Appropriation (?) of the Month: An Irishman walks into a bar…

By Sinéad Liobhas (Jennifer Lewis)

...An open letter to those Canadians who are Irish, and those who wish they were.

This is a cheeky look at the appropriation of Irish culture in Canada. Though I’m no Jonathan Swift, I wanted to use some typically Dublin humour, in honour of everyone’s favourite holiday, St. Patrick’s Day.

Ah, Éire. The Emerald Isle. When I tell people that I’m Irish, they promptly tell me, “I am too!” And, who in Canada doesn’t have a little Irish in them? Based upon the casual association of many North Americans to their ancestors, it would appear that a tipsy Irish man and a beautiful Cherokee princess were VERY busy populating the continent.

Since the early 1800s and the Active Union between Britain and Ireland, the Irish have been leaving the wee island in droves. Subsequent foreign occupation of the country by the British, a long period of devastating famine, forced deportation as criminals, and repeated financial crises ensured we went forth and populated the Earth, to the tune of an estimated 80 million people claiming Irish descent worldwide. In 2012 alone, at the height of the most recent financial disaster, more than 50,000 Irish people emigrated, mostly to England, Australia, and Canada.

When I arrived here with my parents and sisters during the depression of the 1980s, our accents and clothes immediately made us mascots for the diasporic community of second to seventeenth generation countrymen and women already here. It was so comforting, upon our arrival in Canada, to be welcomed with the same cultural stereotypes based in oppression and colonialism that we had enjoyed at home in Ireland and in nearby England. Our new “Irish” neighbours, co-workers, and classmates never missed an opportunity to cluck sympathetically about the “troubles,” inquire about our drinking habits, or be utterly shocked by my family’s almost complete rejection of potatoes as an every-meal staple. To be sure, we should have been overjoyed to be emigrating closer to the home of the potato (introduced to Ireland in the 16th century), without the forced labour required to farm it for English gentry. Canadians were so quick to welcome us and, just like their acceptance and absorption of so many other cultures before us, borrowed our accents, history, plight, and prejudices. And isn’t mimicry the highest compliment?

Our Canadian neighbours were so kind and considerate, inquiring, when my parents managed to save up enough money to buy a second hand car or new furniture, “what, did you rob a bank?” And didn’t it warm the cockles of our Catholic hearts to hear quaint attempts to mimic our accents, complete with a hop and a jig and a drunken slur, or comments on our shared dislike of the “Brits”, or opinions on the relations between all Irish priests and all Irish schoolboys? We’ve continued to receive a warm welcome, even though my and my sisters’ Irish accents have softened into Westcoast drawls, which render us “American” at best and, when we go home to Ireland, “Plastic Paddies” at worst. It matters naught to our Irish brethren in Canada.

It’s been a great comfort to be able to turn on the television in Canada and see shows with characters that are, if not exact replicas, pretty close to those cute cartoons that the British used to publish in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The entire province of Newfoundland has even been donated to take the brunt of the jokes that were traditionally directed at us Irish.

Even the subtler and more sacred aspects of Irish heritage have been welcomed with open arms. I need look no further than the lower backs of many Vancouver residents to be warmly reminded of Newgrange (more recognizable around the world for its inspiration of tattoos than for being the oldest roofed structure in the world, older than both the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge).

Our Irish “mysticism” has been so well capsulated in both crystals on lanyards and backyard “Beltane” festivals, where well-matured men in purple hats jump over fires of virility. It’s not quite the same as our beloved Bealtaine, but we’re just so happy everyone’s celebrating something.

Why, even our sex lives are celebrated with a wink, with delightful sayings like “Irish twins,” making us chuckle over those old fashioned ideas that us Irish Catholics wouldn’t know where to find birth control if we tried. And our tempers! Has there ever been a richer image than an angry red-headed Irish person?

And, when we’re feeling homesick for the “old country”, we can always pop into just about any corner pub for a “Black and Tan” —reminiscent of so many Bloody Sundays — chased by an “Irish car bomb” shot. We can celebrate Irish music there too…well, at least we think it’s Irish music, though it’s a bit hard to hear over the floor stomps from everyone “Irish dancing.” ‘Twould be a shame to miss out on the ubiquitous Irish jokes, told over a pint of the blackstuff. Jesus would weep to miss a tale about last St. Patrick’s day, when a well-lubricated lad wearing a fuzzy green Leprechaun hat was hauled off in a Paddy Wagon. We can chuckle into our drinks, secure in our secret knowledge that a “Paddy Wagon” is a slur created by our colonial oppressors, to bolster perceptions of the Irish as drunks, and that St. Patrick is our patron saint and not a drinking idol. Ah, bless.

Isn’t it a grand thing to know that our Irish culture has so permeated the planet that we can experience the stereotypes from our homeland—still occupied by the British and experiencing the inherited and related issues of alcoholism and unemployment— even in Canada? Can cultural appropriation go so far, and be so deeply engrained, that it no longer matters anymore? While it’s important to recognize the wrongs that have been done against other disenfranchised peoples and cultures, have we sacrificed a close look at our own, shared “Irish” culture? Canadians have forgotten about the painful associations related to power, colonialism, poverty, and disenfranchisement while trying so hard to make us feel at home with their “Irish” stereotypes.

And if the mass appropriation of Irish culture and heritage was to be pointed out, in a bar, on a bus, in a conference, would we merely hear the smug reply: “Ah, well, I’m Irish so I can say these things”?

Illustrations: An Irishman cavorts, as John Bull (England) and Uncle Sam (US) look on (source); Peter Griffin's Irish dad in Fox's "Family Guy" (source); Newgrange kerbstone K52 (source); Random lower back Celtic tattoo, almost certainly from Commercial Drive (source).

Additional readings:

Flight from Famine: the coming of the Irish to Canada, by Donald MacKay

The Course of Irish History, by T.W. Moody, F.X. Martin, Dermot Keogh, and Patrick Kiely

The Green Flag Vol 3: Ourselves Alone, by Robert Kee

How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill

Our Appropriation (?) of the Month features, written by IPinCH team members, highlight the complexity of 'cultural appropriation' and 'cultural appreciation'.