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Is St. Patrick’s Day a Caricature of Irish Identity?

As a person who immigrated to Canada from Ireland at the age of 9 years old, I have had an on-again, off-again relationship with St. Patrick’s Day. Currently, we’re in an “off-again” phase of our relationship.

St. Patrick’s Day is held on the anniversary of the death of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, who died on March 17th, 461 A.D.. St. Patrick (who wasn’t even born in Ireland, but instead was brought to the country as a slave) is a celebrated religious figure in Ireland because of his role in converting the Druid culture to Christianity during his life as a priest, and later as a bishop. St. Patrick’s Day was observed more quietly in Ireland starting in the mid-1600s, and did not become a secular and sensationalized holiday until the first St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York in 1762. This parade was a way for Irish immigrants to retain a sense of their culture as they lived abroad in America. Since then, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations have rippled across the globe, and the holiday that once began as a quiet religious observation of a sacred figure has transformed into a day of green hats, green beers and even green rivers as people drink the day away.

Is St. Patrick's Day a Caricature of Irish Identity?

I have walked in the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Toronto almost every year for the past 10 years. At first, this experience was a source of pride in my identity. To walk down Yonge Street and wave at smiling children and their bemused grandmothers was to believe that there was something special or different about being Irish. Toronto takes pride in being a cultural mosaic, and I thought that those who attended the parade truly wanted to appreciate a snippet of Irish culture. Sure, this wasn’t exactly like home, but this was the closest to Ireland that some of these people were going to get, right? Though I was aware that nothing about Irish culture in Canada could be as authentic as experiencing Ireland itself, the parade was a method of performing my identity and, by extension, re-affirming it.

Is St. Patrick's Day a Caricature of Irish Identity?

The older I got, the more cynical and conflicted I became. A cultural disconnect has continued to grow within me: 11 years have passed since I last lived in Ireland, and much more of my identity is defined by my experiences growing up in Toronto than the very early years of my life spent in Ireland. With each St. Patrick’s Day that has passed since I became a teenager, the less this holiday has given me a sense of affirmation in the Irish part of my identity.

I began going to school at the University of Waterloo, where St. Patrick’s Day is an event that is loved by party-goers and feared by city officials as tens of thousands flock to the city every year to gather at the infamous university block party on Ezra Avenue. This was not how I was used to participating in St. Patrick’s Day, and suddenly it did not feel like I was performing my identity as I should be. “What do you MEAN you’re not drinking today?” I’ve been asked by friends countless of times, “You’re supposed to be Irish!”

Is St. Patrick's Day a Caricature of Irish Identity?

Now I admit, the longer I have lived in Canada, the less I have felt sure that even I understand what it means to be Irish. I sometimes deal with the same issues that many 1.5 generation immigrants do: I don’t feel quite Canadian enough to perfectly blend into the culture here, but I also don’t feel quite close enough to the culture of my native country to call it home. Hearing the phrase “You’re supposed to be Irish” brings that conflict to the forefront. How am I, a Canadian citizen of many years, supposed to be Irish? I know that being Irish is not painting shamrocks on your face and getting wasted before noon. People in Ireland do not spend their days wearing little green hats, walking by little of green rivers, selecting the little green Spotify app and listening to a playlist of bagpipes. The St. Patrick’s Day celebrations that I don’t participate in seem to poke me and ask: “Why aren’t you Irish enough?”

Is St. Patrick's Day a Caricature of Irish Identity?

That being said, lots of Irish people – as in actual Irish people who are from Ireland – love St. Patrick’s Day as much as anybody. Irish people will drink and dance the day away as much as parade-goers in New York, Toronto, or anywhere else in the world. If the Irish have adapted the celebration as part of their culture, why should I worry that participating in the festivities makes me any less authentically Irish? Though I might steer clear of Ezra Avenue next year, I want to embrace the day for the ways it reminds me of what I am, rather than the ways it reminds me of what I am not.