Humans of New York, the highly popular photo blog by Brandon Stanton featuring people he encounters on the streets of the city, posted an image yesterday that had layers upon layers of relevance. In addition to prompting widespread and, for the most part, thoughtful online discussion about civil rights, tolerance, and addiction, it also cut to the heart of many truths, ideas and misconceptions about Irishness.
The photo captures a man – later identified as Patrick Dougher – standing with his bike on a Brooklyn street. The accompanying quote (Stanton usually asks the people he photographs a few questions and pairs part of the conversation with the photo) reads, “My dad was just a working class Irish dude. He drank himself to death when I was fifteen, but he was a good dad when he was sober. I remember him taking me to a gay wedding on Christopher Street to teach me tolerance. And that was back in 1971.”
There’s so much there from the get-go. The understanding that has probably come with time, the matter-of-fact pain in the words “he was a good dad when he was sober,” and the light-years ahead lesson in tolerance. There’s also the Irishness.
After being posted on Facebook for just seven hours, the post has already amassed over 95,000 “likes” and nearly 1,000 comments. When the photo was first posted, a number of comments read “Irish?” “Irish huh I wouldn’t have guessed that,” read another, while still another remarked, “He is the least Irish looking person iv [sic] seen in a while.”
The Internet is quite frequently a strange and angry place, but confusion like this, if genuine, was especially perplexing in a country where the elected leader comes from a bi-racial family. If snide, it felt particularly low on a day meant for honoring one of the most important civil rights leaders in history. As happens online, in a matter of seconds other commenters pounced. “People commenting about ‘how can his dad be Irish if he's black’ are so ignorant...” wrote one, an opinion echoed by many others.
Elsewhere in the comment feed, some got caught up in speculation about the man’s maternal and paternal heritage, and whether he was adopted, while a few others offered theories about the “black Irish” and the Spanish Armada.
Read more: Who were the Black Irish, and what is their story?
One poster writing from the University of Limerick expressed hope that “Irish people in Ireland see this post. So much diversity in NY. We could all learn a great deal of acceptance from it.
The subject of the Irish and alcohol also came up, both as a stereotype and as a self-evident truth.
Yet for a significant number, those who were focusing on Dougher’s ethnicity and culture were missing the heart of the matter entirely: the lesson of tolerance.
“He went to an ‘unconventional’ wedding in the 70's....that was the dude's main point. Being sidelined by his race, origin, ethnicity, is the work of a narrow mind. This dude was way ahead of the learning curve of 'basic' tolerance. Good on his dad, despite his own personal challenges,” read one such comment.
“I am glad he sees the good parts of his dad and has learned a lot from him. Being an alcoholic doesn't make you a bad person, but it does create a lot of chaos and misery,” said another.
Eventually, Dougher himself chimed in:
“Just to bring some clarity and light to this comment stream (and I am grateful for all)... My dad was 1st generation Irish-American.. He was "black Irish" in that he was a white man with black hair and dark eyes.. My mom is African-American... They met in Bed-Stuy in the early 60's... I am the product of their union...it is very appropriate that my photo was posted on MLK day... I was a child of the civil rights movement and I was taught to 'never judge others by their race, religion or sexual orientation but by the quality of their character' I have passed this teaching to my son..Peace[.]”
So many things intersect in his photo, in the conversation it provoked, and in Dougher's story and that of his family. But from an Irish point of view, the words of one commenter summed it up well, and simply:
“What an awesome HONY [Humans of New York] . . . and so great to see a story illustrating that us Irish are more than what you think you know. What a guy[.]”