March 17th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

The Irish Problem

Today is St. Patrick's Day, and many thousands, perhaps millions of Americans will "celebrate" the Catholic holiday of the patron saint of Ireland by ignoring Lent altogether (because hardly any of those celebrating are Catholic), and by loading up on two things no actual Irishman would touch with a ten foot pole: corned beef and cabbage stew, and American beer (whether dyed green or not). And why not? For one thing, our American celebration of St. Patrick's Day is not a celebration of Ireland, or of Irishness. It's a commemoration of the vaguely remembered specific experiences of the single largest chunk of Irish to settle in North America, those who arrived during and immediately after the Great Potato Famine, roughly 1845 to 1850. The corned beef and cabbage stew, and the cheap beer, are a part of that memory for the same reason that boiled salted meat with boiled cast-off vegetables, and the cheapest beer money can buy, are a part of the Rainbow Festival, or any Earth First forest encampment, or any hobo or road dog encampment -- they're cheap, widely available including as cast-offs, and filling.

To me, St. Patrick's Day in America shows me what a real solution to racial and ethnic strife looks like. Probably half the country will be "wearing the green" today, and make some reference to being proud of their Irishness. Which, after all these years, won't be bogus ... by now, virtually everybody in America except the last two generations of immigrants is at least one-sixteenth Irish, has at least one Irish great great grandparent. That's a major accomplishment in and of itself, because between a combination of inherited British colonialist prejudices against a subjugated people and the desperate poverty of the refugees, there was a while there after the Civil War where in the cities where large numbers of them settled, the Irish were even more hated, if perhaps less feared but nonetheless more hated, than freed African-American slaves were. A long while. As in, my grandparents could remember restaurants with dead-serious signs that said "No Dogs or Irishmen Allowed," in places that had never bothered with segregated water fountains. The Western Expansion Memorial, aka the Gateway Arch, is where it is because St. Louis's city fathers campaigned hard for that federal money. Not because they gave a rat's hindquarters for the Western Expansion Memorial, but because they saw it as a way to affordably, and with federal help, permanently bulldoze the city's largest Irish slum, Battle Row, which was where the Arch stands now.

How did we get from there to where we are now? Intermarriage. As I say, virtually everybody in America is at least 1/16th Irish; who's left to hate us for it? That's what it will look like when we finally solve the "race" problem, too, you know. Virtually everybody will be 1/16th or more African in ancestry, Americans' skin color will average out to a range from about Michael Jackson to Shakira, and there won't be enough all-white people left to hate them. And on Martin Luther King Day, everybody in America will dress up in some unimaginable to us now parody of African garb to eat fried chicken, collard greens and watermelon before heading out to the Martin Luther King Day sales. And only a few grouchy African history specialists and African ethnic pride activists will be cranky about it. The rest of America won't take offense for the same reason that our (already substantially inter-married, compared to where we as a nation used to be) current generation of kids think nothing of using what used to be considered grave ethnic insults towards each other ... because in their circles, there are hardly any hard-core sheet-wearing racists left to be afraid of.

But anyway, back to America's former Irish problem, because I read something yesterday that gave me unusual amounts of hope for this world. American freelance reporter Ron DePasquale recently got back from spending a year in Northern Ireland, and wrote an article for yesterday's Slate.com suggesting that an amicable end to the English occupation of Northern Ireland may actually be near at hand: "Fantasy Ireland: Everybody benefits from a united island."

For as long as I've known anything at all about The Troubles, I've been stubbornly and bitterly insisting that anybody in northern Ireland who wants to live in the UK should move there. Well, guess what? They have been. He says that the current generation of Protestant kids are traveling to England for their college educations and then settling there. Not to avoid the Irish or the Catholics or the Troubles themselves, but because that's where the jobs are. Decades of on-again, off-again civil war in the province have taken such a toll on the Ulster constabulary that for the current generation, there's practically no reason to stay. And because of shifting demographics, it won't be very long before Catholics who self-identify with the Irish Republic will substantially outnumber the last remaining Protestants who cling to their Ulster Unionist identity. And by the time that vote becomes inevitable, it's not unlikely that even the Protestants will welcome unification with the rest of the island, he argues, because right now the one thing Catholic and Protestant northern Irish understand and agree upon is that London doesn't give a fig about them ... but Dublin is desperate for already-industrialized land they could invest in.

I don't think that before now I've ever actually dared imagine that an end to the British occupation of Ireland could happen in my lifetime. That's happy thought enough for me for this March 17th. Happy St. Patrick's Day, one and all!