, I think there’s a lack of context that needs to be highlighted in this discussion. I haven’t seen anyone raise this point before, so here goes . . .
St. Patrick’s Day is as much, if not more, an Irish-American holiday as it is Irish. While the day was observed as a holy day in Ireland for centuries, it evolved into the iconic event and celebration that we know today in America, not Ireland. St. Patrick’s Day exploded in popularity in America as a way for Irish immigrants and their descendants to come together to celebrate their unique heritage. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York took place in 1762, organized by Irish soldiers serving in the British Army. Since then, many American cities, including Boston, Chicago, and Savannah, proudly organized St. Patrick’s Day parades throughout the 1800s. The first parade in Ireland wasn’t until the next century.
As more and more Americans celebrated the day, some things that were not uniquely Irish became inextricably intertwined with the day – not just parades, but things like corned beef – which the Irish immigrants borrowed from other poor immigrants. Additional elements like wearing green clothes, drinking green beer, dying our rivers green, and referring to it as “St. Patty’s Day” in some corners of America became a part of the annual event even though they were not strictly rooted in Irish tradition. Along the way, generations of Americans of Irish descent also named their sons Patrick, who then spent their entire lives answering to the name Patty. And for decades, pubs, parades, and even American presidents might refer to March 17 as “St. Patty’s Day.” Does all that tradition now need to be disregarded simply because it’s not authentically Irish? Certainly, after a couple of centuries of proud and unique history, we can say these elements are authentically Irish-American.
Given the rich experience of Irish-Americans in this country, beginning as another in a long line of immigrant cultures facing discrimination, followed by the phenomenal contributions of Irish immigrants in the Civil War, and their notable contributions to American politics, law enforcement, labor unions, and the Catholic Church, to name a few, a common Irish-American heritage evolved that is something distinct in and of itself. Beyond that, over thirty million Americans can now claim at least some Irish ancestry, which dwarfs Ireland’s current population of roughly 5 million.
The bottom line for me is that when it comes to St. Patrick’s Day, I say let’s have a big tent – perhaps a Kelly green one – and include everyone. That, to me, is the point of St. Patrick’s Day in America. And in my mind, the beauty of St. Patrick’s Day here is that it makes no difference whatsoever whether you emerged from the crib speaking Gaelic or you couldn’t so much as pick out Ireland on a map of the British Isles, on this glorious day we can all be Irish. And I really don’t care whether you refer to it as St. Paddy’s or St. Patty’s, or anything else for that matter, or whether you’re drinking a properly poured pint of Guinness with a head just proud of the rim, as they say, or a cheap green beer in a tacky see-through plastic cup, it’s all heaven to me. I just wish it were a whole month like the Germans have. On second thought, perhaps that’s not such a good idea . . .
Cheers! Oh . . . and slàinte too, of course.
Dan Coonan is the author of the novel, Presidential Spirits, a political Field of Dreams, about a modern president who can interact with all of his predecessors in a centuries-old saloon, with an urgent message about our political divide, and its sequel, Another Round. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and three children.