Why St. Patrick in USA, personal & commercial

Calmly pedaling along the bike lane a car overtakes me on the bright sunny March 17th morning and a young woman carefully shouts as they pass by: I could have pinched you because you’re not wearing green. In fact my winter coat has large orange panels and that color is on the Republic’s flag; orange also has special meaning among people in Northern Ireland. Besides, my shirt did have threads of green among other colors, unknown and unseen by the loud passenger volunteering the drive-by taunt.

Showing Irish Green, infant in harness (credit: G P Witteveen, nokia 635)

As a nation of immigrants, there are many calendar days of significance for each strand of humanity residing in North America or Pacific islands (both Hawai’i and the territories under US administration, like Guam, and American Samoa; but also Puerto Rico and the US military encampments in 60 different sovereign countries). Celebrations and commemorations contribute to collective memory, and to family or personal identity. So the question arises: why so much attention on the Irish day, associated with the legendary bringer of Christianity to Eire so long ago?

It is true that numerically among British islanders, the proportionately greatest number of expatriates and/or immigrants have roots in Ireland, although lots of Highlanders and Lowlanders and western islanders of Scotland sought their fortunes in the English-speaking colonies when land clearances took away their livelihoods and basis of living in the century before the Great Potato Famine.

So part of the answer may be kinship numbers of descendants. The forum of street parades, including offshoots of public music performance (and drinking) may be suited to forms of expression familiar or valued by Irish immigrants, too. Then there is history of political processes in urban centers where many USA immigrants arrived and began the process of settling in, investing in the social landscape, and making dreams and new families. In places like Chicago, Boston, and New York City, rivalries between political factions and groups of (ethnically tied) supporters amplified group-awareness based on country of origin. So this combination of politics, money, jobs, concentrated immigration sites, and familiarity with public expression and display (in English-speaking countries and colonies) may be the combination of factors that set apart Irish from other groups, locations, and historical eras.

Maybe the nearest thing by scale, vigor, and cohesiveness is the Mexican and Mexican-American celebrations of Cinco de Mayo, marking one of the Independence dates on the national calendar of Mexico. The language may involve more Spanish than English, the parade mechanism may be less prominent than block parties, street or house or community park celebrations, but certainly there is an ethnic core that is amplified away from the country of origin because of the immigrant self-awareness.

Seeing youngish people lined up on the mid-day sidewalk at an Irish-themed bar that was flying a venerable-looking Republic of Ireland flag and promised live music and hot food to mark the St. Patrick’s day, it was hard not to notice the visible display of green beads, hats and other accessories, clothing and shoes. Perhaps some claimed full-blooded Irish ancestry (having been overrun by various sources of Scandinavian marauders, as well as intermingling of sea trade and mixing between tribes of Gaels — to be “pureblood” Irish is not very analytically separate from neighboring ancestral sources) and others knew little of their forebears and claimed only a symbolic belonging to all things Irish-American. In any case it is hard to imagine something analogous on the saint days for the other parts of the British Isles, Andrew for Scotland, George for England, or David for Wales. Other large immigrant source countries do not seem to decorate the themed bars and restaurants to the same degree: how might lines of celebrants to themed bars look and sound for immigrant source countries like Germany, France, Italy, let alone the multiple countries of (West) Africa from which families, war prisoners, and individuals were abducted into generations of (New World) slavery?

When the next day dawns on March 18, the bold and green displays will settle down and people will go about their routines again, secure in the knowledge that St. Patrick has been celebrated, one’s fellows have publicly declared their belonging, and the status quo for personal and group identity can continue for another year. Still and all, it does catch one’s eye to see the outburst of bright or dark green, bits of orange or black and gold on this one day each year, much like the photo on the street, above.

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