Mark Shields: Irish eyes — not always smiling
There was a lot more drinking in Washington, D.C., before May 15, 1978. That was the date, as of this writing, I had my last drink. This may help explain why I, as an Irish-American, so dread March 17 and St. Patrick’s Day, which has regularly been turned into an excuse for officially sanctioned public drunkenness, forced gaiety and throwing up on some stranger’s shoes. Instead of honoring St. Patrick, who came to Ireland in 432 and converted the Irish to Christianity, the day often serves to reinforce an ugly ethnic stereotype.
The Irish sense of tragedy — which can help us navigate life’s few fleeting moments of joy — is no historical accident. Western Europe’s worst catastrophe of the 19th century was the Great Famine of 1845. Ireland suffered 1 million dead to mass starvation and disease and lost 2 million more to desperate emigration in less than a decade. Under the heavy yoke of British domination, Ireland lost one-third of its population, while London, capital of the world’s richest nation, did nothing, preferring to see Irish poverty as some collective flaw in the Irish character and the island’s plague of death as the choice of Providence.
Battered and bewildered, the Irish diaspora came to America. Here they were shunned by homogeneous native Protestants for speaking differently and practicing their “superstitious” religion and by economically struggling Americans for being unwelcome competition for low-paying jobs. Irish men, consensus opinion concluded, were childlike, lazy and not to be trusted. Sound at all familiar? Irish women, at least the good ones, could become maids or even nannies.
Of course, a century and a half later, all is nearly forgotten. Today Irish-Americans number nearly 35 million, and Ireland is second only to Germany as the most frequently identified ancestral country in the United States. The U.S. has been good to the Irish, who are likelier, according to the Census Bureau, than other Americans to have graduated from college, to own their own home and to earn a high income. Irish-Americans have given, as well, to the country and its culture. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Flannery O’Connor, Edwin O’Connor and Alice McDermott all have enriched our language and our lives, as did the great director John Ford.
I am reminded of the first major speech then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy delivered after the assassination of the president, his brother. The date was March 17, 1964, St. Patrick’s Day, and it was in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He recalled James Joyce’s describing the Atlantic Ocean, over which the Irish immigrants made their dangerous journey, as “a bowl of bitter tears” and spoke of the difficulties they faced: “As the first of the racial minorities, our forefathers were subject to every discrimination found wherever discrimination is known.”
Then RFK, having acknowledged those unhappy times, challenged his fellow sons of Eire to be faithful to “the traditional Irish concern for freedom everywhere.” He continued: “I would hope that none here would ignore the current struggle of some of our fellow citizens right here in the United States for their measure of freedom. … If we are true to our (Irish) heritage, we cannot stand aside.”
This March 17, why not forgo the swigging of shots and green beer and forget your off-key rendition of “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen”? In the true spirit of St. Patrick and in memory of Robert Kennedy, demonstrate that to be Irish really means comforting the afflicted, welcoming the stranger, remembering the forgotten and speaking up for those unable to speak for themselves.