The 1980 U.S. census determined that 18 percent of the U.S. population claim Irish ancestry. That is about 41 million people in the United States with Irish roots and is only exceeded by the 21 percent who claim German heritage and 22 percent who claim English ancestors.
Despite this heritage, we found many friends here in Utah a bit uninformed and nervous about our family accepting an assignment in Ireland a few years ago. The often unstated question seemed to be, "Is it safe?"Yes! We felt very safe, accepted and educated during the pleasant experience we had living in Ireland while I worked at Dublin City University.
It has been a few years now since we returned from Ireland with our family, and we all must admit to feelings of nostalgia and even homesickness for Ireland. It is perhaps a little bit understandable why the 41 million sons and daughters of Ireland in the United States nostalgically celebrate St. Patrick's Day with sometimes more gusto than the Irish working class as they sing in the pubs of Dublin.
To illustrate, there were two Irish students at Snow College a few years ago who made a point of coming to my office on St. Patrick's Day to inform me that the college cafeteria was decorated with paper shamrocks and green streamers and a banner crossing the large room boldly proclaiming "Erin go Bragh." This is not the practice in Ireland.
On March 17 when we were in Ireland we made certain that the kids were wearing green as they left for school but found that it didn't much matter and that our kids were in the minority with their green paper shamrocks. The St. Patrick's parade seemed to be staged somewhat for the benefit of American visitors. The date marks the beginning of the tourist season and is the signal for prices to go up in Dublin.
Green beer and shamrock aside, there is a mythic quality, according to Joseph Campbell, to the celebration that puts the date of Patrick's mission to Christianize Ireland at AD 432; and even with 18 percent of our population claiming Irish ancestry, we don't capture or understand the significance.
Most schools just put up with the celebration. Students wear green and look in vain for non-green-wearers to pinch. After the first 10 minutes of school, everyone has managed to find some green; and students have to resort to pinching people who try to fool friends by concealing their green. The rest of the day is spent with frequent debates about whether it is fair or not to wear just a little green and to conceal it so that you can give 10 pinch-backs to the hapless friend who didn't notice the decorative green thread on the inside of your brown sock.
Perhaps the celebration could help achieve some curricular objectives. Perhaps this day is a time to at least point to Ireland on a map and explain why the weather is relatively mild there despite its northern location. Perhaps students could at leastconsider the effects of the day that the "strange and terrible beauty was born" on the Easter Rising of 1916.
As a minimum it is important to know that:
1. Ireland is a neutral country.
2. The Republic of Ireland is not governed by England.
3. The Republic is independent of Northern Ireland, which is governed by England.
4. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) is not the army of the Republic of Ireland.
5. People are safer on the streets of Belfast than on the streets of Denver.
St. Patrick's Day isn't the only excuse to enliven the curriculum. Many of us celebrated Valentine's Day every year of our elementary school life without ever learning who St. Valentine was. By the way, there are two of them.
What about Columbus Day coming up in 1992? Since 1492 is the only date I have successfully memorized from my history classes (rhymes with ocean blue), I just happened to notice that in 1992 the Columbus discovery will have occurred 500 years ago. This calls for a celebration.
What about Monday? It, unfortunately, occurs every week - yet I don't recall anyone telling me in school how Monday got its name.
As my thoughts turn to the Emerald Isle today, I'll notice the weather report in the B section of the paper. It will probably be cool with occasional showers, and I'll say to myself that the weather's gone soft again. I'll also ask my kids if they talked about our old home in school.
- Roger Baker is associate professor of English/education at Snow College.