St. Patrick’s Day: Nobody Wanna Be An Immigrant, But They Wanna Be Irish

Every year on March 17th, the Irish and the Irish-at-heart across the globe observe St. Patrick’s Day. What began as a religious feast day for the patron saint of Ireland has become an international festival celebrating Irish culture with parades, dancing, special foods and a whole lot of green.

In America, although we associate the holiday with drinking, drinking, and drinking and being Irish and green things, culturally, St. Patrick’s Day is the yearly commemoration in which folk celebrate their Irish ancestry. According to Catholic University’s Irish American expert, Timothy Meager, explains that St. Patrick’s Day celebrations began in the 18th century in American cities with large Irish immigrant populations. He goes on to say, “It becomes a way to honor the Saint, but also to confirm ethnic identity and to create bonds of solidarity,” Meagher explained.

I find this interesting based on America’s current stance and boisterous opposition to immigration. By this I mean, let us mentally drift to the position large swaths of White Americans have towards Hispanics and Brown people. “Oh, they’re illegals… Stop it, they’re taking all America’s jobs… Their hurting the fabric of America… Go back where you came from, we don’t want you here!” 

These are all verbal atrocities that have been openly stated towards today’s immigrant populations––when they’re not performing the low-paying, high laborious jobs that the White Americans have never been willing to do. No need to argue, it is what it is. Take all that “pull yourself up from your bootstraps” bullshit and throw it out the window because this country was built on the backs of slave labor, and those same immigrants being taunted and hated are providing the low-wage labor that slaves and poor people of color provided for generations. But I digress… 

Still, I find this interesting, especially considering the dominant cultural population in America, for the exception of a singular day of celebration, have pretty much abandoned any idea that they themselves are one or two generations removed from too carrying the immigrant identification placard. Hence, nobody wants to be called or considered or identified as an immigrant, yet they wanna be Irish for a day and celebrate that prideful aspect of their social-cultural being. It is only on either March 17th or when Team Ireland makes it to the little league soccer championship that the folk celebrate being hyphenated as Irish-American or Italian-American. Every other day, they’re just American. 

From a social-cultural-historical perspective, such a positionality must be nice. I call this positionality social-cultural appropriation.

What is also interesting to me is the fact that according to Trulia, the population of Ireland is about 4.2 million. In contrast, there are around 34 MILLION people of Irish descent living in America.

Another interesting observation regarding St. Patrick’s Day is that it is truly a “Sunday” holiday. By this I mean, in churches throughout America, for the most part, Sundays are the most racially segregated day of the week. Yes, there might be some splices of integration, but on the grand scale, the racial divide is most apparent in America every Sunday, except in New Orleans at second-line parades! Don’t believe me? According to recent research by Cathy Lynn Grossman:

Sunday morning remains, as King once observed, the most segregated hour in America. And, against a backdrop of increased racial tensions, new research shows that most Americans are OK with that.Two in three (66 percent) Americans have never regularly attended a place of worship where they were an ethnic minority, according to new polling analysis released by LifeWay Research.“People like the idea of diversity. They just don’t like being around different people,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Nashville, Tenn.-based research firm.“Maybe their sense is that church is the space where they don’t have to worry about issues like this,” he said. But that could be a problem, because, Stetzer said, “If you don’t like diversity, you’re really not going to like heaven.”LifeWay did three surveys last September examining how people do — or don’t — experience diversity at church and their views toward diversity.One survey focused on 994 people who said they go to church at least on holidays if not more often:* 67 percent say their church has done enough to become more ethnically diverse.
-40 percent want to see more diversity.
-71 percent of evangelicals say their church is diverse enough.
-Race and ethnicity reveal sharp differences. Only 37 percent of whites want their church to be more diverse, compared to 47 percent of Hispanic Americans and 51 percent of African-Americans.

With that said, when is the most segregated hour in America? The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., once said “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” 

I would suggest that beside Juneteenth, St. Patrick’s Day is one of the most segregated social-cultural celebrations in America.

