Quickly lost among the other manufactured controversies earlier this month was a call among Irish American groups to boycott Urban Outfitters. The clothing chain’s sin was to unveil a line of St. Patrick’s Day T-shirts that rehashed the usual jokes about Irish drinking.
Perhaps to its credit, Urban Outfitters has offended a rainbow coalition of special-interest groups in recent years. Native Americans, gays, animal-rights activists, and even Miley Cyrus have all denounced the company over various perceived offenses.
Certainly, it’s hard to deny there is a double standard at work here. The Irish are fair game in polite society. I’ll bet a lorry full of soda bread that Urban Outfitters would not produce a T-shirt of a black watermelon-gobbling Sambo or a hook-nosed, gold-hoarding Jew. Public outcry would be too great in those cases.
But the fact is that drinking alcohol is a major part of Irish culture. Irish drinking was not an evil plot cooked up by Oliver Cromwell or an unfair smear pinned on us at Ellis Island. Like many ethnic stereotypes, it’s been earned.
The Irish often hold their most negative stereotypes as sources of pride. I was as guilty as anyone and acted as if not being drunk on St. Patrick’s Day was the Irish American equivalent of joining the Orangemen.
Alcohol and I went our separate ways a few years ago without any melodrama or religion. Many of my family members are also teetotalers, and we inhabit a netherworld of contradiction that includes blacks who hate fried chicken, spendthrift Jews, and Asians who are good drivers.
Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with potatoes and whiskey is like celebrating Black History Month with watermelon and crack. But the fact remains that millions of Irish are drinking themselves into a stupor and vomiting green beer in the name of cultural pride.
Most people who go out and get blind drunk on St. Patrick’s Day aren’t doing it to insult the Irish any more than they’re insulting Mexicans on Cinco de Mayo or Cajuns on Mardi Gras. People will seize upon any excuse to get drunk. These are merely drinking holidays in the US. Very few people who wake up caked in their own vomit after Fat Tuesday head to church on Ash Wednesday. Likewise, the people drowning in tequila on May 5th know very little about the Battle of Puebla. How many St. Patrick’s Day celebrants even know that he was from England?
Why not start celebrating more appropriate drinking holidays? I suggest “End of Prohibition Day” on Dec. 5 (1933) or “W. C. Fields’s Birthday” on Jan. 29 (1880). Let the hipster bars stay open all night on March 28 to observe the birthday of Captain Frederick Pabst (1836).
I wish drinking wasn’t such a staple of Irish culture. I also wish I was a billionaire and that Riverdance never happened.
If we don’t want people to think that Irish = drunk, it’s up to the Irish to chip away at the reputation we’ve earned. The only thing less appealing than the Irish embracing their worst stereotypes would be if they shrouded themselves in the cloak of a victimized minority endlessly seeking appeasement. Drunk or sober, the Irish should be above that.
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