In Washington, there is a phenomenon known as the “Irish politician,” and the term describes a walking, talking stereotype. The Irish politician is expected to toss back a drink with steelworkers, rhapsodize with banter and flowery descriptions, and behave irresponsibly. On every St. Patrick’s Day, like the one we had yesterday, they march in parades, wear the green, and attend Mass, backslapping and joking all the way down the aisle. And while Joe Biden in real life is a far cry from his Onion character, who among us would be too upset if the real-life veep spent his free afternoons washing his Trans-Am in the White House driveway or hiding out in Mexico until “some shit blows over?” The story of Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan sharing drinks after budget negotiations is repeated so frequently it’s become a Washington stereotype (and one that glosses over the real divisions inherent in our system). Even Mo Udall, a famous teetotaling Mormon from Arizona—about as far from Irish machine politics as you can get—said that the stereotype of the Irish politician that gladhanded and drank too much but was nevertheless eminently qualified for public office was truer than most.
Still, the Irish politician stereotype seems a little steeped in nostalgia. The original generation of Kennedys is gone, as is Tip O’Neill, Reagan, and many of the rest. Biden remains of course, but most of the other Irish pols aren’t all that distinguishable from their Episcopalian or Methodist counterparts. Rep. Joe Kennedy bears the right name and even has a shock of red hair, but his accent isn’t brogueish or even Bostonian. He’s a Harvard-educated, well-meaning lawyer who comes from an upper-class background. In other words, he’s basically the same as Rep. Eric Cantor or Sen. Mark Udall. That’s no attack on him, but he’s an Irish politician without the Irish.
In many ways, the decline of the Irish politician speaks to the larger decline of ethnic politicians generally. The country is more diverse now, and “Irish” kids nowadays aren’t completely Irish. They’re Irish-Filipino-Chinese-French. They’re Tiger Woods and Derek Jeter, not Pat O’Malley and Mary Callaghan. And I think this diversity is a positive thing for the country, but it does eliminate a few characters from Congress. It demands candidates that can appeal to everyone, that offend no one, that draw distinctions based on party rather than nationality.
But of course we miss the old days. In the same way that our generation misses sitcoms of the ‘80s and our parents miss listening to Dylan on a record player, we miss the sometimes wildly irresponsible Irish. I wouldn’t choose to grow up in the slums of Brooklyn during the turn of the century, but wouldn’t you want to go take a look? Wouldn’t you want to see the brawls, to hear the accents and the stories? Gangs of New York isn’t Scorsese’s best movie, but imagine just for a moment that you’re there in the hard-drinking, bare-knuckled 1890s. Those days are gone now, and St. Patrick’s Day is as much a nostalgic celebration as it is an ethnic one.
So, dutifully, on St. Patrick’s Day we’re treated to the image of the President and Speaker as they host a Capitol Hill lunch followed by a White House reception during which humble bowls of clover replace the usual floral centerpieces. Speeches are made about the glories of the Irish in America, surrounded by fine china and a waitstaff that might one day have a holiday as widely celebrated as the Irish they serve. An Irish tenor sings, harps play, and weirdly, on the day of all days that you would think a real Irish politician—as in, living in Ireland, representing people in Ireland—would want to be waving the Irish tricolor and playing up his accomplishments, the Taoiseach—the Irish prime minister—shows up in Washington and poses for photos with every elected official who can claim a shred of Irish heritage or recite a few lines of Yeats. Then, the Irish embassy throws a party that everyone tries to sneak a flask of whiskey into, and the actually Irish embassy employees have to politely but firmly ask the drunk Americans to find their way home.
Americans love the Irish and American politicians love to highlight their close connection with the auld sod. When asked about his foreign policy accomplishments, Bill Clinton usually starts off with his efforts to secure a political settlement between the IRA and the Protestant community in Northern Ireland. One of Joe Biden’s most quoted lines in the vice-presidential debate was his accusation that Paul Ryan was peddling “malarky.” Genuflecting in front of the Irish community is a rite of passage for politicians in places as varied as San Francisco, Boston, and Charleston. But anytime politicians get involved, it’s a good sign that what was once threatening has lost its edge; being Irish-American has become commonplace, and in the process, the rough sides have been filed down. The weird, foreign ethnicity of it all has been lost amid tens of thousands of Irish pubs, Notre Dame football, and cheap, ten-dollar green t-shirts on St. Patrick’s Day. Today, twelve percent of the country self-identifies as Irish-American and I’ll bet at least another twenty-five percent self-identified that way yesterday. And somewhere in that huge mass migration, sometime after crossing the Atlantic in the coffin ships or waiting in line in Ellis Island, the Irish became Americans. It wasn’t obvious for years; all the distinctive markers were still there: pale skin, freckles, names like Joseph and Stephen and more recently, Liam and Aoife. But nevertheless, in drips and drops, the Irish shed their skin.
