This St. Patrick’s Day, Liam Day challenges the notion that in order to be a proper Irishman you have to get piss-drunk and belligerent.
About five years ago, my dentist asked if I had an eating disorder. I was never anorexic or bulimic, but I had, at one time, been something more than a heavy drinker with a habit at the end of a night’s bender of inducing vomit to stave off the next morning’s hangover. Apparently, the gastric acid in vomit eats away tooth enamel.
The night after my trip to the dentist I saw The Pogues at Boston’s Orpheum Theater. Lead singer Shane McGowan spent most of the show stumbling about the stage and, whenever he addressed the crowd, slurring his words. By concert’s end he’d dismissed all pretense and brought on stage the whiskey bottle I can only assume he’d been hitting before the concert and between sets. By my count, he took eight swigs during two encores.
A friend of mine dismissed the whiskey as prop—apple juice—but, juice or whiskey, that McGowan felt compelled to bring the bottle on stage speaks volumes about the lure of expectations.
Shane McGowan can flat out write songs. His ability to drink enormous amounts of alcohol is equally protean. The stories are, among Pogues aficionados, legendary. It wasn’t just the music that excited the sold out crowd that night five years ago, but also the questions: What will Shane look like? Will he be sober enough to perform? How will the other Pogues react to him? It was all part of the shtick.
I began drinking in earnest at Harvard. I was an Irish kid from Boston in an alien world. Though only separated by a minor river that runs a mere 30 miles from source to mouth, Boston and Cambridge are distinctly different cities. one home to generations of Irish Catholic politicians who wrested control of municipal affairs from the Brahmin Protestant elite, the other home to the university that has been the beating life-source of that elite for more than 375 years. Leaving for college, I was exhorted by friends and family alike to be more Boston than Harvard and, unfortunately, just 18, I didn’t know any other way to prove I was Boston than to be Irish and I didn’t know any other way to be Irish than to bring the bottle on stage with me.
I could list for you the nights I vomited and the mornings I woke up in places I’d never been, try to fill in the nights I don’t remember, but they’re beside the point. It’s sad that I associated being Irish with being drunk. I hadn’t yet discovered the culture behind the stereotype. I didn’t read Joyce or Yeats or Cavanagh or Heaney until after college because I was too busy getting drunk during it.
Perhaps no other country’s economy has been as tied historically to its culture as Ireland’s, its most profitable industry tourism, its largest companies exporters of cultural products targeted to its biggest market, Irish America, whose denizens have, during successive generations of exile, developed a love of symbols: shamrocks and scally caps, knit sweaters and fresh pints of Guinness.
But symbols are, by their very definition, not real. They are signifiers; they point to something else: in this case, a diaspora’s discomfort at being so easily assimilated into a ruling culture. The colonial mindset dies hard. You can take the boy out of the backwater colony of a global empire, but you can’t take the backwater colony out of the boy.
For almost all of the more than 300 years of English rule, and for decades afterward, Ireland was Europe’s poorest country, more third world than first, suffering privation and steady emigration. My mother left when she was 28, following her brothers to Boston, where, though it had been her intent at some point to return home, she met my father and wound up staying. When, after college, I told her I was going to live in Ireland to play basketball, she was incredulous. She couldn’t comprehend why I wanted to go live somewhere that she only knew as a place people wanted to leave.
But such an image of home, an image of a place people only want to leave, which is also, for good or ill, rich or poor, the place where you played as a child and dreamt of the future, carries a psychic cost, a cost that’s easier to pay when the place you’ve fled to discriminates against you just like those bastard English did. Downtrodden in America, it was easier to remain tethered to home, which was equally downtrodden.
But when, despite the signs common a century ago saying they need not apply, the Irish began climbing America’s economic and political ladders, it became impossible to continue to think of oneself and one’s race as oppressed. Irish-Americans became like the poor family member who gets out and makes his way in the world and is intensely uncomfortable whenever he goes home for Sunday dinner. He doesn’t have as much to talk about because the family doesn’t have a reference with which to frame the new life he’s leading and the gifts he brings his mother—the bottle of wine, the house decoration, the kitchen appliance—are wrong, somehow garish for the circumstances in which the rest of his family remains mired. In a word, he overcompensates.
That is what I did as an undergraduate and, as we approach another St. Patrick’s Day, that is what fourth and fifth generation Americans, many of whom have never been to Ireland, will do to celebrate the patron saint’s day. They will overcompensate. They will wear green and get drunk and, once drunk, become belligerent because isn’t that what it means to be Irish? How many will know who Tone Wolfe was, or Daniel O’Connell or Charles Stewart Parnell or Eamon De Valera or Mary Robinson? They might be able to tell you who Michael Collins was, but that’s because Hollywood told them first. They might be able to recite the litany of injustice Ireland’s suffered at England’s hands, but ask them if they’ve ever had a black and tan.
When falsely advertised – perhaps because they are falsely advertised – cultural expectations can be powerful determinants of behavior. When you’ve become the life of the party, it’s hard to stop. I should know. Though I don’t drink nearly as much as I did when I was younger, if I were to stop completely, it would require that I recalibrate a good number of my social relationships because so many of them are based on consuming alcohol. That’s sad.
For 15 years the Irish economy hummed. Dubbed the Celtic Tiger, it transformed a country that had known only poverty into one swimming in easy credit. But it stopped roaring three years ago when, like in America, Ireland’s housing bubble burst. Once again, young Irish men and women are going abroad in search of work. Many of them will settle here in Boston. Some, like my mother, may stay. If that happens, it is to be hoped that their children and grandchildren learn something more of the land of their forebears than how to pour a proper pint of Guinness.