And for those not familiar with Juneteenth: Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States.  Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19th that the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. Note that this was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation – which had become official January 1, 1863. Again, I digress…

Every year on March 17th, the Irish and the Irish-at-heart across the globe observe St. Patrick’s Day. What began as a religious feast day for the patron saint of Ireland has become an international festival celebrating Irish culture with parades, dancing, special foods and a whole lot of green. I found the following comment regarding a St.Patrick’s Day commentary interesting:

White ethnicities are great because white people get to implement them selectively. Nobody knows or gives a damn if you’re Irish until you put on a bunch of green, wear a plastic hat, and drink yourself stupid. If you’re Asian though everybody’s like “where are you from?” They may or may not ask this really slow and loud, as it the asian person can’t understand English well. If the Asian person then tells the white person they’re from Boston or something like that it really confuses them. White people get to be from Ireland or Boston depending on their mood and whether it’s a holiday.

What is truly interesting about St. Patrick’s Day is how quickly White selectively choose to “forget” or “optionally” choose when they want to discuss Ellis Island and the sad story of their grandparents or great-grandparents coming through Ellis Island with “not a penny in their pocket.” A great reminder of the true story of Irish and Italian folk who selectively and optionally choose to identify as holistically American is the book, “How the White Became Irish.” In it, Noel Ignatiev (hmmm…) says:

In the first half of the 19th century, some three million Irish emigrated to America, trading a ruling elite of Anglo-Irish Anglicans for one of WASPs. The Irish immigrants were (self-evidently) not Anglo-Saxon; most were not Protestant; and, as far as many of the nativists were concerned, they weren’t white, either. Just how, in the years surrounding the Civil War, the Irish evolved from an oppressed, unwelcome social class to become part of a white racial class is the focus of Harvard lecturer Ignatiev’s well-researched, intriguing although haphazardly structured book. By mid-century, Irish voting solidarity gave them political power, a power augmented by the brute force of groups descended from the Molly Maguires. With help, the Irish pushed blacks out of the lower-class jobs and neighborhoods they had originally shared. And though many Irish had been oppressed by the Penal Laws, they opposed abolition? Even when Daniel O’Connell, “the Liberator,” threatened that Irish-Americans who countenanced slavery would be recognized “as Irishmen no longer.” The book’s structure lacks cohesion: but for the careful reader, he offers much to think about and an important perspective on the American history of race and class.

Well, with that said, I think you get my point. What is it? St. Patrick’s Day: Nobody Wanna Be An Immigrant, But They Wanna Be Irish!

In closing, I’ll like to leave you with Jessie Daniel’s essay, St. Patrick’s Day: A History of Racism, A Celebration of Whiteness:

