Renfrew County's largest paid circulation newspaper
Renfrew County's largest paid circulation newspaper
Mea Culpa; Mea Maxima Culpa
By Niall McArdle
I understand that some people in the Ottawa Valley are upset with me over an article I wrote for The Irish Times website about the St Patrick’s Day Parade in Douglas. I have been rather busy and have not been on the Internet much, so I did not even know people didn't like it. I found out over the Easter weekend when Charlotte returned to the Valley to visit her father. I’d been wondering why I was getting so many strange looks; I assumed it was because of the beard!
I would like to take this opportunity to explain my motivation in writing the piece, and to apologize to anyone if they were offended.
I have lived in Eganville for several years, but this was my first time to spend St Patrick’s Day in Douglas. I went not knowing what to expect, other than the fact it would be a party and there would probably be leprechauns. Any town that has as its motto “Home of the Leprechauns” is going to err on the side of kitsch on St. Patrick’s Day, as would many other Irish communities across the globe.
And there were indeed leprechauns. Lots of them. And shamrocks. The inventiveness and ridiculous good humour of some of the floats was very impressive. And let me say this: There is just as much chance that I would have seen leprechauns and shamrocks and pots of gold and harps in a similar parade in an Irish town.
On the day of the parade, The Irish Times website published an article of mine where I begged Irish emigrants to use St Patrick’s Day to crush ancient negative stereotypes of the Irish.
There are two historical derogatory racial slurs against the Irish worth noting: the Drunken Paddy and the Fighting Paddy. The bigotry went like this: If an Irishman wasn’t busy drinking, he was busy fighting. This prejudice existed practically everywhere the Irish settled. The police van was disparagingly called a “Paddywagon” because it was assumed either all the cops were Irish or all the people sitting in the back of it were Irish.
Sadly, these stereotypes continue: On St Patrick’s Day I listened to a radio report on a hockey game; two players dropped their gloves. The sports reporter jokingly described it as “an Irish fist-fight”.
It is with this in mind that my perspective -- that of a modern Irish immigrant -- is perhaps different from the rest of the crowd enjoying the parade in Douglas. The day after, what stuck in my mind were two images that I doubt you would ever see in a parade in Ireland. A bathtub full of booze called ‘the Irish medicine cabinet’ and a ‘Paddywagon’: the two negative stereotypes discussed above.
In Ireland, these stereotypes are considered hurtful and stem from centuries of colonial bigotry. I know that the people who worked on those floats did not mean to cause any offence. I know it was done as a laugh. I’m sure it did not occur to them that someone might be bewildered rather than amused.
In case your readers think I am being too thin-skinned, I am going to ask that they imagine a scene. A multicultural parade that celebrates the many peoples that make up the mosaic of Canada. The floats pass by. The first is the Chinese, and it’s a laundry/opium den. Next is the German, and it’s a squadron of goose-stepping Nazis. Then comes the Italian, and it’s a mafia don eating spaghetti. After that is the Jewish float, and it’s two rabbis fighting over a penny. After that is the Native float, and it’s a drunken Native with a bottle of “firewater”. The next float is the French-Canadian float: there are no people, just two huge piles, one of cans of pea soup, the other of bottles of Pepsi. And so on.
Not one of those is a fair or accurate depiction of any of those groups, is it? And they’re all offensive, aren’t they? The drunken, fighting Irish stereotype is of the same ilk for me and my fellow countrymen.
An Irish friend who lives in New York posted on his Facebook page that in bars across the city they serve something called an “Irish Car Bomb”, and some people could not understand why that name would offend him. I have no idea what sort of drink an “Irish Car Bomb” is, but let me assure you: nobody from Ireland or Britain would find it faintly amusing to be offered one. Thankfully, to my knowledge it is not served at the Douglas Tavern.
