Back when it was a more topical thing to discuss, Ordinary Gentleman Matthew Schmitz made the following observation about St. Patrick’s Day:

Being half Irish myself, I think there are many good reasons to celebrate St. Patty’s, not least Ireland’s impressive religious and literary heritage. But I think it is weird that one of the reasons the holiday exists is to give the privileged a chance to dress up in the drag of historical oppression.

There are a couple of issues here. The first, pertaining to St. Patrick’s Day itself, is handled in the comment section. Actually, it really is about the beer, for the most part. Whites are also known to celebrate Cinco De Mayo and non-Christians celebrate Mardi Gras. There’s a party! Why pass it up?

But I think Schmitz brings up another interesting point. There really is the tendency of Americans to celebrate the closest non-British ethnicity that they can. A lot of people claim Irish heritage when it’s really pretty minimal. My friend Silke Modaber, white as white can be on 7/8 of her family, embraced the other 1/8 Lebanese*. Could it be that, though Schmitz is wrong about St. Paddy’s Day that he is right about the need for whites to find some sort of ethnic identity so that they can claim victimhood (or perhaps disclaim oppressorship)?

I’m actually skeptical of that, too. As many point out in the League’s comment section, a number of people that play up their Irish heritage couldn’t even tell you the ways that they were done wrong. I rarely hear anything about Those Bastard Brits or anything of the like. Silke never said anything about the Lebanese done wrong and only very briefly, right in the aftermath of 9/11, expressed any concern that she would have a target on her back because of her indistinguishable, Anglicized last name. No, she liked her Lebanese branch because it was where she got the ability to get a great tan. Beyond that, though, it made her interesting.

That’s something I missed out on. My last name is English. My mother’s last name is German. My grandmothers’ last names are English and English. In this country, there is nothing more dull than that. The only thing I get out of it is a joke (always made when someone points out their Polish or Portuguese or whatever heritage) is a reference to my “oppressing ancestors” or (in more comfortable company) a quip about how my ancestors probably oppressed their ancestors (somewhat unlikely, given that my roots are not particularly high-class). And really, all that is to me is a way to say that when it comes to interesting family history, I got nuthin’. I’m not (insofar as I know) even the cool kind of Anglo-American whose great-times-x grandparents came over on the mayflower.

If I had Irish ancestry, you bet I would play that up. The closest I come is some Scottish in there somewhere. And the German, of course. Germans are not quite as constrained as the English, but they’re not that far behind. German immigration occurred pretty early in the Republic. Besides which, Germany as we now know it is a relatively young country. There’s a lot of interesting there with the Saxons and whatnot, but it’s not something that most people, unless burdened with a very German name or in a heavily German part of the country, as translatable. They were Germanic People and Prussians and Saxons. At least Scandanavians have the Viking imagery. Germans have sausage. And the thing that the German-Germans are best known historically is recent history and is not something people choose to be associated with.

And the Brits. What can you say about the Brits. We’re proud British-Americans, except that of course the afterhyphen people had to go war against the pre-hyphen people a couple times before we got settled and if you embrace the pre-hyphen too much, well, you’re just identifying with the enemy (not that it bothers some southerners in the case of a different war, but I digress). And it wasn’t even an age-old grudge or a grudge we could really hold.

That’s not to say the Brits don’t have an interesting history. They do… but not in a grand sort of way. They were once an awesome power, but they declined to be sufficiently interesting or dramatic to have a real tragic downfall the same way that, say, Rome did. The Brits went, they saw, they conquered, they got beat a few times, and they gave up a few times without even fighting. I guess if I had to choose an old country with which I identify other than the US it’s the Brits. I have an aunt that’s an Anglophile, but I pretty much fail to see the point. We’re not different enough for it to be interesting and if we’re looking at like countries to identify with, I identify with Australia. England is the Dad, Ireland the nutty uncle, and Australia and Canada the siblings. It’s against the rules for Dads to be interesting.

So people gravitate towards those parts of their history that are most interesting. The Irish are, if nothing else, interesting. And the things we identify with Ireland are silly (little men and their rainbow-gold!), goofy (Superstition! Luck!) and fun (Beer!). Few really care about the potatoes.

* – In her defense, the 1/8 is where she got her last name from. Be that as it may, nobody would know it was a Lebanese name unless they were told.

Category: Coffeehouse

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4 Responses to The Intrigue of the Irish

  1. Peter says:

    Your next-to-last paragraph touches upon the real issue. People will play up any small percentages of Irish ancestry they may have because it’s a fun ancestry. Plenty of amusing images and nothing really negative – even when Irish people are stereotyped as drunks, it’s as amusing drunks. Moreover, the tragic events which have occurred in Irish history, most notably the Potato Famine, are not seen as having been the fault of the Irish people.

    Another point is that making a dubious claim to Irish ancestry will not be viewed as a cynical act because there are no tangible benefits to being Irish-American. You won’t qualify for affirmative action or benefit from political correctness. Contrast this with claiming black or Hispanic or Asian or Indian ancestry based on a distant ancestor. People will think you’re just angling for preferential treatment. Your friend Silke might have had a similar motivation, though I’m not sure if being Lebanese will be enough to get affirmative action.

  2. trumwill says:

    Great points, Peter. The only disagreement I may have is your inclusion of Indian ancestry, if by which you mean tribal. Seems that a lot of people like to point out that they’re 1/64th Cherokee. If you’re talking about South Asian Indian, I think that like regular (East) Asian is kind of hard to fake and not common enough in distant ancestry. Playing up black or Hispanic heritage is dicey.

    But you’re right that in addition to the “interesting!” factor, being loudly Irish is not perceived as looking for any sort of “free pass” since no one cares. The only exception is if it’s a lead-in to saying “My people got by in this country, so you lazy minorities need to get your crap together!” The only time I’d seen that, they’ve at least had the decency to have a very Irish name.

  3. Peter says:

    You are right, claiming a bit of American Indian ancestry is not the same thing as claiming a bit of black or Hispanic ancestry because to qualify as an Indian you have to be an enrolled tribal member.

  4. Maria says:

    I stopped thinking that British ancestry was “boring” when I found three of my ancestor’s names in the DAR’s database of Revolutionary War patriots.

    Now I state my ancestry on my father’s side as “Colonial American” and stare anybody down who dares to try to make me feel guilty about it.

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