I shan’t insult you by explaining who the Pogues are, but I will observe that A) even they were not immune to early-eighties album art design and B) 27 year-old Shane MacGowan, at right, looks eerily like my brother. Unfortunately for MacGowan—and incredibly fortunately for Brooks—they now look very different. The Irish are not a handsome people, and we do not shepherd what beauty we have into old age. In MacGowan’s case, heroin and excessive drinking—he famously stopped singing during the first song of a 2002 concert at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre to vomit on fans in the front row—conspired with a weird nationalist/intellectual refusal to brush his teeth to make him look like, well, everyone he ever sang about. “I’m completely Irish,” he told the Guardian in 2001, by way of explaining why he had arrived at his interview holding a bottle of gin. This interview took place at a bar.
Depending on which Brooks or Kelsey you ask, I also vacillate between completely and mostly Irish. Like many caucasian families in the United States, mine has officially adopted what is maybe the only socially acceptable expression of white ethnic identity. Even the Italians still bear some vague stigma of lower-classness, if no longer outright criminality, but the Irish are pure. We are totally, safely assimilated—as evidenced by virtually every white person you meet claiming some Irish ancestry—yet we can still claim a pretty good history of persecution. It’s no black people or Jews, but we don’t have to put up with getting treated like black people or Jews, either. Plus, we drink.
Many was the night when, accused by some peevish stranger of being intoxicated, I defended myself by saying, “I’m Irish; I can’t get drunk.” Like MacGowan, I indulged in the fantasy that identity makes behavior and not the other way around. This is, of course, the appeal of identity: you say I am this thing, and suddenly the question of should I do this thing? is much more easily answered—with the added bonus that if you answer wrong, you can claim you had no choice. Ethnic identity is the best, because like a family vacation home or the governorship of Texas, you don’t even have to work for it. You get it from your grandparents.
It’s also bullshit. My family tree maps a quick route to County Cork, but I am no more meaningfully Irish than a Shamrock Shake. I once berated a stranger in Australia for his Red Hand of Ulster tattoo, but that speaks more to my interest in fighting—another characteristic I have claimed as Irish—than my interest in home rule. My Irishness is a contemporary, volitional construction, cobbled together from an affinity for Yeats and tin whistles, increasingly orange facial hair, and the dreaded Combination Skin. American members of other ethnic groups at least have to contend with the social construction of their race, which creates real prejudices and expectations regardless of whether they actually have an extra calf muscle or a tradition of textual scholarship. The Irish, though, are neither readily identifiable nor commonly blamed for things, allowing us to put on and take off our ethnicity like a green shirt.
This is further evidence that ethnicity is an empty concept, which argument is extremely popular among white people. Like our belief that everyone should forget about race now that we are done owning black people as slaves, Irish pride is an expression of white people’s desire to enjoy the benefits of historical ethnicity without the problems it caused during actual history. We want the scars, but we don’t want the war. It’s fun for me to say that my forebears came over during the potato famine, whereas it is not fun to run out of potatoes and arable land and jobs so that my primary source of calories becomes lukewarm stout. It is extremely Irish, though. When I claim Irishness, I enjoy a historical victimhood that is similar to that of non-white ethnic groups—in kind if not in degree—without having to get, you know, actually victimized. In a sort of existential negative image of MacGowan with his bottle of gin, I can choose my problems without really having them.
All this is to say that I love St. Patrick’s Day, just as I love being Irish. Both are an excuse to drink and shout about English ponces and feel like an expression of my great-great-grandfather’s wildest desires, without having to negotiate the terms of the next day against anything worse than a hangover. I submit that “Irish” is the most popular ethnicity among American white people because it is the most American one. Like the United States, it’s an idea, not a people. That’s what makes us strong, even when luck or British people or our own self-destructive vigor tries to take everything away from us. We choose this messy arrangement and these auto-inflicted problems, and therefore we are always equal to them. It doesn’t hurt that we’re natural boxers, either, so mind your feckin mouth.