Every year on St. Patrick’s Day, the desires to party and celebrate being Irish–even if you aren’t–are ubiquitous. “Slainte,” and “Erin Go Bragh,” are shouted at bars between swigs of green beer and whiskey. Though many celebrants surely have no idea who St. Patrick was (hint: he wasn’t Irish) or the history behind traditions like wearing green, on March 17th, people have a permeating interest in and appreciation of all things Irish.
For those of us with actual significant Irish heritage, St. Patty’s Day becomes an excuse to remind others of your V.I.P. (Very Irish Person) status and parade (literally) your Irish pride.
My Irish lineage came mainly from my maternal side, and when it came to instilling a sense of pride in my sister and I, my mom began early (she named me Erin Kathleen). She made sure we were well-informed about “our” history, both in Ireland and America. St. Patrick’s day was big deal for my mom—who always made sure we had plenty of green accessories to wear at school and made corn beef and colcannon for dinner—but for her, the significance of being Irish lasted all year long.
Unlike my mother though, I am not in the slightest proud of my Irish ancestry.
Now, I not ashamed of it either, nor am I indifferent to it. My family history fascinates me, and part of that history is undoubtedly influenced by the cultures of the people involved. This benefits me because I have easy access to stories and people that give me a connection to history, which I appreciate. I feel the same connection to history when I talk to my grandfather about fighting in WWII, or hear about my great-grandmother emigrating from Russia in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution. These stories are great, and my close connection to the storytellers is a privilege, but it isn’t something I can be proud of. To take pride in the accomplishments of others—even my ancestors—detracts not only from their accomplishments, but from mine as well.
I don’t mean to single out people with Irish heritage; people take pride in all sorts of collective connections—no matter how loose. Aside from pride in one’s lineage, people take pride in the accomplishments of their local sport’s team or the schools they attended. Millions of Americans celebrate Independence Day by displaying flags and shooting off fireworks, yet some of the most enthusiastic of these patriots consider any opposition to the government unpatriotic (or even treasonous). The pride they take in the sacrifices of history’s rebels is unearned—yet because they were born in the general region where these sacrifices were made, they feel entitled to say, “We won our independence from England.”
To be sure, there is nothing wrong with celebrating these accomplishments and paying homage to the participants. I am thoroughly impressed and humbled by the courage it took to openly rebel against the 18th century British Empire. I’m also impressed by the stories of my Irish ancestors, who overcame oppressions and physical hardships I’ll likely never have to endure. But part of honoring them is recognizing that the pride they’re entitled to wasn’t inherited through their lineage—it was earned through their suffering and perseverance. Drinking Guinness or waving a flag on a hot summer’s day doesn’t even come close to entitling me to share in that pride, nor does the involuntary act of being born in a particular place to particular people.
And just as I don’t take pride in others’ actions, I likewise don’t share in their shame. My ancestors achieved some impressive feats, but many of them also surely contributed to the racist, sexist, classist cultures they lived in. I can acknowledge the lasting impacts those cultures had on society today and work to correct them, but that’s different from accepting responsibility for them.
When it comes to pride, I reserve it for things I personally accomplished. I’m proud of having worked my way through college. I’m proud of the partnership I’ve developed with my husband. I’m proud of the introspection it took for me to challenge the dogma I grew up with and delve into individualism and the liberty movement. I’m proud of my writing. And I have no intention of resting on my laurels, or those of my ancestors. For me, a well-lived life includes continually working towards goals I can be proud of and that others can admire.
So if you are celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with Irish pride, please remember: admiration for others’ accomplishments is fine, but pride for your personal accomplishments is so much more rewarding—and real—than pride in the feats of your ancestors.