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.