It is almost the end of St. Patrick’s Day and what continues to amaze me is how little the Irish struggle for full national liberation and unification ever gets mentioned in the mainstream press. I thought about this a great deal yesterday when walking through downtown Manhattan, watching the revelers preparing to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. A day to celebrate, but not a day to reflect.
The manner in which St. Patrick’s Day is treated in the USA reminds me of how various celebrations, including celebrations of the lives of significant historical figures, are drained of any political content. Instead of utilizing St. Patrick’s Day as a time to look at Irish history and the hundreds of years of struggle against British colonialism and neo-colonialism, it has become a day when “everyone” can become Irish; at least, that is what we are told.
My interest in Ireland has little to do with St. Patrick’s Day. It began in the 1960s when I started watching and reading about the struggles in Northern Ireland conducted by the nationalist community (the Catholics) against the oppression that they received at the hands of the British and the so-called Loyalists (the Protestant community). After all, what we know of as Northern Ireland was ripped away from the rest of the island as a British condition for the independence of the southern twenty-six counties in the third decade of the 20th century. In a pattern familiar to US African Americans, Native Americans and Chicanos, the British and their Loyalist allies used gerrymandering to create a majority Loyalist territory–Northern Ireland–which dictated to the nationalist so-called minority living there. This oppression was all-round and, in both Northern Ireland and in Britain, was seen as the continuation of what the Irish nationalists would frequently reference as “anti-Irish racism.”
I began learning about this history not through public school but through reading the newspaper of the Black Panther Party. The Panthers appreciated that which both the Irish national liberation struggle and the African American liberation struggle shared in common: a struggle for national rights and human rights.
That which these struggles had in common is rarely if ever discussed on St. Patrick’s Day. It would make the day a bit complicated. The British, in subjugating Ireland in the 1500s, instituted a system of racist and national oppression over the indigenous Irish. In order to suppress resistance, the British relied on settlers from Scotland, Wales and England–the poor and the landless–to come to Ireland and receive the best lands and privileged treatment (vis a vis the indigenous Irish) as long as they subordinated themselves to and served the Crown. To justify this settler colonialism, the British enforced the notion of the indigenous Irish being an inferior race who had no rights that the British were bound to respect. It was this “racial” system that the British further developed in their colonization of North America and their importation of forced African labor (forced African labor coming first as mainly indentured servants and slaves, and ultimately as solely slaves-for-life and their lives of their children).
For many of us in the USA, the notion that the British would see in the indigenous Irish an inferior race sounds absurd. After all, given our experiences with a particular form of racism, the British and the Irish look to be the same “race.” But once one remembers that “race” is a socio-political concept rather than a scientific one and, further, that “race” became a method to ensure oppression over specific populations and to enforce social control over all laboring populations, the story comes together.
For some reason, we never seem to hear this story on St. Patrick’s Day, at least on this side of the Atlantic.