We should be tough enough to take Mayor Bloomberg's joke

The other night Mayor Bloomberg jokingly called us - Irish /Irish-Americans - a bunch of drunks. Some people were offended; some were outraged. As for me, I'll give him a pass. In fact, in some ways I admire his attempt at reasserting one of my favorite aspects of New York: the way two rival ethnic groups can respect each other and indulge in (understood) light-hearted stereotyping.

The context matters. The Mayor wasn't speaking at a press conference or even issuing an annoyed or angry off-the-cuff comment. He wasn't at a dinner honoring Jewish (or Italian or Russian or Hispanic) New Yorkers.

He was at an Irish event that he had been invited to. It was an event organized by the American Irish Historical Society, an organization that celebrates the Irish contribution to America.

I'm sure the Mayor was comfortable at such a relaxed occasion and assessed the gathering as successful, confident people proud of their Irish heritage, secure enough to take a little ribbing from someone they all know respects them. Unfortunately he was wrong.

John Dunleavy, Chairman of the St. Patrick's Day Parade, said Bloomberg, "wouldn't make a joke about any other ethnic group." You know what? Dunleavy might well be right, but so what? Bloomberg's blooper merely shows that he thought (a) the Irish could take it because their success belies the basis of the stereotype and (b) that the audience in front of him would know he meant nothing malicious.

It would have been far better had Dunleavy or someone else in the audience responded in that witty, sarcastic manner that is (or used to be?) our stock in trade.

The college I went to was almost evenly split between the Irish and Italians. We used to say all sorts of things to each other, the types of things that would probably have you in front of an anti-bullying tribunal today. But none of it was real. It didn't mean a thing and didn't stop us being friends. Good friends. Best man at each others' weddings sort of friends. It was only fun and we all knew it.

When I worked downtown I used to engage in this sort of banter with Jewish colleagues. I loved it there too, even though it was a little different than it was with my Italian college friends.

It is an aspect of life in Ireland that I miss about life in New York: this good-natured ethnic give and take among friends, colleagues and peers.

The Jews and the Irish in New York have been rubbing up against each for 150+ years, from the stinking ghettos all the way to the top of New York's business, legal, financial and political spheres. Sure there has been aggravation and bad blood between them at times, but today the two groups look eye-to-eye at one another at the top of the pile. It's a relationship of equals, which is why Bloomberg would feel he could make such a joke at the expense of the Irish.

I have to admit I'm not a big fan of the Mayor. He's too much of an old fussbudget for me. I would normally be be happy to see him brought down a peg, especially slipping on an Irish banana skin.

Yet the reaction to the Mayor's little joke doesn't make me happy at all. Actually it makes me a bit sad to think that these little jokes are no longer 'allowed' in New York.

The Mayor's transgression was less than Ronan Tynan's (not knowing his audience) and I thought the reaction to him was far too severe. New Yorkers used to have a thicker skin, but nowadays everyone's too darn sensitive. It's time to toughen up and that includes the Irish.

{Photo: Mayor Bloomberg at the unveiling Ireland's national monument to the Fighting 69th in Ballymote, Co. Sligo in 2006.}

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