During the month of March, every party store in the country features garish displays of grimacing red-haired leprechauns liberally speckled with freckles and donning enormous emerald shamrocks. References to drinking and fighting are made when discussing St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday ostensibly celebrating the noble culture and history in Ireland. But why have these American ideas about Irish traditions gained such credence worldwide?
From 1845 to 1850, Ireland underwent a Great Famine, where an estimated 750,000 people died from starvation or disease and roughly one million emigrated from Ireland to escape the situation. Suddenly, Irish culture, or American perceptions of Irish culture, appeared at the forefront of many major American cities. Sizable Irish enclaves appeared in East Coast cities such as Boston and New York, bringing new tradition to these areas. This huge influx of new immigrants is still highly influential today: according to the 2006 American Community Survey, more than 35 million Americans, or 12 percent of the population, claim some form of Irish ancestry. Because of this, many Irish traditions, or American corruptions of Irish traditions, exist in the United States. Unfortunately, many inaccurate ideas about Irish lifestyles have gained prominence as a result.
Irish stereotypes still exert a strong pull over the country today, often serving as visual shorthand when people wish to represent a Celtic theme. “When I think Irish, I think curly red hair, green eyes and people who spend time drinking at pubs and going to church,” human biology freshman Megan Haapala said. “I’ve been to Ireland, though, and I know it’s not like that.”
“I can think of a lot of Irish stereotypes,” communications freshman Matt Muscat said. “Irish people are supposed to be alcoholics, loud, poor and very religious. I think of [the film] The Boondock Saints, or people who get into bar fights.” Films like Gangs of New York and Mystic River present a portrait of working-class, rough-edged Irish Americans who are not afraid to use violence or act rashly to get what they desire. “I believe the media has influenced the Irish Americans, especially those whose ancestors have been here for many generations, since they may not have had the benefit of learning the other side of the story and seeing the true Irish in action,” said Julie Lewis, state president of the Michigan Ladies’ Ancient Order of Hibernians (LAOH), an Irish Catholic service organization with multiple chapters in Michigan.
Even commonly held ideas about Irish cuisine, such as the popularity of corned beef and cabbage, are often proved to be inaccurate. “[Corned beef and cabbage] is a New York Irish invention and came about, I believe, because the immigrants who started coming to country in great numbers could not afford bacon [ham] to go with the cabbage, so they substituted corned beef. Also, real Irish stew is made with mutton in lieu of beef. I believe the American palate prefers beef stew, as do I,” said Pierce Kent, a Lansing resident who immigrated to America from Ireland 33 years ago.
[lewis]A certain set of ideas often spring to mind when St. Patrick’s Day is being discussed in the United States, but this day-long celebration is quite a change from the original Irish holiday. “When I think of St. Patrick’s Day, I think of Irish dancing, green, shamrocks and parties with other Irish people,” Haapala said. St. Patrick’s Day, commonly celebrated in America as an excuse to imbibe, is drastically different in Ireland, according to Kent. “In Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day was and is a holy day of obligation and in the past was celebrated by going to mass or services, attending the St. Patrick’s Day parade, wearing the shamrock in your coat lapel, maybe going to a ceili [a traditional Irish social dance] in the evening and generally celebrating the culture of Ireland.” The connection between St. Patrick’s Day and Catholicism is so strong that Irish bishops moved St. Patrick’s Day to March 15 for this year to avoid conflicts with Holy Week, a series of holy days marking the death of Jesus Christ in the Catholic Church. These inauthentic traditions have an effect on their country of origin.
“Strangely enough, St. Patrick’s Day as celebrated in the U.S.A. is now becoming the norm in Ireland,” Kent said. Kent also said the shamrock, a ubiquitous symbol of Irishness in America, is not wholly authentic. “‘Shamrock plants as sold in the U.S.A. do not resemble the shamrock, which grows wild in Ireland. The only thing they have in common is three leaves. The shamrock is a three-leaved plant, which is similar in appearance to clover,” Kent said.
Multiple misconceptions about Irish culture and people undoubtedly exist, which raises the question as to why these stereotypes are constantly being reinforced in modern day society and in the media. “I believe the media perpetuates the stereotypes since it is easier for them to stick with what they know than to take the time to learn anything different. I also believe that those Irish who do not fit the stereotype and are offended by it need to be more proactive in re-educating the media, both by word and example. No other ethnic group would sit back and allow their race to be stereotyped so negatively,” Lewis said.
“Most stereotypes are based in some form of truth, even though I don’t think all stereotypes are true,” Muscat said. “Little Irish kids see and hear what they are supposed to act like and do it. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The media takes stereotypes that are popular in the public eye and portrays them.” Haapala has a different theory about why these ideas about Celtic culture persist. “If you switched up or eliminated the stereotypes, people wouldn’t know what you are referencing. I don’t think that [Irish Americans] follow these stereotypes indirectly; they just don’t realize they are doing it.” Zoology senior Courtney Rockenbach, a member of the MSU Irish dance team, thinks the desire for profit motivates the reinforcement of these stereotypes. “St. Patrick’s Day is great for bars and beer companies,” Rockenbach said.
“The most common stereotype is that all Irish are drunkards and fighters. This may be true of some Irish people, but the same can be said for some other nationalities as well,” Lewis said. “In Ireland, the local pub was the center of social interaction and, on occasion, a few too many pints and a difference of opinion could have resulted in a physical altercation. As the Irish immigrants settled into life in America, they continued the custom of socializing in a central spot and occasionally, a few may have also drank a bit too much and settled disagreements physically. Since the Irish were among the early immigrants to this country, and due to their large numbers, it seemed to outsiders that every Irishman fit that mold.”
[matt]However, numerous groups have developed to fight against these incorrect ideas about the Irish population. One example is the LAOH. “The members of my organization, The Ladies’ Ancient Order of Hibernians, are expected to speak out against anything derogatory and to always behave in a manner that would bring pride to the Irish race. On a personal level, I have gone into stores that sell T-shirts or other items depicting the Irish in a negative manner and make the owner aware that the items are offensive and request that they be removed. I hope that all people of Irish decent will take similar actions,” Lewis said.
While inaccuracies undoubtedly abound when discussing Ireland and its sons and daughters, many people are making efforts to revitalize and renew the way the country is viewed. While the stereotypes that persist about Irish culture may not be visibly harmful to Irish Americans, they need to be corrected, as they are not based in truth. Many hope that in the future, the glittering green beads and plastic shamrock sunglasses that litter supermarkets and discount stores around St. Patrick’s Day will remain relegated to the half-price bin.

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