An Irishman Walks Into a Bar…

This St. Patrick's Day, what do you say we stop stereotyping the Irish?

Being that it’s St. Patrick’s Day and all, it’s probably best to stay off the streets after dark tonight. It won’t be pretty out there. No need to paint too detailed a picture. You’ve seen it before and you may have even experienced it yourself: the plastic hats, the painted faces, the KISS ME buttons, the shots lined up across the bar, the subsequent bellowing and staggering and, of course, the inevitable day-after recriminations.

The tradition of getting wasted in the name of all things Irish continues unabated even in 2011, largely because St. Patrick’s Day is a commercial juggernaut, one that moves a lot of booze for bars and makes a nice sack of cash for liquor companies, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing, actually; it’s hard to begrudge anybody who can still make a buck doing things old-school style these days; it‘s also a little too curmudgeonly for my taste to get too heated about a single 24-hour period of debauchery that passes over most of us pretty painlessly and uneventfully every year. [SIGNUP]

What’s more troubling than the booze-fueled shenanigans that will surely go on from the streets of Port Richmond to the pubs in Old City and around Rittenhouse Square tonight is the ongoing depiction it reinforces of the Irish as a single-minded people who both celebrate and commiserate by getting all schnozzled up: “I only drink on two occasions,” the writer Brendan Behan is said to have uttered, presumably with pride, “when I am thirsty and when I’m not thirsty.” The Irish are characterized as a people both blessed and cursed with a poetic and moody nature, able to spin a tale of wonderment but unable to maintain any semblance of domestic responsibility; a morose and gloomy people wracked with guilt: “I’m an Irish Catholic,” said the writer Edna O’Brien, “and I have a long iceberg of guilt.”

Yes, there are streams of truth in the oversimplifications, but less as time marches on and diffusion continues insistently. The stereotypes, much as there is comfort and safety in them for some, just don’t hold.

In our own greater community, there are pockets of Irish that hold tight to the ugliest form of racial intolerance and pockets of Irish that celebrate diversity by opening their hearts to all; there are Irish in the religious community who have committed the most demonic of crimes against humanity and Irish in the religious community—like Father John McNamee, the priest and poet who spent decades raising money to keep St. Malachy’s Parish in North Philadelphia alive, and the wondrous Sister Mary Scullion, whose Project H.O.M.E. is a national model for how best to work with the homeless, just to name two—who do all of us proud.

There are, in our city, Irish who have spent their lives ginning up and watching their humanity slip away at the bar at the expense of their own children’s future and Irish who have spent their lifetime working multiple jobs to see that their kids get the shot they didn’t.

It’s a big Irish city, Philadelphia is—not as big as New York or Chicago, but plenty big—and in this big Irish city there are lots of really good Irish people.

Funny thing is, not all of them look alike or act alike or think alike. And that just may be worth raising your glass to tonight. Or not.

Tim Whitaker ([email protected]) is the executive director of Mighty Writers, a nonprofit program that inspires city kids to write.