I’m both a proud Irish American and a student of history. As a consequence, every March I find myself torn between a desire to carouse on St. Patrick’s Day or to raise awareness about the messages we send in the very act of carousing.
That is, if I celebrate on St. Pat’s, will I be promoting Irish stereotypes? Will I be a “Plastic Paddy”, too?
“Plastic Paddy” has a few meanings (in fact, simply by identifying as “Irish American” I’m in danger of being accused of being a Plastic Paddy by some “real” Irish), but I’m using it here to signify Americans who are fiercely and purposelessly gung-ho Irish. You know the ones: St. Pat’s brings them stumbling out onto the streets and into every local bar that has a corned beef sandwich special.
Plastic Paddies swill green beer and wear shamrock Mardi Gras beads and t-shirts that say things like “You must be Irish coz my dick’s Dublin” and “Irish girls do it better”.
Plastic Paddies love The Boondock Saints (1999), a film that perpetuates the worst Irish stereotypes and glorifies violence to boot.
Plastic Paddies seem to think that “Danny Boy” and “The Unicorn” are the apex of Irish musical culture, requesting them over and over at pubs (which is a bit like shouting “Freebird!” at any rock show), yet are unfamiliar with songs like “The Rising of the Moon”, “Kevin Barry”, “A Nation Once Again”, “Come Out, Ye Black and Tans”, and countless others.
Along with Plastic Paddy behavior comes cultural commodification. Walk into any Old Navy, Wal-Mart, Target, or Rite Aid between Valentine’s Day and the 17th of March and you’ll see what I mean. You can’t miss the garish green endcap displays and the ridiculous t-shirts that insult everyone’s intelligence. (Most of them don’t even bother to get the symbolism right, substituting a four-leaf clover for a shamrock.) Corporations are making a fortune by capitalizing on our heritage, something no other ethnic group has experienced to this shameful degree.
And there has also been a corresponding increase in caricature-ish portrayals of the Irish in contemporary pop culture. These caricatures nearly always depict the Irish as drunken, brawling dullards who don’t quite understand the complexities of modern life; the trope of the “Thick Mick”.
Of course, this is nothing new: British governmental elite and nobility, British loyalists in America, and even some Americans have been trying to cast the Irish in the role of barbarian for hundreds of years. Don’t believe me? Look at some of these examples from Haverford.edu
Why are the Irish still the butt of jokes on television shows like Archer, The Simpsons, Family Guy, South Park, and The John Stewart Show? Why do the writers for nearly every popular comedic television series feel the need to jump on that paddy wagon — er, I mean, bandwagon?
I can only conclude that the Irish, unlike other ethnic groups, are perceived as being able to take a joke. Since we’ve so often made fun of ourselves in limericks, folk songs, fiction, satire, and drama, we’ve sent the message that we’re OK with being cast in the role of the buffoon. We have a talent for self-deprecation, and we’ve elevated it to an art form.
Believe me, I don’t write this article without a certain comical awareness of my own hypocrisy: Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve done my share of carousing: I’ve worn “Irish pride” t-shirts; I’ve been known to overindulge on St. Pat’s (and every other holiday); and I’ve even had a pint or two of green beer (though I can hardly be held responsible for my actions because I was already drunk on Guinness).
But the real difference between me and the Plastic Paddies is that if you ask me why I’m proud to be Irish, I can answer with something other than “Because I can drink you under the table.” I can tell you about the young Irish girls who came to America alone to find work as domestic servants; the Easter Rising; Bloody Sunday; Bobby Sands; Michael Collins; James Connolly; the Irish Holocaust; the “American wakes” held for the Irish who left home, never to see their families again; the Irish Brigade; St. Patrick’s Battalion; and the men who built America’s canals and railroads, those exploited laborers who became casualties in the name of progress.
Know your history, Irish Americans. And don’t use a lack of formal education as your excuse. (In fact, until recently, most American public schools have been notoriously bad at presenting any kind of full picture of Irish history, particularly regarding the Irish Holocaust). All it takes is an inquisitive mind, a few good books, a few good films, and some recordings of folk songs to get you started.
Why not begin a St. Patrick’s Day tradition that matters? Use the occasion to tell your kids and friends something about Irish or Irish American history. Perhaps start with something I mentioned above, or maybe this story, which took place not far from my little corner of the world:
In 1925, in Syracuse, New York’s Tipperary Hill neighborhood, there lived a group of Irish kids who came to be known as the “stone throwers.” When a traffic light was installed in their neighborhood, these kids revolted against having the British red over the Irish green by throwing stones at the red light, breaking it multiple times, until city authorities gave in and installed a green-over-red traffic light. America’s only green-over-red traffic light.
But wait a minute. Doesn’t that story just promote vandalism and the stereotype of the hooligan Mick? I don’t know, but I love it anyway. This just goes to show that when it comes to ethnic stereotypes, it’s not all black and white. There’s a whole lot of grey in between. Or in this case, green. Forty shades of it.