Mind and Body/Opinion

Erin go bragh

Honoring being of Irish descent without having to drink

Photo courtesy of Katherine Linwood

Katherine Linwood, author of a regular column in ConvergenceRI on sobriety, "The Bright Side."

By Katherine ‘Katy’ Linwood
Posted 3/18/24
Katy Linwood discusses her dislike of the way that St. Patrick’s Day has been appropriated into a commercial celebration of alcohol excess.
Who are the Irish writers who have broken free of the curse of drinking too much? How will the recent efforts to come to grips with Bristol’s slave-trading heritage be celebrated during this year’s Fourth of July parade? What is the connection between domestic violence and alcohol abuse and gun violence? How can we change how we talk about our cultural patterns of bad behavior that are ingrained into family traditions?
The Irish poet Seamus Heaney, writing about The Troubles in 1975, coined a memorable turn of phrase that captured the reticence of talking about the violence, and the wisdom that came from saying nothing. “Where to be saved you only must save face,” Heaney wrote. “And whatever you say, you say nothing.”
The poem emerged from Heaney’s brief encounter with an English journalist in search of views “on the Irish thing.”
I don’t know if English teachers in Rhode Island public schools teach the poems of Heaney, I suspect not. We may live in a bilingual world where English is a second language, but I also suspect that the English teachers do not teach their students anything from Pablo Neruda or Cesar Vallejo. What a shame. Or, for that matter, Chinua Achebe.
We need to talk about sobriety, in public, at St. Paddy’s day parades.

PROVIDENCE – I really don’t like St. Patrick’s Day. And, I have a few thoughts about that.

Recently, I took a 23andMe genetics test. It showed that I am 88 percent Irish – and there’s so much pride that comes with my heritage.

They include: memories of my grandmother telling us about her mother, Monica, an Irish immigrant, who moved to Boston to seek out a better life. Gaelic music on car rides. Many specific prayers for different occasions – calling on Angels Gabriel and Michael for road trips, Saint Anthony for lost items, Jesus Mary and Joseph in moments of surprise, God himself when my grandfather fell ill. Waterford crystal everything.

My grandmother talked about the Emerald Isle fondly. Irish butter was THE only option. The Catholic Church’s presence was in every nook and cranny of her home.

I remember her referring to alcohol as ‘The Drink,’ and she never touched it. Her father and brother died of cirrhosis; she first lost her father as a young girl and then lost her brother as an adult.

Genetic predisposition.  
Something that I also carry with me is a genetic predisposition for alcohol abuse.

“Considerable evidence suggests that genetic factors influence the risk of these disorders [alcohol dependence and drug dependence], with heritability estimates of 50 percent and higher,” according to a recent article published in Alcohol Research and Health.

Translated, your genes can increase your risk for alcohol abuse; they can play a major role in how your body metabolizes the substance.

Of my family tree that I know about to this point, it’s choked with mental health struggles and alcohol use. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it a thousand times: where you find substance abuse, you will likely find a root cause of mental hurt – and the user reaching for the easiest way to make it stop.

I have so much empathy for my ancestors who lived in a time when mental health wasn’t a concept, much less something to address or talk about. I love them, and I get them on a cellular level.

A family tree filled with laughter, love  
My family tree is also filled with lots of laughter and love – people who worked hard and lived honestly; people who sought out education and opportunities at every turn.

Dark humor, a love of the written word, and quick commentary are some of the strongest and best traits that characterize my lineage.

As someone who is so Irish, this is why I dislike the modern-day version of St. Patrick’s Day. It often feels like watching my heritage being reduced to a gross caricature. It’s commercializing a generational curse, placing it through the spin cycle of capitalism and churning out a hollow version of what being Irish is all about. It’s selling out a rich culture for a cheap gain.

Ireland is – and its people are – beautiful and irreverent. I am proud of our history and culture. The Irish are known for being friendly, irreverent, self-deprecating and funny, with a strong sense of community.

We have a deep history of great writers and poets and actors. Ireland is one of the loudest decriers of colonial struggles in the world, and much of that can be traced back to our own history of occupation and violence.

Which reminds me: I still can’t believe that you can walk into a bar and order a drink called an “Irish Car Bomb.” The name refers to the fact that the IRA [a paramilitary group that sought to end British occupation in Northern Ireland] used car bombs as weapons during escalating violence involving Catholic communities and the Protestant-controlled government during the “Troubles.”

More specifically, the drink’s name refers to Bloody Friday, a day in 1972 when more than 20 car bombs were detonated in Belfast. Can you even?

I’m proud of all that’s reflected in my Irish heritage. Yet glorifying alcohol over-consumption in the name of Ireland is lifeless and insulting, in my opinion. Reducing my people to a day of binge drinking is lazy and boring. It’s exploiting pain for profit.

And, for God’s sake, we don’t need more of that in the world. Instead, I suggest you watch some good Irish standup and have some delicious potatoes with Kerrygold. Because that’s one stereotype I’m not mad about.

Katherine ‘Katy’ Linwood writes a monthly column on sobriety, “The Bright Side.” For ConvergenceRI. Connect with her on IG@katherine.linwood

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