On this, the 250th St. Patrick’s Day in the United States, we look at the symbolism of the holiday and its tremendous significance in current debates around immigration and civil rights in America. While the inclusiveness of the parade has come a long way since it first started, this year the New York City parade received sharp criticism from the Irish government for its continued exclusion of LGBTQ groups. The Irish Foreign Minister, Eamon Gilmore, in a landmark meeting with gay rights leaders and groups at the Irish Consulate in New York, stated-
What these parades are about is a celebration of Ireland and Irishness. I think they need to celebrate Ireland as it is, not as people imagine it. Equality is very much the center of who we are in our identity in Ireland.
This issue of exclusion is not Irish, let’s be clear about it. Exclusion is not an Irish thing. … I think that’s the message that needs to be driven home.
Gilmore was reacting to the open and continued exclusion of LGBTQ groups from participating in the parade in New York City, the world’s oldest civilian parade and the largest in the U.S. This follows another, perhaps even more blunt, reaction from the Irish government late last year when Irish President Mary McAleese turned down an invitation to be the grand marshal of New York City’s 2011 parade. This was reportedly connected to the same issue of LGBTQ exclusion. Several rights groups have openly criticized the city’s parade for promoting “hatred and intolerance,” shunning the stance of the parade’s organizers The Ancient Order of Hibernians that the event is a private, religious procession which justifies the absence of certain groups.
In 2000, the Queens’ neighborhoods of Sunnyside/Woodside began hosting an alternative parade called St. Pats for All, which upholds the theme of “cherishing all the children of the nation equally.” Besides a host of Irish cultural groups, this year’s St. Pats for All parade also included a diverse celebration of groups such as Marriage Equality NY, Dignity USA, NAACP, Tibetan students from the YCC & Himalayan Southeast Asian Club, and many more. Christine Quinn, the council speaker and openly gay Irish American, praised the Sunnyside/Woodside event, hopes that one day gay New Yorkers will also be invited to join the New York City parade, emulating the message sent out by the Queens parade that “there is a place where all people no matter their race, religion or sexual orientation can march.”
Irish immigrants have contributed substantially to the diverse fabric of the American society we live in today, but they too endured plenty of racial prejudice. When the Great Potato Famine struck Ireland in 1845, almost a million poor and desperate Irish migrated to the United States seeking better lives. They were, however, met with much prejudice and ridicule and had trouble finding even menial jobs. The infamously racist employment signs ‘No Irish Need Apply’ eventually pushed the Irish Americans to gather together and demand equal treatment for their community. As Brian O’Dwyer, chairman of the non-profit Emerald Isle Immigration Center, commented-
We learned very quickly that the only way we could combat oppression is by being in and of ourselves, become part of the politics and making sure we took part in the American democracy…
Unfortunately, the prejudice faced by the Irish immigrants back then continues in other forms against various immigrant communities and social groups in the U.S today. This bridging of the Irish experience with that of other groups at a crossroads today has been poignantly expressed in ‘San Patricio,’ a new album from Paddy Maloney of the Irish band the Chieftains. In a true celebration of diversity and history, the album is “thoroughly Mexican yet utterly Irish, carried aloft by tin whistles, skin drums, pipes, harps, guitars and stomping feet.”
As we confront these current issues in our society, let’s take this St. Patrick’s Day to push for the inclusion of all cultural and social groups, regardless of background, gender and sexuality, in our parades and the wider American identity. If on St. Patrick’s Day everyone unofficially becomes Irish for a day, then let’s make sure “everyone” is a truly inclusive term. Whether you celebrated today or not, we leave you with an old Irish blessing:
May love and laughter light your days,
and warm your heart and home.
May good and faithful friends be yours,
wherever you may roam.
May peace and plenty bless your world
with joy that long endures.
May all life’s passing seasons
bring the best to you and yours!
photo courtesy of blog.hotelbook.com