While I have certainly encountered folks who have been bemused at the Catholic emphasis on saints and upper-crusters who still view the Irish as arrivistes, the distinction has faded. And this begs the question—why? Why the celebration of this specific ethnicity out of all of them? Why all this festivity, the wearing of the green, the long marches through New York and Chicago, the drinking that begins at noon and doesn’t end till Danny Boy has well and truly left the building? Nostalgia isn’t the whole answer. It couldn’t be. No, I think the real reason is that Americans of all stripes and shades have turned that most green of holidays into our own. We neutered it a bit, we stripped it of the ethno-religious aspects, and we turned it into a celebration of ourselves: “Kiss me, I’m Irish!”
Frankly, there’s not even an entrance requirement involved. Given how widely the Irish have spread, everyone is presumed to have a bit of it in ‘em. Barack Obama will go down in history as the first African-American president, but two years ago, he stood on College Green in downtown Dublin and proclaimed that he’d come home “to find the apostrophe that we lost somewhere along the way.” If a guy who will be as acutely identified with his race as Obama can say he’s Irish, can’t anyone? And, weirdly enough, he’s actually right; during the Great Famine, his grandfather’s grandfather left a tiny village in central Ireland and immigrated to the U.S.
Of course amid all the cheers and great fun, there’s a sneaking suspicion among us all that all the wild parades and raucous pubs aren’t really Irish. Real Irishness is strange, spooky, and weird. The parade that runs through central Dublin on St. Patrick’s features leprechauns, fairies, and druids in equal measure. These aren’t your Disney-esque leprechauns that we see here, jolly with a pot of gold and a red beard. No, these guys are demons that connive to rob, steal, and murder as many little Irish children as they can. The fairies aren’t Tinker Bell. They steal souls off to the underworld, leaving behind changelings. The old tradition of keening over a dead body is as unsettling as it is unearthly. Irish humor isn’t light or observation-based. It’s black.
The recent rash of great Irish movies just shows you how dark it can get. The whole plot of In Bruges revolves around the moment when Ray, one of two hitmen, kills a priest after confession and screws up, shooting through the priest into the head of a small child knelt in the pew nearby. The image is gruesome, but I love the tidy bow it wraps around all the confused and angry Irish emotions towards the church, the fates, and the fact that our universal human truth is a fall from grace. It’s a dark place, to be sure, but it’s understandable. After eons of living on an inhospitable rock far off the west coast of Europe, subsisting on potatoes and salted fish, after nearly dying first at the hands of the British, then at the hands of famine, then again by the British and then at the hands of each other, you might have a slightly darker view of the world than most.
But we Americans don’t live there. Indeed, save for the few truly Irish among us, none of us ever have or will. The country we live in is a huge sprawling mess, a tangle of cultures, religions, princes and paupers and wild successes. We have been attacked precisely twice by foreign invaders in nearly 250 years of history and have never heard of an occupying army. We have been blessed with wide oceans, fertile land, and a huge continent to grow into, as long as you don’t count slavery, Native Americans, or xenophobia against us.
On St. Patrick’s Day, we Americans dyed our rivers green, chugged huge pints of beer, and proclaimed that we’ve got a distantly related family farm in County Wicklow. We celebrated how far we’ve come from impoverished immigrant backgrounds and looked optimistically at the future. We honored all the parts of a culture that aren’t really the roots of that culture, the conflicted beating heart there. In short, we were Americans, despite pretending not to be, at least for a day. More than celebrating Ireland, we celebrated ourselves, and the intensely improbable journey that led us here.
Neil spent his requisite time in Western Ireland, but now spends most of his time in Washington. He has, however, only seen Joe Biden wash his car in the White House driveway once.