What is it with the Irish anyway?

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

This coming weekend, on Sunday, March 17, a good portion of the world will celebrate the wearin’ o’ the green.

And the drinking of the green beer. And the singing of the lullabies of the green isle.

What is it with these Irish? Half the population lays claim to a bit of Irish blood. Fact or fancy? Are the Irish actually this prolific? What is it that brings out the wannabe kinship?

There are a good many Italians who have settled in this country, and they’ve made their mark. They’re as politically active as any Irish pol, and they have music as lively and more acclaimed than that of the Irish. Their culinary wonders are heaven-sent, way above any Irish stew I’ve ever tasted. But how many non-Italians celebrate St. Joseph’s Day, which falls two days after St. Pat’s?

The English influence in our country is the strongest – we do speak English, not Gaelic. But who knows when St. Geroge’s Day is?

Do the Germans celebrate a patron saint day? The French?

St. Patrick’s Day is practically a national holiday in the United States. There’s hardly a soul in the country who doesn’t get in on the act. Every pub and tavern, from the common to the posh, specializes in green beer and Irish coffee. Corned beef and cabbage show up on every menu and are advertised in every grocery store. The St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City rivals Macy’s Thanksgiving Day extravaganza and New Orleans’ Mardi Gras.

How did these Irish come to exert such influence? There was a time in this country when they were considered less than human. Signs with variations of “No Micks need apply” were a common sight.

But now, everyone claims a bit of Irish ancestry on March 17, and the country turns green for a day.

It’s surely not the green of envy, for Ireland is not a big country with endless resources nor has it ever been a wealthy one. It’s not one of the exploring types, although Irish legend claims Saint Brendan the Navigator discovered America a thousand years before Christopher. It is obviously not one of the idyllic places to live as far as warmth and sun.

Maybe the affinity with the Irish comes from the very fact that they are not the conquering type. They’ve never been imperialists. They’re not subjugators, not of the seven-league-boot mentality that strides across the world stepping on others. They seem to prefer living among themselves arguing and sharing a nip now and then.

The Irish can be over-bearing, over-proud and irascible. Get them talking and they never shut up. Mention anything and they’ll philosophize on it for hours. Give them one drink and they’ll want three, whether it’s whiskey or tea.

They’re not all poets, and they don’t all have the gift of gab, which is to them the telling of a story. I’ve known some who were downright mean and a few who were the shiftiest ne’er-do-wells I’ve ever met.

Stereotyping nationalities is frowned upon these days, but we do it anyway. Whether it’s based on unbiased observance or uninformed prejudice, we generalize about people’s national characteristics. Being Irish, I can publicly stereotype the Irish and get away with it. I can say they are, in general, often whimsical, kind, full of fun and dreams of ancient glory of the poetic sort.

I can say, especially on the eve of St. Paddy’s, that the Irish seem to be what people want to be, else why the big to-do? Why wear the green? Or gather to drink the brew? Or sing “When Irish Eyes are Smiling”?

It may be no more than a good excuse for gathering, a party. It may be a notion that has to do with companionship, good talk, a sip now and then to take the edge off.

Whatever it is that makes St. Patrick’s a day of conviviality, it has something to do with the Irish themselves. If it’s the blarney, or the belief in leprechauns or the Guinness – these all spring from a people who maintain a gentleness of soul in this lifetime of travail. The Irish know, and they smile on, wishing for you fair weather to your face, the wind ever at your back and a spot in heaven long before the devil knows you’re dead.

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