St. Patrick's Day has become a semiofficial Irish American holiday of expensive beer and cheap sentiment. Encouraged by corporate brewers that delight in the conceit that on this day at least, "we are all Irish," a celebration of Irish American culture and history has been transformed into an excuse to drink till you drop.
In the 19th century, St. Patrick's Day was a more serious occasion; Irish Americans used the parades and festivities to confront political issues. Ireland was still a colony of Britain, and Irish Americans were faced with nativist hostility that questioned their use and alleged abuse of newly won economic and political power. Irish American self-consciousness expressed during the St. Patrick's Day celebrations served to solidify ethnic and political strength.
In the first decades of the 20th century, mainstream political and clerical influence turned the annual St. Patrick's Day celebrations into lighthearted affairs. Green shamrock wallpaper and sentimental songs such as "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" replaced notions about fighting for economic and political inclusion. The day had become, in the words of historian Kerby Miller, "sanitized for bourgeois consumption."
If St. Patrick's Day has become a facile example of ethnic shape-shifting, recent historical scholarship of the Irish American experience takes a more sophisticated look at the malleability of what many Americans believed were rigid "racial" categories. In "How the Irish Became White," historian Noel Ignatiev examines the similar attitudes of the American elite toward Irish Catholics and African Americans.
Catholics in Ireland were denied fundamental political, economic and cultural rights based on religious and "racial" justifications. Under the so-called penal laws of the 18th and early 19th century, the land of Irish Catholics was confiscated and they could not speak their own language, practice their own religion or participate in politics.
When the Irish arrived in the United States, they often entered the workforce at the lowest rung, competing with free blacks in the North or with slaves in the South for the most backbreaking jobs. The Irish were referred to as an inferior race and, like African Americans, often were caricatured as having proclivities toward ignorance, brutishness, drunkenness and crime.
Even some of the greatest 19th century American writers and thinkers succumbed to glib stereotypes: Nathaniel Hawthorne referred to the Irish as "wild," and Ralph Waldo Emerson said "paddies" were "shovel-handed."
The fundamental and profound difference between the Irish and African Americans, of course, was that blacks were enslaved and the Irish were not. As bad as it was for Irish unskilled laborers -- in the South they were sometimes used in dangerous jobs because slave owners did not want to risk their "property" -- they were not confined to servitude.
The great contribution that historians have made to the debate over identity is showing that the very concepts of race and ethnicity have shifted over time and that the boundaries separating "white" from "nonwhite" have never been as firm as racists have insisted.
This St. Patrick's Day comes at a delicate moment in American history, when the boundaries separating "us" and "them" once again have political implications.
The need to belong to a well-defined group probably is one of our strongest psychological and social impulses. And group identity invariably flatters itself, often at the expense of those on the outside.
So as we toast the "old sod" in our green hats and shamrock shirts, we also should engage in a little ecumenical empathy. If today all of us are Irish, then surely we can also begin to identify with others who may still feel excluded from full participation in American life.