Little green men?
About this time of year, Iowa seems to be overtaken by a race of little green men– well, maybe they’re not so little, but they seem to have a definite affinity for the color green. They dress in green clothing and seek out green food and beverages. Green beer seems to be particularly appealing to them, though no one can find any documentation that supports its importance.
The state of Iowa takes up a little over 56,000 square miles. This is not quite twice the size of Ireland, which covers about 32,000 square miles– yet in spite of our ethnically-varied population, we seem to have a more Irish population than Ireland has! That is, for just one day out of the year. At least for tomorrow, Iowans will behave as if they, personally, had just stepped of the boat from the Emerald Isle and will engage in a number of peculiar ‘traditions’ that they think will prove that. For instance, they will wear an inordinate amount of green clothing. If they own not a single garment of that color, they will likely pin on a shamrock made of anything from construction paper to emeralds (fake or real) or a cleverly worded button or badge that demands “Kiss me– I’m Irish!” They are likely to lunch on corned beef sandwiches or cook up a mess of corned beef and cabbage for supper. They may, later, go out for an evening of sipping beer tinted green with food coloring (it takes one whole bottle of the stuff to color the contents of a keg.) And, somewhere along the way, should they encounter a person who is not wearing something sufficiently green, they may feel entitled to pinch them for that omission. Just one more unfounded “tradition.”
A recent immigrant or visitor from Ireland would only shake their head in bewilderment and wonder where Americans got their knowledge about Ireland and from where all these peculiar practices came. They might also wonder how it came to be that Americans are so determined to display their determination to be Irish– especially when the Irish were considered inferior to other nationalities when they first came in masses to our shores. Why this sudden turnaround, which began at about the time of the Civil War? Did it have something to do with Lincoln’s determination to end slavery and begin the slow and painful progress for the black race from chattel to equals? (The idea that the ‘white races’ should join forces against the invasion of black freedmen?) Did it have something to do with the fact that the Irish were intermarrying with Americans of other nationalities, so that the definition of Irishness became blurred? Was it because the Irish proved themselves to be good Americans after all, and that customs and speech characteristics began to lose their distinctiveness? Whatever the reason, the Irish suddenly became, not only acceptable but desirable, and everybody wanted to claim some connection to their nationality.
Ireland seems to have been settled originally by a people of Mediterranean origin. Later, some people of unknown origin known as Picts came into northern Ireland and Scotland. These were followed by Celts, who were Indo-Europeans from central Europe. The ones who ended up in what we know as Ireland called themselves Gaels and called the country Erin. Around the year 800, the Vikings came along and established towns along the seacoast. Sprinkle in a liberal amount of English and Scottish immigrants and some French Normans and you have quite an Irish stew. Eventually, of course, these all blended to become what we commonly think of as the Irish– more because they live in Ireland than because of any racial definition. Most of us, I guess, if we trace back far enough, will probably come across a direct connection to these early Irish.
If that isn’t possible, or if we are somewhat lazy, we can simply point out the “Irish” characteristics we possess and claim the distinction through them. Red-haired people could easily qualify– and those with green eyes. Or, blue eyes for that matter, freckles, ruddy complexions, pasty white skin with dark hair (men with blue-black five-o’clock shadows even right after a close shave.) Having a quick temper or a playful disposition would probably qualify you– especially if you can back it up with one or more other traits. Knowing a few Irish phrases could get you in– or an Irish sounding name (which could be Scottish.) Having a repertoire of good Irish jokes or being able to fake an acceptable brogue can help. You have only one more day to get ready for St. Pat’s Day– buy a green sweater and have a good time– just go easy on the green beer!