An Irish lass weighs in on St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago

Rebekah Comerford
By Rebekah Comerford
Rebekah Comerford, a student from Mary Immaculate College in Ireland, is spending the semester at Loyola University Chicago. Here is her take on St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago:  

Patrick, a name so poignant and ubiquitous with the Irish so much so that we are known as “Paddies.”

But St. Patrick has left behind much more than his name as his legacy. A rogue foreign missionary with the belief that the world was ending, he is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century using the humble three leafed shamrock as his way of explaining the Blessed Trinity thus becoming our national symbol.  Since then his day has evolved from religious feast day to a secular all-encompassing celebration of being Irish.

 His symbol decorates many businesses in Chicago today, but to what significance?

My mind wanders home to a dying tradition. Three thousand miles away, church bells clang through the crisp March morning. My mother hurriedly pins a sprig of fresh shamrock, freshly picked, to her jacket rushing out the door to make it in time for mass. She proudly belts hymns about our patron saint and listens reverently to the guttural Gaelic tones of the priest as he struggles to complete the mass in our native tongue. Themed colourful parades, tractor led, poke fun at recent events and  march  through nearby towns giving thanks to the services of the community, our sport and  music, providing entertainment to wide-eyed children. Tales of snakes being banished by the all-conquering Patrick still fresh in their minds.  I am reminded of the noise and excitement as I plan my day with my brothers, sitting around the table looking forward to going to the pub to enjoy some music and relax after the parade.

On the day of the parade in Chicago I couldn’t help but feel isolated, this was a St. Patrick ’s Day parade but it just didn’t feel the same. It had all the hallmarks of St. Patrick’s Day back home, except that it was the wrong day of course, but it felt surreal. I’m Irish and St. Patrick’s Day is a celebration of everything I hold dear, a celebration of my nation and my identity but all around me was the celebration of the American stereotype of what it is to be Irish, a not very complimentary stereotype either. That morning, I had headed out in the hope of finding the familiar to ease the homesickness that only those being away from home on our national day feel. I left my place in hope of finding some relatable culture, only to find offensive T-shirts, stickers and behaviour, all in the name of my nation. I’d never really contemplated my Irishness before or felt too patriotic but observing people binge drink at 8 a.m. and wear T-shirts stating “The Irish seven course meal: six pints of Guinness and a potato” made me question the perception of what American’s actually think of my people. Are we Irish really perceived with such disdain as to be celebrated as a bunch of idiotic drunks on our own national day?

It was in America that the parade started in retaliation to the over overwhelming nativism and discrimination against the newly arrived Irish. Chicago has had a parade 78 years longer than Dublin where up to 25 years ago, pubs didn’t open. I find it ironic that it is the precursor to a day which still perpetuates the old ideals of the Irish being simple, lazy good for nothing drunkards with quick tempers who live on a diet of cabbage and potatoes. Gap recently had to recall a T-shirt that said ‘Irish I was drunk” and our portrayal on television does nothing to dispel this simple leprechaun and thug image. It has been mentioned to me many times that any other ethnic group wouldn’t stand for this type of lazy ideology and I’m sure it is portrayed on the most part, harmlessly.  It doesn’t help that we are a self-deprecating and will be first to laugh at ourselves. However, it is true the Irish nation has a strong drinking culture, especially among the youth on St. Patrick’s Day, but tea is the most widely consumed liquid after water. I would like to see that being acknowledged instead of green beer.

I would like to say I respect and appreciate the genuine sincerity of many Irish-Americans for keeping traditions alive and acknowledging their roots. It is an amazing thing for such a small country to be recognised on such a grand scale and commemorated and I have been treated with nothing but kindness and respect since my arrival. Chicagoans love the Irish so much that over 200,000 of you claim descent making it the largest European ethnicity in the city. You gave us Michael Flatley and for that I salute you! In many ways I have found Chicagoans to be nicer than the Irish.  The parade itself had many aspects that were familiar to me, the marching bands, the dancers and the pride but it was lacklustre in what is vital to paddy’s day, a sense of community. I was told it was one of the biggest in America and that it was fantastic but seems to be dying.  I urge you to help keep it alive, get involved in all aspects of Irish culture available to you including traditional music, Gaelic football and hurling which are available in Chicago but absent from the parade. Sadly, it seemed to be a vehicle for politicians and businesses such as McDonald’s and Snapple. I do not think it is a true representation of the Irish of Chicago.

At home and abroad, “St Patty’s Day” is unfortunately turning into nothing more than a superficial celebration of being Irish perpetuated by commercialism.

“It’s now just basically a celebration of the end of winter; it’s lost its connection. It’s awful all the shamrocks and green beer; it’s like a universal Mardi Gras. It’s just an excuse to have a lot of drink.” says Andrew Wilson, 49, professor in the history of the Irish Diaspora in Loyola, originally from Co. Tyrone.

It is a lucrative sell for bars and supermarkets. Drinks such as “car bombs” are distasteful and offensive to anyone who lost loved ones in sectarian conflict between Catholic and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Some, such as Wilson stay away that day because ironically is the one day of the year where being genuinely Irish is perceived to be fakery: “It’s the one day where when you speak with a genuine accent they think you’re bullshitting” he says. That said, however, I do appreciate that I am in America and not Ireland and I’m not surprised things aren’t the same.  To many, it means nothing, it’s just a fun day. One Loyola student told me it is “a silly holiday, an excuse to wear green, go to parades and drink a lot.” Eighty percent of Loyola students with Irish heritage surveyed  had no idea what the day was about. Which begs me to ask the question if you claim ethnicity of a country, even with the most tenuous connections, should you require knowledge of that country?

St Patrick’s Day is a time when we come together as community and celebrate our collective and individual achievements throughout the past year. It is the day when we come together as a nation to celebrate what we’ve been through, the good times and the bad, and to display our national identity with pride, to highlight to the world the strength of our culture and the Irish as a people. You don’t have to be Irish to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, you just have to respect and appreciate that our culture goes beyond drinking and wearing green.

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