Like many immigrant groups in the United States, the Irish were characterized as racial Others when they first arrived in the first half of the 19th century. The Irish had suffered profound injustice in the U.K. at the hands of the British, widely seen as “white negroes.” The potato famine that created starvation conditions that cost the lives of millions of Irish and forced the out-migration of millions of surviving ones, was less a natural disaster and more a complex set of social conditions created by British landowners (much like Hurricane Katrina). Forced to flee from their native Ireland and the oppressive British landowners, many Irish came to the U.S.
Once in the U.S., the Irish were to negative stereotyping that was very similar to that of enslaved Africans and African Americans. The comic Irishman – happy, lazy, stupid, with a gift for music and dance – was a stock character in American theater. Drunkenness and criminality were major themes of Irish stereotypes, and the term “paddy wagon” has its etymological roots in the racist term “paddy,” a shortening of the name “Patrick,” which was used to refer to the Irish. However, this is also a gendered image and refers to Irish men, specifically. The masculine imagery of “paddy” hides the existence of Irish women, but did not protect Irish women from racism as they were often more exposed to such racism through domestic jobs. Women typically played a key role in maintaining Catholic adherence, which resonates closely with Irishness and difference. The “model minority” (if you will) stereotype of Irish-American women is of a “Bridget,” recognized for her hard work and contribution to Irish upward class mobility.
Simian, or ape-like caricature of the Irish immigrant was also a common one among the mainstream news publications of the day (much like the recent New York Post cartoon). For example, in 1867 American cartoonist Thomas Nast drew “The Day We Celebrate” a cartoon depicting the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day as violent, drunken apes. And, in 1899, Harper’s Weekly featured a drawing of three men’s heads in profile: Irish, Anglo-Teutonic and Negro, in order to illustrate the similarity between the Irish and the Negro (and, the supposed superiority of the Anglo-Teutonic). In northern states, blacks and Irish immigrants were forced into overlapping – often integrated – slum neighborhoods. Although leaders of the Irish liberation struggle (in Ireland) saw slavery as an evil, their Irish-American cousins largely aligned with the slaveholders.
And, following the end of slavery, the Irish and African Americans were forced to compete for the same low-wage, low-status jobs. So, the “white negroes” of the U.K. came to the United States and, though not enslaved, faced a status almost as low as that of recently-freed blacks. While there were moments of solidarity between Irish and African Americans, this was short lived.
Over the course of the 19th and early 20th century, Irish Americans managed to a great extent to enter and become part of the dominant white culture. In an attempt to secure the prosperity and social position that their white skin had not guaranteed them in Europe, Irish immigrants lobbied for white racial status in America. Although Irish people’s pale skin color and European roots suggested evidence of their white racial pedigree, the discrimination that immigrants experienced on the job (although the extent of the “No Irish Need Apply” discrimination is disputed), the simian caricatures they saw of themselves in the newspapers, meant that “whiteness” was a status that would be achieved, not ascribed.
For some time now, Irish-Americans have been thoroughly regarded as “white.” Evidence of this assimilation into whiteness is presented by Mary C. Waters (Harvard) in a recent AJPH article, in which she writes that “the once-rigid lines that divided European-origin groups from one another have increasingly blurred.” Waters goes on to predict that the changes that European immigrants ahve experienced are “becoming more likely for groups we now define as ‘racial.’” While I certainly agree that the boundaries of whiteness are malleable – it is a racial category that expands and contracts based on historical, cultural and social conditions – I don’t know if it is malleable enough to include all the groups we now define as ‘racial’ Others.
As people rush to embrace even fictive Irish heritage and encourage strangers to “Kiss Me I’m Irish” today, take just a moment to reflect on the history of racism and the pursuit of whiteness wrapped up in this holiday.

History is an amazing gift to the world, because when the victor isn’t allowed to tell or dictate the narrative of the historical story, the truth is a MoFo!




Dr. Brice Miller is a New Orleans-based jazz musician (trumpet, vocalist, DJ), performance artist, music/jazz educator, scholar, lecturer, and public humanities and cultural-scholarly engagement specialist. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Music Education and a Master’s degree in Educational Administration and Leadership from Xavier University, and an interdisciplinary Ph.D. from The University of Alabama with a concentration in higher education administration, social/cultural anthropology and ethnomusicology. Much of his research concentrates on urban spaces, engaged scholarship, everyday geographies, and using the arts and public humanities as social dialogue. As a nationally recognized community and cultural engagement specialist, and internationally performing jazz musician, Dr. Miller provides his far-reaching expertise with local, state and federal agencies, international partners, not-for-profit organizations, and businesses to facilitate collaboration within the university community, among students, faculty, staff, and community members on a wide-range of topics. He is an engaged scholar and cultural diaspora specialist who is passionate about the potential universities have in becoming local, regional, and national models for forward-thinking effective community engagement practices. He understands the social and cultural resources and the ways community and local settings are vital to establishing and maintaining strong collaborative engagement among universities, municipal leaders, city residents, multiple sectors, and key stakeholders.