Every piece I have sent The Irish Times has been subject to editing. It is unfortunate that some of the truly positive things I had to say about Douglas did not make it into the article. I spent the afternoon enjoying the music and the dancing, and I think it’s remarkable – and very Canadian – that the entertainers soldiered on in spite of the fact that they were shivering in the cold. I also thought it charming that the men’s room in the Douglas Tavern has graffiti of Irish blessings rather than the usual crude comments you see scrawled in public toilets.
I also wrote the article fast as I wished to make a deadline. As a result, my opinion was not carefully worded. I apologize to the good people of Douglas and to the owners of the Douglas Tavern for any upset this caused. Everyone in Douglas should be rightly proud of the fact that people come from far and wide to join in the fun for St Patrick’s Week.
And the fun got to me. While I was at the Tavern I did sing along to the music, and I am not usually the sing-along type!
It is remarkable that Douglas, a tiny hamlet, draws people from all over, and I know that there is a very strong sense of community and tremendous charity work done there, and I know that the Douglas Tavern is a hub for many charitable events. I did not mean to disparage the community. It is unfortunate that the article was edited in a way that might have given that impression.
I submitted several photos of the parade to The Irish Times, including a lovely picture of a miniature horse-drawn carriage, which is the one they chose to use. Someone asked if it could be removed; it has now been taken down.
Was I too harsh in my opinion of certain parts of the parade? Perhaps. But this was an opinion piece for an Irish newspaper, and my fresh off the boat Irish point of view is probably always going to be different than a Canadian one.
I suppose it's possible another native Irish person visiting Douglas would have a different view on the parade. Ireland is a small but complicated country; there are four million people, so in a sense there are four million ways to be Irish.
Perhaps people think I am just being ridiculously sensitive, but in different parts of the world I have been called a Paddy and a Mick many times, and it’s seldom been “in good fun”.
I’ve never been on the receiving end of any of that sort of abuse in the Ottawa Valley, incidentally, which is one reason why I love it here so much. I know that for the people of Douglas the parade was “all in good fun”, as are St. Patrick’s Day parades all over the world.
Which is precisely why I mentioned the Irish Gathering in Killaloe in my article. I did not even know about it until I saw their float, so I looked it up the next day. I think what they have planned is wonderful: a celebration of the Irish experience in the Ottawa Valley, and it is a chance to explore Irish heritage in a way that is radically different from St Patrick’s Day. St. Patrick’s Day is, for the most part, about people all over the world wearing green and being “Irish” for a day.
The Irish Gathering in Killaloe is a chance for the Ottawa Valley to show -- in depth -- a vital aspect of its history. It’s not about being Irish for a day. It’s about what it means to be a part of the Irish Diaspora, to celebrate all aspects of the Canadian Irish immigrant experience, to highlight the hardships and triumphs. It is also an opportunity for Ottawa Valley Irish-Canadians to connect with the Gathering in Ireland. I emailed the organizers in Killaloe and suggested that they invite the Irish ambassador to attend.
What is more, I think the Irish Gathering in Killaloe should become an annual event, similar to the Pow Wow in Golden Lake or the Polish and Kashub celebrations in Wilno. And don’t forget, the Polish ambassador attended the event in Wilno, precisely because it’s a culturally significant event. Do you think he would go if it included an evening of derogatory Polish jokes? I don’t think so.
I hope that this letter explains my perspective. I understand that people in Douglas might be angry at me. If they now hate me and do not wish to talk to me, then sadly, I will have to live with that. Some people will prefer if I do not go to the Irish Gathering in Killaloe. I know not to go where I am not wanted, and so I will stay away. I do sincerely wish them every success.
I did not write the piece to gain a Twitter following, as some suggest. I really don't care how many people follow me on Twitter. I would rather be true to who I am than liked.
Again, I apologize if my opinions upset people. I hope that this apology is accepted in the spirit in which it is offered.
I have lived in this community for ten years and have always been struck by the warmth of the people, and how they have welcomed me even though I am “from away”. I know them to be forgiving too. I hope and trust that this is still the case.
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