Mike Pence, Kellyanne Conway and I will look alike this weekend. All three of us will claw through our closets, and pluck out our greenest garb.
Like Pence, Conway and one too many other members of President Donald Trump’s inner circle, I’m descended from Irish immigrants, and I’m celebrating my heritage while dressed in clover colors this St. Patrick’s Day.
Unlike Trump’s Celtic cronies, however, I feel compelled to point out a historical truth that they seem to have overlooked: though Ireland is gorgeous (with rolling hills and sweeping seascapes), it was for centuries considered a “shithole country” of the very same sort that Trump now derides.
For most of American history, Irish immigrants were not exactly welcomed when they washed up on these shores. They came here in droves, and they were desperate. In the mid-1800s alone, more than a third of Ireland’s population was lost to starvation or emigration. Millions of Irish refugees fled to the United States and scrambled to support themselves by doing menial work. And over time, one too many of their descendents have grown unsettlingly comfortable with their material ease and their relatively newfound white privilege.
The “undesirables” that Pence and Conway are helping to demonize? Those “others” are actually us. In an ironic and harrowing twist of history, right-wing Irish American leaders are foisting persecution — a wall along the Mexican border; the revocation of DACA protections — on undocumented immigrants who are, like our forebears, simply seeking the sanctuary that is a human right.
As we peel our potatoes, bake our soda bread and prepare to plunge into our St. Paddy’s Day feasts this year, progressive Irish Americans are finding our stomachs a wee bit unsettled. We’re worried about the 50,000 undocumented Irish immigrants who are currently living in the United States. And we’re not just embarrassed — but mortified — by Pence, Conway, Sean Hannity, John Kelly, Michael Flynn, Mitch McConnell, Linda McMahon, Mick Mulvaney and Paul Ryan — all descendants of Irish immigrants, and all right-wingers who have betrayed their own heritage by either siding with Trump on immigration or quietly acquiescing to his racist rants.
One year, 54 days, and too many hours into the Trumptastrophe, I want to reason with the freckled members of Trump’s inner cabal. In my firebrand fantasies, we debate immigration policy. Because my wit proves to be sharper (wit rules, among the Irish), I win the argument, they change course, and America’s refugees finally find peace in this land.
Trouble is, Pence, Conway and their ilk are too busy persecuting immigrants (and carving up America and feeding it to the privileged) to sit down and have a chat with me. I suppose I could sink to my knees and pray the rosary to atone for my brethren’s sins. Trouble is, I gave up Catholicism — initially for Lent, and then permanently — in the wake of Church pedophilia scandals that enrage me even more than Steve Bannon’s smug Irish grin.
What to do? When I was younger and still had naturally red hair, one of the Irish priests who was charged with educating me gave me a dog-eared copy of Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Thumbing through it in the lead-up to St. Paddy’s Day, I contemplate Freire’s explanation of why people who have once been oppressed often turn around and foist the same oppression on others who they see as below or beneath them. It’s happened for millennia. It happens across cultures. It’s human. It’s predictable. But that doesn’t make it any less horrible — especially when your own people are doing it in your name.
I think of my Irish-born grandfather, a lifelong lefty who was stubborn in his progressive ideals because he came to them by way of oppression (his rural market village was burned by outsiders who came storming in with guns, and after he rebelled by becoming an activist, he was summarily thrown into a series of dank prisons). When my grandfather fled to this country (under legally murky circumstances that would likely have ICE knocking down his door today), he made a point to befriend other “others.” Never mind that the color of their skin did not match his own. He got it. He understood that them also means us.
Sometimes, I fantasize about fleeing to my grandfather’s homeland and waiting out the Trumptastrophe there. (I have dual citizenship in the United States and Ireland, and had my Irish passport renewed the instant Trump assumed office.) Though I clash with conservative Irish Catholics on the matter of reproductive choice (I am for it; they are not), other issues are ones on which the Irish natives and I heartily agree. My cousin Maeve in County Sligo thinks Michelle Obama should be the U.S. president. And Ireland’s taoiseach—or prime minister — is a gay man of Indian extraction who’s currently in a public relationship with a handsome Irish lad. Ireland legalized gay marriage before America did. And the country’s reigning ruler may not be the taoiseach or even the president who helps steer the Irish government. That honor may actually fall to Panti Bliss (aka Rory O’Neill), a six-foot-three-in-stilettos, HIV-positive drag performer who bills herself as “The Queen of Ireland” and who is universally beloved by the sheep farmers and grannies who occupy Ireland’s rural pubs.
My own granny would not stomach Donald Trump. Nor would she stomach my whinging about him as I beat myself up about his advisors’ ethnicity. (This is all-too-typical Irish-Catholic behavior. We are guilty about everything, and we are especially guilty by association.) “You’re a great one for complaining,” I can hear my grandmother chastise me in her thick Sligo brogue. “But you need to get off your cross, because the rest of us need the wood.”
Because I can think of no better way to atone for Pence and Conway — and because my grandparents and Panti Bliss would heartily approve — I’m celebrating St. Paddy’s Day in the Trump era by stepping up as an Irish-American progressive. Earlier in March, accompanied by three gay gentlemen of Irish-American extraction, I attended the St. Pat’s For All parade here in New York City. (LGBT friendly, as the mainstream parade has not always been, this smaller celebration was buoyed by the music of bagpipes, tin whistles, and rainbow flags flapping in the breeze.) This weekend, accompanied by my freckled, socialist father, I’ll help pack the aisles at Irish Stand — a massive New York City rally that calls on Irish Americans to support immigrants and refugees. Along with Irish Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin and writers Malachy McCourt and Colum McCann, I’ll toss my money into the basket and help drum up funding for the New York Civil Liberties Union Foundation. I’ll have my crisis of conscience. And then, I’ll drink to that.