By Patrick Kilkelly

I spoke with my cousin Michelle O’Dwyer — born and bred in Ireland, though living in New York since ‘97 — about Saint Patrick’s Day, being Irish in the U.S. and glow-in-the-dark symbols of divine hypostasis.

Patrick Kilkelly: What kind of reaction do you get from people in New York, being Irish?

Michelle O’Dwyer: People here always have some kind of connection to Ireland, whether it’s a relative who’s been to Ireland, they’ve been there themselves or they have some Irish heritage.

Do you think it’s been a positive thing for you?

It’s funny, Americans are very aware of Ireland ... but they’re not really. One woman I worked with found out I was Irish; she was of Irish descent. She said, “My family’s from Dublin — my mom and my dad.” I said, “Oh really? I’m from Dublin too. What part are they from?” “Donegal,” she told me. [Donegal is a county in North-West Ireland, on the other side of the country.] You get a lot of that — people who seem very aware of their Irish heritage, but they really aren’t because they have no idea about anything to do with Ireland, any part of Ireland or Irish culture. They’ll tell you with great assuredness that they’re Irish ... but they have no idea where they’re from. Sometimes people have picked up on a place name as an ancestral homeland, but it’s a fictitious name from a film or something. Or people will ask “Wow, you’re Irish! Have you seen Braveheart?”

So on the one hand, people you’ve met in the U.S. are quite enthusiastic and passionate about their Irish heritage, but on the other hand, their knowledge is quite limited.

People are extremely positive about their Irish roots, but it’s just on the surface. At this time of year, the stores are filled with party goods and green plastic bowler hats and glow-in-the-dark shamrocks, all kinds of things — but people have no idea what any of them mean.

It’s quite simple to celebrate, I think. It’s a day to go out and drink as much as you like.

I think so too. It’s become like Valentine’s Day: a plastic holiday. The same thing has happened with Easter. It’s been a long time since I’ve attended any religious ceremonies, but when I did, 30 years ago or so, Easter was the pinnacle of the Christian year. Now Easter is just about chocolate eggs and bunnies. The same goes for St. Patrick’s Day. It’s only about green plastic things, beer and a parade. It has nothing to do with the basis of St. Patrick’s Day. The big thing here for St. Patrick’s Day is corned beef and cabbage — we never ate that in Ireland. Corned beef was a dish Irish immigrants adopted when they came to the United States around the turn of the century. Beef was expensive in Ireland; but when they moved to the States, it was readily available. ... All the pseudo-Irish restaurants will be charging a fortune this week for corned beef and cabbage. Even the cabbage isn’t the same; here it’s boiled white cabbage. They serve it with boiled potatoes instead of mashed potatoes. The soda bread is different from the soda bread in Ireland; it has caraway seeds and dried fruit in it.

So what is the original significance of St. Patrick’s Day to you?

For me, it was about St. Patrick bringing Christianity to Ireland. The shamrock was a symbol of the holy trinity. There was the legend of him banishing all the snakes from Ireland too. I equate St. Patrick’s Day with the tiny little parade they’d have in Dublin, a day off from school — of course, here it’s not a public holiday —  and going to mass; it was a religious holiday, so it was a big deal in that sense. Here it’s just about putting green dye in beer. I was horrified when I saw that!

I was in Dublin for St. Patrick’s Day a few years ago, and to be fair, it’s just about drinking there now too.

That’s true. We’ve lost the significance of the day in Ireland too.

Why do you think Dutch or Swedish or English heritage isn’t celebrated in the same way? People from all of those countries like a drink too.

I’m from a generation of Irish immigrants who came here by choice; I had opportunities opened to me. I’m here because I want to be here; it’s my home, I stay here because I love it — whereas previous generations of Irish people were escaping poverty and oppression. What the Irish were from 50 to 150 years ago is what the Hispanic population is now; [they’re] economically undervalued, coming at the time for a better life, whereas the other European peoples coming to America were coming with more choice. Irish people banded together into very strong communities — ghettoes in the original sense of the word — all living in the same place, so they’ve maintained a strong identity. Other European immigrants were more accepted straight away, so they didn’t need to hang on to their original identity as fiercely. I see a lot of discrimination against Hispanics now, which is very similar to what the Irish faced. Even now, when people in New York hear the word “immigrant,” they think of illegal immigrants. If you have tanned skin, you must be Hispanic. If you’re Hispanic, you must be an illegal immigrant. If you have a Hispanic accent, you must be an illegal immigrant. This kind of attitude is how the Irish were treated over the years.

I get annoyed by the lazy stereotyping people make of the Irish — hard-drinking party animals — but there’s a lot of truth to that stereotype!

The Irish are very hard-working people, but they don’t live to work, they work to live. Maybe the Irish deserved some of the stereotypes that were attributed to them. There were certainly enough accounts of Irish people fighting or drinking. The Irish have always had a fondness for alcohol. Living in poor conditions, working hard for very little money, not having much to do by way of recreation — it’s not surprising alcohol was used a lot.

You work with a lot of people from Central America and the Caribbean who are first-generation immigrants to the U.S. What’s their reaction to you as an Irish person?

Most of my colleagues who are immigrants presume I’m American. I’m white, so I’m American. I don’t have that much of an Irish accent anymore either. When they do find out that I’m an immigrant too, it’s a bond between us. It’s like, “You’re not one of the establishment, you’ve gone through something coming to this country as well.”

Patrick Kilkelly writes about culture, travel and music. A Ph.D. candidate at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, he reads more about 19th century Korean grain tax reform than is healthy.

(Image credit: Flickr)

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