On today, the day I annually feign membership in your myriad different cultures, I’d like to admit something I should’ve admitted a long time ago: I’m not Irish. This contradicts something I’d said onstage once years ago and the arrogance of it nags me every St. Patrick’s Day like a polaroid of one making out with that girl one doesn’t quite remember.
My grandfather’s grandfather (I think) came to Chicago some time in the mid to late 1800’s, having left some record of living in Cork (though Cork had been used as a port of exit for Irish from all over the island at the time). We believe he was a stowaway on a cargo ship across the Atlantic headed for Louisiana and hitched his way up the Mississippi into Illinois. He changed the family name from “Vaughan,” to the (to my understanding) more ethnically ambiguous “Vaughn” in order to get work.
My grandfather is half of Irish descent and this is my frail link to Ireland. The confirmed majority of my ancestry is German (and a heavy dose of Austrian). As is a common story in the United States though, I still look to “The Old Country,” for some sense of belonging…unintentionally negating my inherent American-ness. It’s offensive to both cultures at once: It belittles my actual country of origin while ignorantly appropriating Irish stereotypes.
Doing a little investigation, it’s entirely possible that I descend from one of the Vaughan clans that came to Ireland from Wales. Why do I not proudly proclaim my potential Welsh-ness? Why as well don’t I trumpet my German and Austrian heritage as loudly? Why for that matter do I also claim so steadfastly to be a Chicagoan when for 3 generations my family has lived 10 minutes into the North suburbs? What is it about the need for cultural identity that drives us to make such bold and sweeping claims?
Furthermore, what is it about human beings that invents cultural identities in the first place? To collect the 6.5 million people living in what are already two separate politically acknowledged (and embattled) countries and unilaterally call them “Irish,” says nothing of the many distinct subcultures from one side of a city to another (let alone island). For me, a foreigner, to thrust upon the Irish some sort of collective identity and then elbow myself into it expecting a high five and a Guinness should be not only laughable but insultingly so.
Where I’m from the Chicago and “Greater Chicagoland Area,” experience can be unrecognizably different from block to block, neighborhood to neighborhood, suburb to suburb, county to county. This is amplified immensely when you get to the differences between Chicago, Rockford, East St. Louis, Moline, Peoria, Springfield, and Champaign yet they’re all “Illinois.” The implication is that I, born and raised in a suburb, have more in common with someone born in East St. Louis than I do with someone in say, Columbine Colorado. In fact, after the Columbine tragedy, CNN chose my high school as the most demographically similar to Columbine High School in all of the US.
Now, I’m not chastising Americans of more legitimate Irish lineage celebrating their Irish-ness. I can think of three close friends off the top of my head who have dual citizenship. No matter how Irish they are or aren’t, I think that confirms that they are “More,” Irish than I. Hell, I’m not chastising anybody really; If the rest of America wants to get drunk today and listen to the Pogues, that sounds like a good time and I’ll join you. Chicago dyes the river green and I’d be bummed if they didn’t. I just don’t think my Anglicized first name in any way personally entitles me to pound my chest in a fit of Irish pride.
If I have anything warranted to say about Ireland and myself in relation to it, it’d be that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself every time I’ve been there. I’ve enjoyed “Irish,” things: I watched Father Ted, I thought “Horse Outside” was funny, I’ve always had a taste for Irish made whiskeys (but the majority of the brands I patronize have admittedly become wholly owned subsidiaries of non-Irish conglomerates), and some of my favorite thinkers, artists, writers, and actors came directly from Ireland.
American St. Patrick’s day, however, is as authentically Irish as the word “Bling,” said on a reality show about wedding dresses is authentically hip-hop. I won’t get into the historical implications of who St. Patrick was or where he came from (not Ireland). In the US these days the holiday is, like myself, so distant from it’s Irish roots as to be no longer honestly related. American Halloween is more strongly indebted to Irish traditions and somehow that day is not used as a vacation from sobriety and dignified cultural sensitivity.
So this is my promise: Today, March 17 2013, I will drink and I will enjoy the hell out of it. I will be an American, finding pleasure in a ritual I know to be practiced in a truly American way. I won’t sing rebel songs, I won’t drink dyed beers, and above all I promise not to say I’m Irish (or wear a shirt demanding a kiss for that non-accomplishment). In return, should the notion strike you, feel free to invent some sort of American themed holiday. Maybe “St. Mullet Day,” where you can eat processed hamburgers slathered in yellow/orange cheese of questionable origin, as you watch a big budget Hollywood reboot of your favorite childhood cartoon while wearing a pro wrestling t-shirt and an elaborately ornamented cowboy hat, and maybe even invade a developing country under the auspices of world-protecting interventionism. These are all stereotypes as near and dear to my heart as I’m sure green beer is to yours.
Sincerest apologies and sláinte,