St. Patrick’s Day is more than just a day to wear green
Published 11:23 am Tuesday, March 14, 2023
St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, celebrates how an ethnic culture can remain distinct, yet continue to the broader “melting pot” of American life. It is more than leprechauns and shamrocks, and the wearing of green on Friday.
The day has its roots in Ireland, of course. But many Northeast Tennesseans are of Irish descent. St. Patrick’s Day is no Hallmark holiday nor is it celebrated with a day off from work.
As one biographer reminds us, “St. Patrick was a brave man, and a determined one.” So, too, were his spiritual sons and daughters, who maintained Irish culture during centuries of British Imperial rule.
St. Patrick’s Day also inspires amity: Not just friends smiling at friends, but, often, strangers smiling at strangers. Evangelizing Ireland 1,500 years ago, Patrick sought the conversion of hearts. His feast, maybe not as profoundly, but just as powerfully, can still accomplish something close to that today.
St. Patrick’s Day is believed to be celebrated in more nations than any other ethnic festival. Much of its modern revelry has been developed and expanded in the United States, where Irish immigration and assimilation are part of the history and spirit of the nation.
From 1820 to 1975 alone, some 4.7 million Irish came to America. Their impact is especially felt in Northeast Tennessee and throughout this state, where the Irish heritage is inextricably part of our culture and history.
St. Patrick’s Day is often most associated with shamrocks, leprechauns, parades and all things green, but it celebrates Irish food, tradition, history and culture. It is a joyous holiday that arrives as spring begins to lift the grip of winter – even as we still try to escape the “in like a lion” period of March.
The Irish who came to America, notably but not only during Ireland’s 1840s potato famine, overcame prejudice and poverty. As America became urbanized, they toiled in our factories and served as teachers, law enforcement or public safety officers, as well as soldiers and farmers. These Irish-Americans were not just Irish or American. To our great betterment, they were both.
St. Patrick’s Day celebrates how an ethnic culture can remain distinct, yet contribute to the broader, “melting pot” fabric of American life. All great ethnic celebrations are statements that we can all appreciate what each unique group has to offer.
The mass Irish migration to America occurred in the first half of the 19th century and was met with fear, hatred and bigotry. Overt job discrimination was rampant as every Irish worker knew of the “No Irish Need Apply” signs and the same sort of vitriolic rhetoric was voiced toward them as we see now against Spanish-speaking immigrants. The Know Nothing Party was organized specifically to undermine the political power of Irish Catholics. Kids today have no sense whatsoever how momentous it was in 1960 to have John F. Kennedy, an Irish Catholic, elected president of the United States.
But the fact that anti-Irish discrimination is no longer a part of our collective consciousness is precisely what makes St. Patrick’s Day so wonderful. We do not use St. Patrick’s Day to celebrate Irish-American liberation and equality, we just use it to celebrate Irish culture.
Irish-Americans are now considered as American as anyone else, but this is not the result of complete assimilation. Irish-Americans were not made to surrender their identities.
St. Patrick’s Day stands as a monument to the view that we are strongest, not when we are homogenized, when our differences are stripped away in favor of a single way of being, but rather when we embrace differences and seek to understand how other ways of experiencing the world can be used to augment, to enrich our limited perspective. That we can not only peaceably coexist, but that we can cherish and benefit from our diversity.
Although we have no local events to celebrate the day, it is a day on our calendar, and for sure, we will wear green so as not to be pinched. It is a day that we celebrate Irish Americans and remember that all Americans have a heritage that began somewhere besides America.