Coronavirus isn’t the only nasty thing spreading itself around the world these days. A prominent person from my own backyard is just the latest person to exhibit severe symptoms of what you might call Irish American Shame Syndrome.
“I know nothing about my Irish heritage,” Brian J. Laline wrote recently. “The reason was pretty simple...the Irish people in the neighborhood where I grew up...were pretty narrow-minded. They were bigots. And sadly, that included people in my own family.”
Recalling his days growing up on Staten Island, Laline added, “If this is what it means to be Irish, I thought to myself back then, I want no part of it.”
For decades, Laline has been a writer and editor at The Staten Island Advance, a daily newspaper that holds a position of such prominence in the New York City borough where I grew up that, for some inexplicable reason, locals have their own special pronunciation: AD-vance, rather than ad-VANCE.
In the wake of yet another round of screaming about gays and lesbians marching in Staten Island’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, Laline wrote a column saying (as The Irish Post put it) “he is ashamed of his heritage because Irish people are bigoted.”
To employ an old Irish saying: Oy vey!
It’s not that I don’t empathize with Laline. I grew up on Staten Island, lived there for four decades.
Let’s just say I don’t worry about bumping into too many James Joyce scholars there. It’s a truth universally acknowledged -- the meathead quotient on Staten Island is high.
The problem is that by connecting the narrow-mindedness he bemoans with Irishness, Laline becomes just the latest person to let the meatheads win. Rather than spend 30 seconds perusing Google and locating a wide array of more open-minded Irish folks, Laline has decided that because he -- like me -- knew loudmouthed jerks with names like O’Keefe and O’Brien, well, that’s that.
Which is not to say Laline is entirely wrong. You can’t ignore all those Irish names on Fox News, or in the Trump White House.
The hard truth, though, is that people like Laline are actually (if unintentionally) responsible for what seems like an epidemic of Irish American blowhards.
When otherwise intelligent people give up on what it means to be Irish (or anything else) simply because the voices being heard are the loud ones, you’re doing nothing to turn the volume down.
Worse, there’s an icky element of pandering here. “Oh, smart and chic people! I’m not like Hannity or O’Reilly! Really, I’m better than that! I renounce my shameful upbringing!”
This is what snobby nativists have wanted Irish Americans to say for centuries now. One reason so many Irish Americans are free to sound like old-timey, anti-Catholic bigots is because people have stopped reminding them about, you know, old-timey, anti-Catholic bigots.
Just last week, The New York Times ran an article by Siobhan Burke outlining the former dancer’s “uneasy mix of affection and anxiety, embarrassment and pride” about once having performed in Riverdance.
Let me get this straight. For nearly five years, this woman performed dazzling physical feats in a world-famous show...and she has mixed feelings?
The problem is not how Burke feels. It’s how the broader culture feels, deciding that certain things are sophisticated and certain things are not.
This is why you will never see anything in the Times about a person feeling shameful about an art form with distinct roots in a colonized and impoverished culture. Unless that culture is Irish.
So, it becomes tempting to slough off anything with even a hint of Lucky Charms -- or Catholic homophobia.
That’s one option. Another would be to demand a little bit of nuance from “woke” folk, and remind them that for every blowhard and bigot with an Irish name, there are poets and laborers and rabble-rousers who’ve made the world a better place on both sides of the Atlantic.
To forget that would be the real shame.