I want you to picture Irishness. Imagine it as clearly as you can. But, here’s the catch: take out all the leprechauns. Take out all the rainbows with pots of gold, all the cartoon-ish drunkards, four-leaf clovers, Saint Patrick’s Day ragers and at least half of the white people who’ve told you they’re Irish (because honestly one red-headed great-great-grandparent doesn’t really count).
What are you left with? For most of you, I’m going to guess very little. That’s because Irishness has been tragically reduced to nothing more than a grab-bag of drunken caricatures and one annual excuse to drink too much and wear a color whose cultural history you don’t understand.
That’s not a culture. That’s a gimmick, a marketing schtick. There are around 70 million people globally who are part of the Irish diaspora, spread by famine, political crises and rampant labor exploitation, and that’s all the heritage they have to connect with.
I am a part of that Irish diaspora; my family name connects me to thousands of individuals around the globe descended from the same proud clan with a history stretching back millennia. And yet, I still had to explain to other students in elementary and middle school that I wasn’t related to leprechauns. I still receive countless emails directed to Jack “Ogrady” because no one ever thought it was important to learn how to spell my last name properly. I still get chastised for not caring about wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day “because you’re Irish,” when that color is deeply embedded in centuries of religious conflict and nationalist violence.
These stereotypes and misconceptions stem from the commercialization of the heritage that millions of Irish clung to when they fled to America. That false culture was then cruelly sold back to them again and again as others dictated what it really meant to be Irish.
This process resulted in an Irishness so reduced and commodified I feel my identity has become more of a joke than a legitimate, tangible culture. I’ve had several debates with friends over whether or not the systematic removal of the apostrophe from my last name can be described as cultural erasure. In these arguments, I often find myself having to convince them of the validity of Irishness as an actual culture, as if millennia of people living together doesn’t create a real culture, but a set of fun stereotypes whose degrading ramifications we don’t have to think about.
This is especially egregious in an era where there is a new focus on defending endangered cultures in the aftermath of centuries of displacement and forced migration. We want to help the children of diasporas connect with their roots and prevent one people’s history from becoming another’s product.
So then why are we so comfortable allowing Irishness to be just that: a product that can be reduced to a green top hat and a pint of Guinness, literally sold at party stores next to flimsy Halloween costumes? I vehemently support the movement for reclaiming migrant heritage, but we can’t continue being so selective in what cultures we earnestly protect, and those we willingly sideline and invalidate.
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