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“Kiss Me, I’m Irish American”

“Kiss My I’m Irish”? How about, “Kiss Me I’m Irish American”? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how St. Patrick’s Day celebrations can be a practice in symbolic ethnicity.

Happy St. Patricks Day

In March, we celebrated St. Patrick’s Day in my household. Growing up, I typically was lucky enough if I remembered to wear green on the holiday so no one would pinch me.

My only recollection of acknowledging the holiday as a child was that my elementary school teachers messed up our classroom once claiming it was leprechauns. I could even be misremembering the incident in that I know the teachers definitely did this once for Easter (Easter Bunny) and I am 85% sure they also did this once for St. Patrick’s Day.

So, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations of my childhood included wearing green so no one would pinch me and maybe the teachers turned over some desks in the classroom once. How’s that for memorable celebrations?

Even in college, I don’t recall any extra emphasis on partying on the day to celebrate or any other special rituals marking the day. Afterall, St. Patrick’s Day always fell on a day ending in ‘y,’ which was reason enough for many college students to go to the bar. While St. Patrick’s Day celebrations have been very important in some regions of the country (e.g., Savannah, GA, Boston, and Chicago) for a number of years, these celebrations have spread to other parts of the country, too. (Read more about What Makes a Holiday.)

I am several generations removed from any of my Irish ancestors. I married, however, into a household where the most recently arrived Irish ancestor was my partner’s great-grandmother. He never knew her, but his mother did know her. He was raised in a household where his Irish heritage was more relevant. My family was far enough removed from our Irish ancestors that this ancestry did not mean anything substantial to our daily lives. His family, however, was still close enough to this Irish ancestor, that they had a stronger connection to this heritage.

From his family, I learned that some people had rituals around St. Patrick’s Day. His family ate corned beef, cabbage, and soda bread on St. Patrick’s Day. So now, we too, eat corned beef, cabbage, and soda bread on the holiday. This St. Patrick’s Day meal, however, isn’t Irish-it’s Irish American. Those “Kiss Me, I’m Irish,” buttons should probably actually read “Kiss Me, I’m Irish American.” Or, perhaps more accurate for most celebrants, “Kiss Me, I’m practicing my Irish American symbolic ethnicity.” Is that too much for a button?

To claim Irish ancestry today causes no undue hardship or stigmatization. For most Americans, claiming and embracing an Irish heritage is practicing symbolic ethnicity (explained below).

My Irish ancestors arrived long enough ago that they had every reason to shed their Irish heritage and assimilate into White culture. They arrived during an era of anti-Irish sentiment epitomized by this image:

"The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things" was an anti-Irish image published in Harper’s Weekly in 1871.

Cultural assimilation is the process whereby minority groups shed their distinct cultural norms in favor of norms held in high esteem by white American society. For example, learning English or changing one’s name to something more Anglo-American (e.g., Medley, which isn’t the name my great-grandfather arrived to the U.S. with). Moreover, cultural assimilation can be voluntary or involuntarily imposed on a group.

Today, when someone looks at me or speaks to me they assume I am a white American who can probably trace my ancestry to Europe. They would be correct. They may or may not be right if they attempt to identify which parts of Europe my family originated as my last name has been anglicized. Moreover, my European heritage is inconsequential to my daily life except that due to cultural assimilation on the part of my ancestors it grants me white privilege. I am in the position, in that I can choose when to my make my heritage salient. Sociologists call this practicing symbolic ethnicity.

Symbolic ethnicity is voluntarily chosen and can be used selectively rather than as a feature of a person’s everyday life. For me, I get to practice symbolic ethnicity every St. Patrick’s day by eating corned beef and cabbage, while incorporating nothing else remotely Irish into my everyday life (e.g., language, political concerns). I can just as easily stop marking the St. Patrick’s holiday if need be to deemphasize my family’s Irish heritage. I get to choose how much or how little emphasis gets placed on my ethnic background.

Dig Deeper:

  1. What is symbolic ethnicity? Do you practice symbolic ethnicity? How?
  2. How is symbolic ethnicity distinct from ethnicity? Do you think that all Americans are able to practice symbolic ethnicity? Why or why not?
  3. What is cultural assimilation? In what ways has your own family assimilated into Anglo-American culture?
  4. The author states that cultural assimilation may be either voluntary or involuntarily imposed on a group. Do some research and find examples of both voluntary and involuntary cultural assimilation that has happened in your country.