This Saturday is March 17, known worldwide as St. Patrick’s Day, or “the day when you can start drinking before noon and still retain some level of social acceptance” in Ireland. My liver is cowering in fear and I’m getting just a little bit homesick, especially now that it’s raining so much in Berkeley. I left all my rain gear at home. The TV said it wouldn’t rain in California.
You can spot my Irishness from a mile off. I have the brogue, the flaming red hair and the ghostly skin that burns after only a few minutes of sun exposure. I’ve herded sheep. I’m fond of a few pints, and I genuinely love potatoes. When I was a small redheaded child, an American tourist visiting Blarney Castle (a 10-minute drive from my house in Cork) asked me if I was a leprechaun. “Yes,” I answered proudly. “Yes I am.” She was delighted. For a brief moment, I felt like a celebrity.
Since moving to Berkeley in August, every day someone has asked, “Oh, you’re Irish?” The responses I received the most often are as follows:
#1: “I’m Irish too!” That’s funny, you’ve got an American accent. “Well, my ancestors came over here during the Famine!” The Potato Famine of 1845, that is. I’m very sorry, but you are just not as Irish as me.
#2: “Oh, do you speak Gaelic?” The word “gaelic” just describes something that pertains to Gaelic culture. The Irish language is just called Irish. Cad is ainm duit? (What is your name?) #3: “Oh, so you’re from the UK?” No. Only six of Ireland’s northern counties remain part of the United Kingdom. The other 26 form the independent country of the Republic of Ireland. Where Dublin is. That’s the capital.
#4: “Do you drink a lot of Guinness?” I hate Guinness. People always look very disappointed at that one.
Americans undoubtedly have a fondness for the Irish. But we love Americans too — our countries have a long, intertwined history. Irish journalist and writer Olivia O’ Leary recently remarked that in the 1950s, “to be Irish was to have half your family in America.”
Today, Irish people are just as obsessed with America (especially California) as Americans are with Ireland’s rolling green hills, quaint cottages and lively pubs. An Irish version of Jersey Shore came out recently, much to my horror — it’s called “Tallafornia,” and set in Tallaght, an area of Dublin. College students spending their summers in America on a “J1 summer” have become a huge Irish tradition, and indeed many of them flock to Berkeley, where I’m told they get very drunk and wreck things. It seems the grass is always greener on the other side of the Atlantic.
But why are our two countries so fascinated with each another? I think it’s a question of roots and wings. In America’s multicultural society, people are very proud of their ethnic andcultural heritage. Their roots matter, and for Americans who can trace these roots to Ireland, my home country has a strong pull from all the way across the Atlantic.
For generations, Irish people have scattered themselves across the globe, telling tales of the beautiful homeland they left in search of someplace bigger, better, more exciting, with less sheep. In the grip of an economic recession, opportunities for my generation in Ireland are scarce. My generation has its roots — now we’re looking for wings. By contrast, American culture seems to be all about finding your wings, grasping opportunities and celebrating achievement. Americans are encouraged to trust in their own abilities and reach for their goals, to take flight and fly as high as they possibly can. This breeds an inherent optimism, enthusiasm and self-confidence that is rarely found in Irish people.
We are, as a rule, almost painfully modest and frequently self-deprecating, pessimistic and cynical. Good-natured complaining is a national hobby. We often begin conversations by talking about the weather. Sometimes I think that it’s really not surprising that so many Irish people emigrate to Australia or America — there’s only so much soft gray rain one can take. Our reputation as champion drinkers is well-deserved — whether or not it is a desirable reputation is another question.
We may spread ourselves across the globe, but we can always find an Irish pub and marvel that we can find a little taste of fake and tacky home no matter where in the world we end up. For my generation emerging from college in post-boom Ireland, the grass may look a lot greener in America. But we will deny that to the last, because your country is like your mother — you are the only person allowed to point out its flaws because you know you love it anyway.
I have fallen in love with your country just as much as you all seem to be enamored with mine. But Ireland is a wonderful rock that I will always call home, and this St. Patrick’s Day, I intend to be drunk, sentimental and extremely patriotic. Just don’t call it St. Patty’s Day. Patty is short for Patricia. That’s a girl’s name. St. Patrick was a very manly man who herded all the snakes out of Ireland, one by one. Let us not forget.