Let’s Reclaim St. Patrick’s Day From Kellyanne Conway and Mike Pence

Progressives can celebrate St. Paddy’s day by reviving the long, proud Irish tradition of standing with immigrants and refugees.

Molly M. Ginty March 16, 2018

James Donovan, an Irish Sweeper at Fall River Iron Works in Massachusetts. (Lewis Hine/1916/Library of Congress)

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.

I’m celebrating St. Paddy’s Day in the Trump era by stepping up as an Irish-American progressive.

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. 

Mol­ly M. Gin­ty is a jour­nal­ist who writes for Ms., Wom­en’s eNews, On the Issues, the Utne Read­er, The Nation and oth­er pro­gres­sive publications.
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