St. Patrick’s Day has always annoyed me. From jerks at work pinching me, to college students barfing Guinness in Pioneer Square, to the incessant blaring of House of Pain’s Jump Around, it just isn’t my thing.
“Do you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day?” my friend Cat asked me this time last year. “Uh, no, I don’t,” I responded snottily. “Well, aren’t you Irish?” she pursued. “I don’t know, I guess…but really I’m nothing,” I responded without thinking.
“Sarah,” she said sternly “nobody’s nothing.”
Cat, who is part Native American, is regularly asked “what she is.”
Answering “nothing,” she pointed out to me, is a white-as-norm assumption that reinforces a culture where she’s asked to explain herself and I’m allowed to “not really know.”
Cat got me thinking, and so in honor of this St. Patrick’s Day I decided to ask my mom about our background.
“This is my grandmother Sleetie McBride,” my mom said, showing me a faded photo of a grinning woman wearing a white bow and muddy boots. “She came through Ellis Island when she was sixteen and ended up in Kentucky where your grandfather was born.”
Turns out it’s pretty much all-Irish-all-the-time on my Mom’s side of the family. I won’t bore you with the genealogy, but suffice it to say I’m (at least generationally) more Irish than Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting.
But when I asked my mother why we never did Irish-y stuff when I was growing up, like bake soda bread, chart our family back to some implausibly romantic Celtic clan or even celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, she got quiet.
“Your grandma was always was very proud of her heritage,” she said, “She cooked all kinds of Irish food and talked about her relatives all the time. She made corned beef from scratch for St. Patrick’s Day every year.”
For my grandmother, Irish pride was linked to religious pride. Her relatives were converted to Mormonism on the boat over to the new world. But my mom’s father had a different perspective.
“He didn’t like being Irish-Catholic,” my mom explained, “the Irish, and Catholics in general, were seen as poor drunks with too many kids,” a stereotype that my grandfather—one of many children in a poor family blighted with alcoholism—was sensitive to.
For my mom, her Irish background became too complicated to pass on to her kids. Between the Mormonism—which my mother herself rejected—and her father’s shame, she decided to leave it behind.
“We just wanted a clean slate for you kids,” she said.
So my family did want to be “nothing,” and because we were white and accent-less, we could get away with it.
“I think it’s a good thing for white people to be asked what they are and think about where they come from,” Cat had told me during our conversation.
True, but I maintain that St. Patrick’s Day is pretty annoying (just google “get your green on” if you don’t believe me). Plus it’s hard to argue that Irish-Americans aren’t a celebrated enough group in America, even without the yearly parade.
All the same I figured I’d do something to acknowledge my newly discovered heritage this year. Then I looked at my calendar and realized I’d signed up for tamale making classes on the 17th. Oh well, maybe I’ll wash them down with some green beer.