Sunday, March 17, 2013

Irish Pride

In case it isn't obvious from the name, I'm Irish, mostly: three-quarters Irish, one-quarter German. At the risk of perpetuating stereotypes, I like to joke that I get my love of reason and ordered thinking from the German side and my sense of humor and love of arguing from the Irish side.

I grew up hearing Irish music in the house (Clancy Brothers, Irish Rovers), and not just on St. Patrick's Day. I've always been conscious of being Irish and have drawn a sense of pride from it. Ethnic identity can be a powerful good, but it can also be ugly. Keeping the former without the latter can be tricky.

When I teach the subject of nationalism in Western Civ, I have the students read a piece from 1789 by Richard Price. As an Enlightenment thinker, Price warns that love of country "which is our duty, does not imply any conviction of the superior value of it to other countries." Every celebration of one's nationality or heritage threatens to bleed over into "love of domination; a desire of conquest, and a thirst for grandeur and glory."

So how do we keep ethnic pride from becoming something ugly? Guisseppe Mazzini, the 19th century Italian nationalist, said we do it by always remembering that in "labouring for our own country on the right principle, we labour for Humanity." Have pride in your own, but always remember that you and your people are part of all Humanity, no better, no worse.

Looking back, I can now realize when I was taught that lesson. I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, when the civil rights revolution was taking place. I was a child and had a limited sense of the events going on around me, but at some point something must have registered with me. I don't remember exactly when, but I must have asked my Dad about it. His exact words are lost, but the sentiment stuck with me.

He reminded me that we were Irish, and that when the Irish first came to the United States, they sometimes suffered discrimination. (Family legend has it that the name was originally "O'Byrne" and the "O" was dropped and the "S" added to make it sound less Irish.) If it was wrong to do that to them then, he told me, it was wrong to do it to black Americans now too.

As I learned more about the history, I realized that the two situations were not exactly comparable, but the simple lesson held true: if it is wrong when it is done to one of your own, it is wrong when it is done to anyone. Simple enough for a child to understand, easily forgotten by too many adults.

This is the right way to use ethnic pride--not to exalt some over others, but to reinforce our common humanity; to unite, not divide; to foster empathy, not hatred.

So St. Patrick's Day is not a day for me to lord my Irish heritage over all of you unfortunate enough to not share it (as tempting as that is), but to celebrate the Irish in everyone. 


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