On Irishness, Immigration, and Green Bagels

In the latest installment of her column, Borderline, Maggie Tishman looks past the Killian’s to see St. Patrick’s Day as a chance to talk immigration reform.

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The idea that we’re all Irish on St. Patty’s is one successful marketing scheme, helping sell an unseemly amount of green and clover-shaped merchandise in the week leading up to March 17th. But the slogan’s social significance should not be overlooked on account of its tackiness. It was, after all, a mere century ago that Irish men and women faced rampant discrimination in this country, their Catholicism (at the very heart of the holiday in question) being a particular powerful strike against them in the eyes of the Protestant white mainstream.

Today, the spectacle of St. Patrick’s Day, and its drunken celebration of a once-contemptible heritage, shows us just how much time can change. Tonight, scores of merry bar-hoppers will fill the sidewalk in front of Cavanaugh’s pub near my house—many of them with only a drop of Irish blood; others with none at all. And this morning, the green-bagel breakfast (a peculiar but delicious cultural hybrid) reminded me just how fully the European immigrants of the late-19th and early-20th century have melded into the collective American subconscious.

It would be naïve of me to think that one day of drinking Killian’s could really change immigrant life in the U.S., but some promising developments may indeed come of it. Following San Francisco and Chicago’s example, where Irish immigrants organized in 2006 to campaign for legalization of undocumented immigrants and reduced penalties for illegal status, St. Patrick’s Day can be about more than just Blarney. Rather, it can be a starting point for immigration-related activism.

Modern Irish immigrants, now generally tolerated if not altogether welcomed by American society, are particularly well equipped to push a pro-immigration agenda. By leveraging their mainstream status as well as stressing past Irish contributions to American life (think transcontinental railroad), they offer a unique platform from which to encourage reform. And with immigration clearly on Obama’s and the nation’s minds, this time around St. Patty’s Day reflections might just find a receptive audience.

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