The great, galloping greenfest is here yet again. And I for one am getting jittery. It’s not about my preparations for St. Patrick’s Day (I’ve already baked my grandmother’s soda bread, with fewer lumps in it than usual this year). It’s not about my role in the festivities (I’ll be in my set spot on the sidelines of the New York City parade, protesting the exclusion of LGBT marchers…look for a petite, pissed-off redhead waving a sign that says “Put the GAY back in Gaelic!”). What makes me anxious is not what’s happening here, but the suffering that is now being endured by my people across the pond. By “my people,” I don’t mean the Irish (to whom I am—you guessed it—related). Instead, I mean the Irish-Americans, Irish-Australians, and people of Irish extraction who were born everywhere from Algeria to Aruba and who are at this very moment commemorating St. Patrick’s Day by trekking to their ancestral land for the first time. This year, Ireland launched “The Gathering”, a €5‑million scheme to lure 325,000 extra visitors of Irish heritage to its rolling hills and rollicking pubs in 2013. For my kinfolk who are making their introductory trek—on this, the overblown holiday when Ireland commemorates its church’s founding saint—I fear it won’t be so easy being green.
Never mind the wet, late-winter chill or the recession that will make traveling to Ireland a financial sacrifice for many tourists. When people of Irish heritage visit the old sod for the first time (as I did two decades ago, while a student at Trinity College in Dublin), they’ll get a jolt they’ve never had to endure before. These tourists will be gobsmacked by the shock of the familiar as they become just more freckled faces in Ireland’s pale-but-ruddy-cheeked crowd. After spending their whole lives fending off Cousin Kathleen’s bodacious breakfasts and Aunt Aggie’s prayers to the Blessed Mother, they’ll be swarmed by a whole nation of well-wishers who will pile their plates with toast, eggs, and potatoes—and pray to sweet Mary that they’ll see reason, get married, and settle down soon. New visitors will discover that smothering love is not unique to their own families. And Ireland’s love will overwhelm them because it’s as outsized as its rain. Just as they’re adjusting to a whole country loving them in this take-no-prisoners way, tourists of Irish heritage will soon come to realize they’re being ridiculed with equal ferocity. The Irish are mischievous. They really can’t help themselves. In recent years, one group of pranksters flooded tourists with phone messages exhorting them to call “Rory Lion” and “G.Raffe” at a number that turned out to be that of the Dublin Zoo. Other jokers created a website that played panpipe music, mused about Celtic warriors, then urged travelers (in a deep, sonorous brogue) to come to Limerick to enjoy “piebald ponies in their natural environment, as they crash through housing estate fences.” Many of the jokes that the Irish play on their distant cousins involve hoodwinking them at snooker and with taxi fares. Last fall, when the government announced it was creating “The Gathering,” Irish actor Gabriel Byrne said, “most people in Ireland don’t give a shit about the diaspora except to shake them down for a few quid.” Tourism is indeed one of Ireland’s biggest industries, generating 4 percent of its gross domestic product. Hawking countless shillelaghs and shamrock shirts employs 200,000 locals, and lures more annual visitors to Ireland than there are residents on the island. With unemployment at 14 percent, “The Gathering” could give a much-needed boost to Ireland’s flailing economy. Irish in Ireland, no matter how you natives may feel about distant cousins invading your shores—and whether or not you’ll follow your government’s urging and pen letters to overseas relatives in 2013—you’ll need to make some changes if you want “The Gathering” (your latest and one of your most costly tourist schemes) to be a success this St. Patrick’s Day: 1) Try ignoring the fact that visitors of Irish extraction are such a laughable lot. During “The Gathering,” we’ll clutter up your streets in our electric-green outfits and butt into your quiet conversations and ask in our booming voices if you would please direct us to the Celtic gift shop that is seven feet away. We’ll blunder into the wrong toilets when our tour buses drop us (and they will deposit us by the hordes) at the Hill of Tara and the Cliffs of Moher and the Monastery at Glendalough. After all the Guinness we’ll down on our holidays, we really will need to use the bathrooms. But we won’t recognize the words on the doors: mna for women, and fir for men. Your temptation to mock us will crescendo on St. Patrick’s night, when we’ll guzzle green beer and caterwaul “Danny Boy” until we pass out on the confetti-strewn sidewalks while wrapped in your nation’s tricolor flag. What can we say? We’re embarrassing. But when we think of Ireland, we get carried away because it makes us heartbroken, a little angry, and very happy to be alive. 2) As your stand over your snoring, distant cousins and fight the temptation to fetch razors and shave our heads, remember the sad history that brought us to this state. Our ancestors were forced to eat grass and pebbles until starvation ships carried them away during the potato famine of 1845 to 1852. Our forebears also left because they had to flee destitution and political strife that otherwise would have killed them. When we step foot in your country—our home, yet not our home—we feel all the emotions our families have shoved down as they grapple with our terrible history. Our hearts crack open, and we are subsumed by exquisite longing for the old sod. That’s why we’ll become fools and drink to gross excess during “The Gathering” festivities on St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland. 3) Even if you do make mischief and shave our heads, understand that “The Gathering” won’t be the last time you’ll have to deal with us. We, your freckled cousins across the pond, aren’t going away any time soon. We number 70 million to your 5 million. And we’re reproducing like rabbits because we never want famine or fighting to decimate us again. While you have your Seáns and Siobhans, we’re producing vast armies of Shawns and Shavaughns who will flock to Tara, Moher, and Glendalough no matter how fiercely you love and mock the tourists. As your government suggests, you may as well have a laugh and welcome us back. You don’t need to escort us to the Celtic gift shop. We already own enough jaunty caps and woolly mittens. But it would be an invaluable help if you stopped directing us to the wrong bathrooms. Le do thoil. I’m begging you. Please.