Saturday, March 12, 2011

Talking Point Mayor’s Irish quip shouldn’t be swept under the rug

Irish ...By K Webster

“Normally when I walk by [the American Irish Historical Building] there are a bunch of people that are totally inebriated hanging out the window. I know that’s a stereotype about the Irish,” Mayor Bloomberg joked recently at a pre-St. Patrick’s Day Parade gathering.

You kind of want to give the mayor a break. A gaffe, an unaware remark — who hasn’t done that? And yes, we unrealistically want our public leaders to be perfect models of civility and intelligence. Never going for stale humor — the calcified artifacts of a time when some barbs had pointed and awful impact.

But I don’t think we want to sweep it under the rug, either. It’s one of those teachable moments — yes? A time to look at those unstated but pervasive characterizations that still sit in our minds like a poison. He’s not the only one with that unfortunate view of Irish people.

We are the people of Yeats, Synge, Swift, Wilde, Joyce, Beckett, Heaney, Shaw, Maud Gonne, Molly Brown, Sandra Day O’Connor, etc. We are the people who made the Book of Kells, the Skellig Michael monastery, and who kept learning alive during the Middle Ages of Europe. We are poets and singers and dancers.

It’s a tad diminishing to see your ancestors’ culture reduced to leprechauns, four-leaf clovers and alcoholism.

My grandparents left Ireland for a better life, and found one, but not without struggle. In those days the “No Irish Need Apply” signs meant it. It was an economic ban born of prejudice and oppression. It was intended to humiliate, hurt, impoverish and isolate Irish men, women and children.

The Irish came at different times to escape the impossibility of surviving in Ireland. They came as indentured servants, prisoners, refugees from colonization and starvation — despite anti-Catholic laws and riots in the United States.

And I guess it bears repeating that for 800 years of Ireland’s existence the English wealthy subjugated the people, stole the land, denuded the forests, outlawed the Catholic religion, and insured that Irish people were pitted against one another for generations to come. Ports were full of food that was exported for profit while a million starved to death during the potato famine.

One result of this ferocious destruction and the powerlessness it engendered was, for some, to resort to a slow death by mind-numbing alcohol addiction. Another result was to be subjected to ridicule and blame for having the problem.

We lost many to famine, addiction, poverty and overwork. But like any oppression, when we feel ashamed of our people’s responses to it, it is vital to remember that it is those who inflicted the disgrace who bear the dishonor.

K Webster is also known as Kathleen O’Brien Webster