Being of Irish-American heritage, when I was small we had to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day to protect ourselves from leprechauns who would pinch us if we didn’t. I’m not sure who was supposed to be invisible—the leprechauns or the small green-clad children.
Apparently it didn’t matter if you’re of Irish descent or not. Most Americans pay some kind of homage to green on St. Patrick’s day. Some even rail about the meaninglessness of it; something I might relate to when it comes to green beer and rivers. Some suggest we should be wearing the royal blue of St. Patrick.
For me, the color to wear will always be green.
My ancestors on my mother’s side came to America from Cork, the “rebel county.” I’ve never been to Ireland, and can’t pretend to be Irish, but I embrace the courage of those in my lineage who left their Irish home to make a new one in America.
Irish-American Mary Harris, more commonly known as “Mother Jones,” was an American labor activist who came to us from County Cork. She was once arrested at the age of 82 during a coal miner’s strike in West Virginia.
In later years my friends and I found the wearing of green more poignant and meaningful. Wearing green recalled a time when the wearing of it was banned in Ireland. In the 18th century as the British tried to repress Irish nationalism, wearing green could get you killed.
A famous ballad about the Irish Rebellion of 1798, “The Wearing of the Green:”
O Paddy dear and did ye hear the news that’s going round?
The shamrock is by law forbid to grow on Irish ground!
No more Saint Patrick’s Day we’ll keep, his colour can’t be seen
For there’s a cruel law ag’in the wearin’ o’ the green.
I met with Napper Tandy and he took me by the hand
And he said: “how’s poor old Ireland and what way does she stand?”
She’s the most distressful country that ever yet was seen
For they’re hanging men and women there for the wearin’ o’ the green.
So if the colour we must be England’s cruel red
Let it remind us of the blood that Irish men have shed.
And pull the shamrock from your hat and throw it on the sod
But never fear, twill take root there, though underfoot ’tis trod.
When laws can make the blades of grass from growing as they grow
And when the leaves in summer-time their colour dare not show,
Then I will change the colour, too, I wear in my caubeen,
But till that day, please God, I’ll stick to the wearin’ o’ the green.
For many of us the wearing of green honors acts of rebellion against tyranny.
I was taught there was a time “No Irish Need Apply” for jobs, and there were “No Micks Allowed” to live in some places in the San Francisco Bay Area. Because of that heritage, because my ancestors knew discrimination as immigrants to their new homeland, it was our job, as descendants, to look out for those who were unjustly denied their civil rights in our own time.
When I grew older, it was perplexing to discover other Irish-Americans didn’t feel so inclined to grant others their civil rights, their equal place in American society. They were as unwelcoming to others as those early Americans were to our own ancestors. Yet my ancestors were among those who were impoverished, lived in workhouses or farmed land they did not own, and were unable to vote or hold office.
I discovered that, when I thought—logically, of course—my ancestors would have fought on the side of the Union Army, in truth they fought on both sides of the American Civil War. How did that happen? Many of our ancestors who encountered discrimination in the new America, found a path to acceptance by the dominate white society by joining in oppressing Black Americans denying them the same rights the Irish had been denied in their homeland. It seems the Irish gave up being Green in favor of being White in America.
To be Green for an American of Irish descent is to rebel against tyranny in all its forms, including racism. At least it is so for me, and my companions.
Here is my green ink for the month of March, made from Platinum Mix Free ink: 2MLs of Aurora Blue plus 6MLs of Sunny Yellow = “Peaceable Green:”
William Butler Yeats wrote a beautiful poem about the Easter Uprising of 1918 which foreshadowed that the deaths and defeat of the rebels would reinvigorate their cause, leading to the Irish Civil War. The poem ends with these lines:
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Those Irish… they kept rebelling against tyranny until there was an Ireland free of British rule.
Yeats was the first Irish poet whose work I ever read. His poetry has not been the last. This month in particular has been spent exploring the wealth of Irish poetry.
Eleanor Hooker, a poet whose work I found through the University College of Dublin’s online archives, wrote a resonant description of what it is to be a writer haunted by her Muse. The poem is called, “The Shadow Owner’s Companion.” She recites that poem in this video:
Green promises Spring’s on its way soon.
Thanks for reading this tiny, rambling mosaic of my Irish-American experience.
Stay kind and curious, my friends.
A Bit of Reading
- Irish Poets Reading Collection
- The Wearing of Green: Irish-American History in Song
- Brief Biography of Mother Jones
- All About the Color Green
- What is White Privilege