Saint Patrick’s day celebrations in the United States go back to the eighteenth century. A product of various Irish cultural societies and charitable aid groups, these celebrations helped celebrate ethnic identity and solidify cultural connections in a population displaced through multiple waves of diaspora. Ireland itself has started celebrating Saint Patrick’s day more fully in recent decades. For much of the twentieth century, however, Saint Patrick’s day was more of an “Irish Abroad” phenomenon. And for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it was a celebration of a widely despised cultural minority group. My, how that has changed.
“Everybody is Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day”.
People who are many generations removed from their Irish immigrant ancestry or who are only Irish one day a year might not be aware that in the eras of the Great Famine diaspora and early twentieth century immigration waves, Irish immigrants were members of a despised underclass. Celebrating Saint Patrick’s day was embracing an ethnic and cultural heritage that was lampooned in the press, treated suspiciously by authority, and openly mocked in public. Today’s Cinco de Mayo celebrants can surely relate.
Saint Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo are:
- Cultural heritage holidays
- Celebrated more in diaspora than in country of origin
- Celebrate an event that occurred outside of the US
- Embrace an underclass minority ethnic heritage
- Tied to labor rights
Yo no hablo gaélico!
The biggest difference between them is that Cinco de Mayo has a foreign language component. Only an accident of history keeps this from being true for Saint Patrick’s Day. Occupied Ireland lost their native Gaelic under British colonialism; if it hadn’t, the floods of potato famine Irish would have landed on Ellis Island as unintelligibly as any Russian, Polish, German, or Yiddish speaker of their time. The supposed lack of language barrier did not make life appreciably easier for Irish immigrants, who endured a lot of discrimination in their American Experience. As late as 1960, being an Irish Catholic was an obstacle for a presidential candidate.
Eventually, Irish people became white people in the US. Their heritage became a quaint and enjoyable thing to participate in on the transformed and non-threatening Saint Patrick’s day. No longer do Irish have to vandalize fountains and rivers– cities will dye everything green at taxpayer expense. Bring on the step dancers! Bars can stay open and money can be made on the celebration. No worries about locking up all the liquor so that the drunken louts don’t smash everything up. If things get smashed now, it’s all in pursuit of good, clean, profit. Buy something green, right now!Get something for your dog! Pets can be Irish too!
Cinco de Mayo is undergoing a similar transformation as Hispanic Americans become white people as well. The 2010 census removed “Hispanic” as a race and moved it to “ethnicity or origin”. Arguments about flag-bearing tee shirts come out in favor of the minority. More people become aware of the holiday every year, even people with no obvious ties to the culture. And so it goes, inch by inch. Invest in sombreros early. Someday in the not too distant future, we will all be Mexican on Cinco de Mayo.