When Irish Eyes are Smiling, It Isn’t because They are Drunk

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Clarion staff photo

A happy St. Patrick’s Day decoration sits in a Madison-area yard.

Terri Severson, Contributor

I understand that the opinion piece “Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, or don’t” written in the Clarion by Anica Graney, focused on the three main attributes given to the Irish and St. Paddy’s Day celebrations. Wearing green, leprechauns, drinking and getting drunk. The references to its origin and spending the day trying to convert pagans was for humor, I get it. I do believe however that a paper that has two articles featuring Black History month and an article dedicated to a Chef who brought his family favorites of Middle Eastern fare to share with students can do a little better job representing on day to celebrating Irish history and heritage?

My grandfather was the first of his Irish family to be born in the United States in Superior Wisconsin. His parents and two older sisters took the hazardous ship voyage leaving a country suffering from severe economic hardships after a decade of being ravaged by famine.

He was very devoted to his Irish background. St. Patrick’s Day was a special day in our family that had little to do with green beer. As a young girl, my sister and I performed traditional dancing for our St. Raphael’s grad school classmates on st. Patrick’s Day. A meal of corned beef and cabbage was sure to follow. What we celebrated, one day a year, was our Irish heritage. The beauty of the day as it came to be celebrated in the United States, was that everyone wanted to be Irish for one day a year. It was a long way from the ridicule and hatred that the Irish faced early on in their citizenship.

In a 2019 Made in History article in The Washington Post author Edward T. O’Donnell reports that 150 years ago the Irish were reviled as a band of foreign terrorists; “Irish American terrorism added to the long-standing stereotype of the Irish as inherently violent people and the claim the Irish would never make good Americans. Obsessed with their homeland, they willingly imperiled American lives and U.S. national security in a reckless bid to win Ireland’s independence.”

There are even reports of a secret meeting held in the 1960’s by Billy Graham and 25 church leaders to keep and Irish Catholic, John F. Kennedy Jr., out of the White House.

In the 90’s we located family members still living in Ireland and reunited with them. It is pretty amazing considering what the people of the nation went through.

The Library of Congress education web page reports that the population of Ireland decreased by almost half between 1841 and 1930. 4.5 million Irish migrated to the United States during that time. Our Irish family members told us that it was common for those left behind to hold a wake, as you would after a funeral, for the departing family members. Many families never learned the fate of their loved ones.

As any DNA “23 and ME” testing will tell you, I have a mixed heritage. Irish, German, French, Indian and more. One day a year I’m guaranteed to hear, “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” and know exactly what that looks like as I remember the glint in my grandfather’s eyes when he spoke of being Irish.