Posted by: justawriter | March 17, 2010

Far Afield – The wearing O’ the green

It’s funny how symbols can sometimes seem more real than reality.
This week saw one of the biggest symbolic holidays on the calendar, St. Patrick’s day. Full disclosure, my ancestry on my mother’s side is full of Clearys, Dunnigans and Browns. So I take some personal pride in all the hubbub and hoopla that accompanies the day. From New York to San Francisco revelers turn out in massive numbers for parades and festivities, even turning entire rivers green to commemorate the ancestors from the old county. Everyone is Irish that day, even if their name is Johansen, Chu or Gonzalez.
The irony is that back in the old country, St. Patrick’s Day is, at least until recent times, a solemn and quiet holy day. It was marked mostly by church services and reflection. Dublin has had a St. Patrick’s Day parade since 1931, making it considerably younger than such celebrations in the United States, many of which date from the 1840s and 50s in not earlier.
It has only been in recent years that the Irish back on the Emerald Isle have taken to using St. Patrick’s Day as a celebration of Irish culture. I think that is more a reaction to the flood of would-be Hibernians looking for the party than the actual heritage of the day. Shoot, the Irish didn’t even let the pubs open on St. Patrick’s Day until 1971.
No, it was the Irish diaspora that created the symbolic event we know as St. Patrick’s day. Driven by poverty and famine, the people of Ireland wound up on many foreign shores. A very large number landed in the United States. That was much to the consternation of the protestant residents who had themselves arrived less than a century before.
Fearful of what in those days was called “popery,” businesses posted signs that were sometimes shortened to NINA – No Irish Need Apply. In the face of that discrimination, the Irish community bonded together tighter than they would have back in the old country. While they could be denied economic opportunity, they couldn’t be denied the vote. The rapidly expanding country provided opportunities, both economic, political and educational, so that while the Irish were building the country’s railroads, they were also building schools and communities. And they kept voting for candidates that would battle for the interests of their people.
Anyone dedicated to a cause will tell you that just constantly fighting for something is unsustainable. People need celebrations to take a break from the endless wear and worry of trying to get things accomplished and having a life besides. Communities also need celebrations to define who they are and bring their members together. So it is that the shamrock came to grow on many foreign shores. Back home, the Irish didn’t need to be reminded they were Irish. But their sons and daughters around the globe needed something to bind them together so they would not be overwhelmed. So the Irish marched on St. Patrick’s day and became more united than they ever were. That’s what created the devotion to Ireland that sometimes I think even the Irish wonder about.
The symbols, and the community’s need for them, have become stronger than what they symbolize. Take the University of Notre Dame. The school’s official colors are blue and gold. But because of the “Fighting Irish” nickname, you are more likely to see the school’s athletes and alumni decked out in bright green. Indeed, I would wager that most people outside the university probably think green is Notre Dame’s school color.
So if you sipped on a green beer, munched on some soda bread or savored some corned beef and cabbage, remember and honor of a group of people that has contributed great things to our country. And think about the symbols that tie us together as a community.

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