About this time last year, someone we know in passing gleefully proclaimed to my (Irish) husband that he’d told his (kindergartner-aged) daughter all about leprechauns, the midgets who dance around at the end of rainbows hoarding over pots of gold in funny green hats in Ireland.
I rolled my eyes and bit my tongue.
Not because I have anything against Irish folklore; quite the opposite, in fact (if you’re interested, you can read more about the mythology of leprechauns–and their connection to Denmark–here or here). I do, however, object to ignorance that translates to disrespect for other cultures, places and beliefs. I’m all for celebrating Paddy’s Day, whether it’s by getting stupid drunk on Guinness or feasting on corned beef and cabbage, but I fail to see the value in propagating marketing myths that have become little more than insulting.
Ireland is populated by storytellers. Get into a cab, go to a pub, or go into a shop in Ireland, and chances are good you’ll get a story. Often these stories are self-deprecating and/or funny. Because storytelling underlies almost every aspect of Irish culture, it is welcoming to visitors. I’ve spoken with hundreds of people who’ve visited Ireland and never has someone said, “I had a terrible time. The people were so rude.”
Which is not to say every Irish person is sweet, or that the place doesn’t have problems. But that’s just it–it’s a real place.
So what would I have had the aforementioned individual tell his daughter? He could have started with an accurate (and much more interesting) explanation of the mythological leipreachán, rather than a stereotype developed by the marketing departments at General Mills and Colgate-Palmolive. He could have introduced her to Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series. He could have showed her pictures of the Lake Isle of Innisfree or read her A Prayer for my Daughter. He could have told her about Saint Patrick or, better yet–given that she’s a strong young woman–the lesser known patron saint of Ireland, Saint Brigid.
When I was his kid’s age, there was a “tradition” in elementary school that dictated that anyone not wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day should be pinched. This always annoyed my dad, who told me that being Irish had nothing to do with the color I wore, and pinching people is mean. He told me to wear whatever I like on March 17 and sent me to school armed with his beloved copy of The Collected Poems of WB Yeats, telling me to use it to hit anyone who pinched me.
So as you celebrate on March 17–and I hope you will–I hope you’ll take a moment to fete what is laudable about the real Ireland. Have a read of Barbara Scully’s insightful, funny, and beautifully written blog. Pick up a book by John Connolly, Declan Burke, Colette Caddle, Maria Duffy, or Maeve Binchy. Sing a chorus or two of The Rising of the Moon. Tell someone a story.
Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh.