On Monday, tens of millions of Americans of every race and background will join together to celebrate a uniquely cherished ethnic holiday — a tribute to despised, destitute Hibernian hordes whose descendants eventually claimed pride of place as the most popular of all immigrant groups. With mass immigration once again a contentious issue in our politics and culture, the St. Patrick's Day formula — combining Irish pride with unabashed, flag-waving Americanism — offers hope that current controversies might someday achieve similarly satisfactory resolution.
There's little doubt that our annual "Great Day for the Irish" draws more attention than festive commemorations of other national origins (Columbus Day, Pulaski Day, Cinco de Mayo, Israeli Independence Day, you name it), complete with shamrock decorations turning up nearly everywhere, big city rivers sparkling with emerald dye, and school kids featuring green in their wardrobes under serious risk of pinching. The mostly positive images and emotions toward the Irish say as much about the character of the USA as they do about the sons and the daughters of the Auld Sod.
In part, we love the Irish because we instinctively embrace underdogs. The Emerald Isle suffered hellish torments during 800 years of oppression by the English — the same arrogant colonialists we defied in our own Revolution. When the starving Irish began to arrive en masse during "The Great Hunger" of the 1840s, they initially faced fiery hostility from nativist Americans and encountered occasional posted notices declaring, "No Irish Need Apply."
Agitation culminated with bloody riots against churches and convents, with the virulently anti-immigrant "Know Nothing" Party electing numerous governors and mayors and even running a former president (Millard Fillmore) as a credible contender for the White House. Despite such obstacles, Irish arrivals persevered, establishing a vibrant Catholic community, dominating police and fire departments within a generation, and playing the lead role in organizing labor unions and big-city political machines.
When Harvard-educated millionaire John Fitzgerald Kennedy won the presidency in 1960, barely 110 years had passed since the American arrival of his famine-fleeing great-grandfather, Patrick Kennedy. That's the sort of poverty-to-power, rags-to-riches tale that has always inspired Americans in this nation of fresh starts and second chances.
The other key element in the appeal of the Irish involves their instantaneous affirmation of American patriotism. Many other immigrant groups experienced a sense of divided loyalties, torn by nostalgic connections to old country nationalisms. In Ireland, however, English overlords ruthlessly suppressed expressions of national pride or distinctive culture (including Gaelic language) so that immigrants embraced Yankee symbols and customs with scant hesitation. That redoubtable patriotic ditty It's a Grand Old Flag came from Broadway composer George M. Cohan, simultaneously proud of his Irish heritage and his status as the original Yankee Doodle Dandy.
German-Americans count as even more numerous than Irish-Americans (with 49 million claiming German ancestry, compared with 35 million saying they're Irish). But Ireland never became a rival world power or fought the United States in two brutal wars — preventing any contradiction between loyalty to origins and unquestioned love of the new homeland. John Ford, the legendary filmmaker whose classic westerns forever defined our cowboy heritage, proudly claimed that he began life as Sean Aloysius O'Feeny, the son of immigrants from County Galway. In addition to all the soul-stirring John Wayne horse-operas, Ford also made magnificent films (The Quiet Man, The Last Hurrah) celebrating Ireland and Irish-Americans.
That same blend of heartfelt Americana and Emerald Isle nostalgia characterizes the annual revelry on St. Paddy's Day. Unlike other ethnic holidays, the festivities seem more familiar than exotic, more mainstream than multicultural. Irish names, accents and melodies have become inescapably American — not some demonstration of diversity or distinctive difference. Irish-ness feels comfortable, even cozy, in part because the sons of the Shamrock have been here so long (the first St. Patrick's Day Parade took place in New York in 1762) and most of them had arrived speaking English.
For other immigrants
It's impossible to imagine a sentimental hit song called When German Eyes Are Smiling, despite the countless contributions of German-Americans to our culture.
Sports teams choose their names to convey a sense of classic American pluck, so it's unthinkable that the legendary Notre Dame football squad would call itself "The Fighting French" — even though it was French priests (honestly!) who founded that Indiana university in 1842. By the same token, in modern Boston immigrants from Italy have played almost as large a role as Celtic immigrants from Ireland, but the great basketball dynasty isn't known as the "Boston Italians."
When St. Patrick's Day parades energize cities across the country, those processions feature marching bands, drill teams, floats and service clubs at least as likely to wave Cohan's Grand Old Flag as to carry the green-white-and-orange of the republic of Ireland. In fact, the festive frenzy of this now international holiday mostly began in the USA, and then spread back across the ocean to Dublin and communities of Irish migrs around the world.
More recent immigrant groups can surely benefit from the Irish-American example, understanding that the enthusiastic, unequivocal embrace of American identity need not undermine pride in heritage and kinship durable enough to flourish for centuries. Amid all the happy sailing on waves of foamy green beer, Irish-Americans (and fellow celebrants) acknowledge no inconsistency between remembering a distinctive history and cherishing American patriotism, and no clash of colors between shamrock green and the red, white and blue.