It is little remembered now, but back in 1969 a journalist for The Irish Times wrote a book about his people, the Irish. Alan Bestic’s book was called The Importance of Being Irish. It was along the lines of similar books at the time, trying to explain the nature of one’s race to oneselves (as much as to others), much like Luigi Barzini did in The Italians. But the title had an air of pretentiousness about it; that somehow it was important to be Irish. It was the 1960’s however, a time of “anything goes,” even for book titles. Mr. Bestic covered all the areas and aspects of Irish life; and at the time of publication it garnered pretty respectable reviews. I had actually came across the book years ago when I was an adult reference librarian conducting inventory through the stacks when this book came across my way. The book’s title and the question it seemingly implied has stayed in my mind ever since and it has off and on prodded this reflection: what does St. Patrick’s Day really mean and how important is it really, to be Irish?
“The Importance of Being Irish” is one loaded phrase if there ever was one and it is similar to those slogans and titles that often pop up every year when March and St. Patrick’s Day comes round. It reminds me of the time of the T-shirt I once saw a very comely blue-eyed redheaded Irish colleen wore at the check-out counter at a CVS drugstore one year. It read: FBI (Fully Blooded Irish—and for the record, she was). At least she was proud of her heritage; it was a lot better than a lot of the schlock I always see trotted out every St. Patrick’s Day that celebrates the essence of everything that doesn’t even have the remotest hint or link of what being Irish or what Ireland is all about.
And what is it, exactly, that the stores trot out, year after year? What is it that they think the buying public will swarm to the stores to get? They present the perennially nauseating “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” merchandise, the revolting hoodies that basically say, “I’m Irish, therefore I’m drunk” or the “I’m not Irish, but I drink anyway” and the same such nonsense, along with wild-eyed leprechauns running amok looking the for gold beneath the rainbow or those nauseous movies with actors trying to approximate an Irish brogue, like that lamentable one (1992's Far and Away) with Nicole Kidman and her-then husband Tom Cruise, looking like misplaced Manhattanites in a costumed time-warp, just missing the Celtic Love Boat by a few minutes. And not to mention those misguided partygoers who always show up at the big parades with the green hair and painted tri-color faces screaming unprintable asides which would make even James Joyce blush with embarrassment and make Samuel Beckett want to go even further into exile and make Eamon De Valera turn a few spins in his grave with Michael Collins joining him in solidarity (and not in jigs and reels, by the way). Or those green baubles that seems to be leftovers from New Orleans’ Mardi Gras and all those other green-themed items that are mass-produced in places other than Ireland and have as much the same meaning. And not to mention those noxious greeting cards where donkeys and dogs and elephants doing God knows what have the remotest link to what it is to be Irish or to have an Irish identity.
If that is what St. Patrick’s Day was all about—is all about—then we’re wasting our time and more importantly, St. Patrick wasted his. There was a time when people actually sought to understand to appreciate their heritage and their faith instead of just drowning it in rivers of Killian’s Red, Guinness Stout or Jameson’s or just tossing it into huge vats of overripe corned beef and cabbage that’s tougher than the soles of my shoes, and just as durable. (And let me state here and now, there is nothing wrong with lifting a celebratory glass, it’s just the overkill that ruins it, the meaning as well as the day.)
People forget (and very often gloss over) that the basis for St. Patrick’s Day is a religious one—it is the commemoration of the life of St. Patrick, the bishop who brought the Christian faith to the shores of Ireland at great hardship to himself. Centuries have passed since Patrick brought the Christian faith to Ireland and that faith—along with everything else—has not been free from the bolts and arrows hurled in its direction by secular society and its adherents, especially given the tragic events of the last few decades. But the light of faith still shines, though it faintly flickers at times. St. Patrick’s Day is about our national heritage, how such a small country like Ireland could have such an outsize role in the history of the world and how it still seeks to show how a people can be more potent than any weapon or ideology, even if at times, it was threatened to be enveloped by both.
St. Patrick’s Day is about learning and culture and no small country like Ireland has contributed to both as she has. Down through the centuries, it was religious faith and religious art that kept the concept of civilization alive when outside forces threatened to extinguish them from the history of the world. While some nations exported goods and machinery, all Ireland had were her people and she exported them by the millions to the far flung places of the earth, to the betterment of those places wherever the Irish went, including the United States—and still does.
Whatever the field of endeavor, from religion to politics to sports to academia, to culture to music and the arts, culinary and otherwise—Ireland has had made contributions galore and this, despite the hokey “gift” books that pop up all the time that purport to show the history of Irish Art (with blank pages) or the treasures of Irish cookery (i.e., “What’s an Irish meal? A six-pack and a five-pound bag of potatoes.”). The reality gives the lie to the hype and the sensationalism and what it sad is that year in and year out many so-called “Irish” and “Irish-Americans” buy into this revolting stereotyping and by their participation in it, help to perpetuate it.
That is not what it means to be Irish.
Many years ago, when I worked at America, I had spent time working toward an advanced master’s degree in library and information science and part of the course load was to participate in a work-study program, which in my case, was working in the video library at NBC News at Rockefeller Center. It was in a spring semester and the period was the weekend. So for three months, I basically worked weekdays at 56th Street and weekends at 30 Rock.
It just so happened that St. Patrick’s Day fell on one of those weekends and I had the unique vantage point of viewing the parade on NBC monitors while the parade was ongoing outside the office windows. It was a surreal experience but not as surreal as that St. Patrick’s Day morning when I had to catch the Tarrytown train to get to work on that Saturday morning. I had expected a quiet commute, even for a holiday like St. Patrick’s Day. At 7:30, 8AM, I had every expectation of making it into the city and possibly viewing the early preparations for the big parade. It turned out anything but what I expected.
The platform and the cars were a moving Animal House where “revelers” were already celebrating their “Irishness” by being already drunk. There was one other guy like me who was just getting on the train to get to work; there was a nun hoping to have some quiet time before the day began; and there was a young family, with stroller in tow, hoping to create special memories of the day. I will never forget the shame and embarrassment I felt at this exposition of what it meant to be “Irish.” It was basically Animal House on wheels. My fellow young people hadn’t a clue about what Ireland and Irishness meant and I felt for them. Were they ever taught about their heritage by their parents, like I was? Or worse, didn’t their parents even know? Did they know of the sacrifices of generations past that gave them the freedom they were now abusing? Did they even really care?
If Mr. Bestic was around today and was able to write an updated edition of his book, (he had died at age 92 in 2014) he would have plenty of material to work with. Like many an Irishman, he, too was an exile, and he wrote of his homeland with affection and love. He knew about discrimination (he was a Protestant married to a Catholic from Dublin) yet he never let it sour his view of the world, nor of his own people withn it. People like him and the books they wrote provided me with valuable lessons about my Irish heritage and stereotyping. While it was “important” to be Irish (for we can’t help being born into what we are) it is far more important to be what we are born first to be—human—and if we can remember that, we can appreciate the “importance” of others, too, and that is probably what “the importance of being Irish” is all about, thanks to Mr. Bestic and his book.