The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Monday, March 17, 2003  

But I'm Not. At Least Not the Way Most Americans Are.

I should be celebrating today. It's St. Patrick's Day, after all. And, notwithstanding my surname, which is of Italian origin, I am Irish-American, my mother a descendent of the Frains of Kilmovee and the Caseys of Ballaghadereen. But I'm not celebrating St. Patrick's Day. At least not the way most Americans will observe this day.

Like many other Irish-Americans, I cringe at the tacky cardboard shamrocks, the precious little lepracháns, the silly lapel buttons, and the green beer. These are not the day's most offensive absurdities, though the last at least broaches the subject, for when it comes to the most offensive absurdity, the subject is drink.

For all too many Americans, of Irish descent or otherwise, St. Patrick's Day is simply an excuse to drink, and not only to drink, but to drink heavily, to get drunk. Packed "Irish bars," seedy roadhouses offering two-for-one specials on Guinness, and hotel bars filling the pretzel baskets with soda bread. College students, twentysomethings, and full-fledged adults drinking to a wretched and embarrassing excess. At such sights as these I not only cringe, I reel with disgust.

The image of the Irish and Irish-Americans as besotted drunkards is not only popular and pervasive, it is pernicious -- and it is a lie. As in any culture, there are and have been Irish who drank too much, but as a people, a nation, they are far from being the world's heaviest drinkers. In fact, according to the most recent statistics I could find this morning, Ireland isn't even among the top ten European countries ranked by annual alcohol consumption.

The standard, stock-image portrayals of the lazy or just down-on-his-luck Irishman drinking the dole while his children go hungry and of the miserable wife sipping sherry by the bottleful as she labors in the care of her brood have helped sell more than a few memoirs, historical novels, and films. It all makes for very moving and picturesque tales, but these are not the Irish I have known.

My grandfather has been dead for more than 30 years, my grandmother for more than 20. They aren't here for me to ask, but I'm quite certain they would be displeased to hear their grandson intended to celebrate his Irish heritage by consuming vast quantities of liquor or beer. And I'll be damned if I'm going to dishonor their memory by joining in this pre-programmed display of frat-house-quality revelry, this "harmless fun" that is nothing more than an undisguised ethnic slur.

Instead, I think I'll end the day by listening to my favorite rendition of "Danny Boy" (Carly Simon, on "My Romance"). Or perhaps spend some time with a volume of William Butler Yeats or Seamus Heany, or more challengingly, of Daithi O Brudair or Aodhagán O Rathaille. Or maybe I'll recite the Chaplet of St. Patrick, or pray the rosary using not a full set of beads but a rosary ring or bracelet, devices surreptitiously used by pious Irish Catholics when the British outlawed the practice of their faith.

Before then, however, I'm having a quiet dinner out this evening. At dinner I will lift a single glass of wine in honor of Martin and Katherine, and all those coming before and after them. Mine just a simple gesture that speaks to the quiet dignity of my grandparents and to the greatness of the Irish people.

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