Erasing Irish Culture: Celebrating Colonialism On Saint Patrick’s Day

By Maura Lee Bee


Not All That Glitters is Green


It’s 2010, and I’m sitting in a Chemistry lecture at eight o’clock in the morning. I’m the only one wearing blue in a sea of clover. My professor is wearing a felt vest with shamrocks and glitter on the lapels. I’m trying not to roll my eyes or fall asleep. Then, a classmate asks me loudly, “Why aren’t you wearing green?” I explain that I don’t care for St. Patrick’s Day, and have nothing to prove about my Irish heritage. She leans back in her chair and mumbles to herself, “Well, that’s racist.” But here’s what is important to understand: St. Patrick’s Day is a holiday that is not only damaging to Irish Americans because of the appropriation of Irish stereotypes, but also works to enforce a culture in modern Ireland that eradicates the indigenous religions of the 5th century.


A Brief History:

Saint Patrick was a priest during the late 5th century. He was born into slavery, but escaped and later became a bishop. He is considered the “patron saint of Ireland” because of his mission work during this time. Let me be clear to say that Saint Patrick was—contrary to popular belief— neither a leprechaun nor a saint, but rather a Romano-British missionary who is now held up in the Anglican Communion, Old Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church. Simply, he started and enforced the Enlightenment in Ireland. When I ask people what St. Patrick’s Day is a celebration of, most people respond in one of two ways: 1) “We’re celebrating being Irish/We get to be Irish for a day” or 2) “We’re celebrating driving the snakes out of Ireland.” As far as history is concerned, there never were any snakes in Ireland: in fact, the snakes are a larger metaphor for a group of people that was instead erased: The Druids and Celtic Polytheists (or, who we know today as the Pagans) of Ireland.


The Impact of Erasing Cultures


In predominantly Catholic and Christian societies, traditions such as the Christmas tree, Halloween, the Easter Bunny derived from Druid and Pagan traditions based in harvest and fertility. However, after their conversion to Christianity in the late 5th century, many traditions were also lost. They practiced in groves, temples, and natural religious sites, such as the Hill of Tara. Their religions, which worshipped nature and deities of all genders, was instead replaced by a patriarchal monotheistic religion that was largely taking over Europe. They had an oral tradition when it came to sharing stories of the Gods, but many of these songs have been forgotten. What is left, however, has allowed for the creation of Neopaganism, which is the form of Paganism people are familiar with today. Some of the rituals of neopaganism include witchcraft, herbalism, astrology, the healing power of crystals, and the worshipping of nature and goddesses. While there are many neopagans, wiccans, and neo-druids still living and practicing in Ireland, their religion is often put under scrutiny. Pagan marriages weren’t even recognized as legal in Ireland until 2009.


So Why Am I Wearing Green?


The tradition of wearing green actually comes much later. This is a more nationalistic part of the holiday (which, by the way, this is the only nationalist holiday Ireland celebrates). This comes from the revolution in which the Irish wore green to rebel against the British, as their military uniforms were red. As for other traditions, such as corn beef and cabbage, or green beer, those are mostly American traditions. The “traditional” meal of St. Patrick’s Day signifies how far the Irish have come, as many who came to the United States were poor upon their immigration. As for the beer, this is a marketing tactic in order to sell many products by making them “appear” Irish. However, the negative stereotype of “Irish drunks” is particularly harmful, especially for families where alcoholism runs rampant, so the selling of the beer feels like just another kick to the face.


How Should I Celebrate Today?


If you want to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with your friends, here are a few things I would suggest. The first thing is to educate yourself, and understand what you’re celebrating. The holiday itself is a commemoration of the death of Saint Patrick, but understand that the work of Saint Patrick is synonymous with Columbus. While Saint Patrick may not have killed people, he eradicated an entire religious culture and erased indigenous traditions and languages that can never be revived. Take the time today to learn about native traditions in Irish culture, as well as your own culture. Learn about the struggles of indigenous people today. Understand what is means to go on a mission for Christianity or Catholicism: are you actually there to help people in need, or are you there for your own religious agenda?


The second thing is be aware of what you’re perpetuating. Are you drinking excessively to enforce a negative stereotype of the Irish? Do you understand what it means to be Irish, or do you know the long history of Irish Americans?


Take the time too to also learn about other issues in the world. Irish American immigrants have come a long way since the Great Migration. Did you have relatives come from Ellis Island? If so, think about what it was like to come to a new country; to escape religious persecution or large scale starvation and poverty. Think about people who are immigrating here today and the struggles they may be facing in a country they used to call home. Take the time to learn about the cultures of todays refugees, and how you might be able to help them. Consider donating to children in Aleppo, or how you might be able to support your local Resettlement services. Many centers are at risk of being shut down in our current political climate.


And while you’re picking out which green tie or shirt to wear at your local parade or Happy Hour, remember the historical struggles of people before you. What does it mean for you to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, or what might it mean to you to be of Irish decent? And before you go pinching someone in red or judging them for their dislike of the Americanized traditions of the holiday, think about this: What exactly are you standing for?

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