Sunday brought us a perfect St. Patrick’s Day – crisp air, blue skies, shining sun. A day full of promise, and rich with tradition – especially here in Boston, home of the famous St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Southie, and home to so many Irish families whose ancestors came here seeking a better life. What a day!
So I thought as my kids and I donned our Irish knit sweaters, shamrock socks and silly hats and treated ourselves to an Uber ride from our home in West Roxbury to the outer edges of the parade route on Dorchester Street. Everyone was excited – and a great day was on tap.
As it turned out, many other things were on tap – namely, beer – and lots of it. Bottles of booze clutched in small, brown bags. Something called Twisted Tea (the name says it all). And while there was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, there certainly was a lot of pot.
Perhaps my shock seems naïve. Certainly, as a kid of Irish descent growing up just outside Boston in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I remember coverage of the parade with a mix of awe and controversy. On one hand were the bagpipes, Irish step dancers, and men and women in sharp uniforms who bravely serve our country and community. On the other was the annual tussle between Boston’s then-burgeoning gay community and the Southie old guard. And yes, a lot of alcohol.
But like Fenway Park, I’d assumed that the parade would have become more family friendly with time without losing what made it special – and that some of the less savory elements would have gone the way of the dodo.
Yeah...No. From packs of drunken revelers on Old Colony Ave and countless people climbing in and out of windows, stumbling down sidewalks or perched on rooftops—all before the parade had even started at 1pm—the 88 citations for public drinking reported by the Boston Police Department seemed a conservative estimate at best. By the end of the parade, on the ride home on the Red Line, my 9-year old was actually covering her ears and looking at me in horror. Visions of leprechauns replaced with the reality of lushes – everywhere.
Irish Americans in Boston deserve better than a thinly-veiled excuse to drink in public and behave poorly. After all, it’s not like we don’t have a lot to celebrate. Many of our ancestors came here in the 19th century in search of a better life. It wasn’t easy. By 1860, two-thirds of all domestic servants in Boston were Irish, mostly women. Men worked hard jobs on the docks or in quarries.
But in return for those opportunities, Irish Americans gave back - serving as police officers, fighting for the Union during the Civil War and serving as nurses on the front lines of war. And they founded schools like Boston College, my alma mater, that prepared people like me to work for some of the region’s most celebrated institutions.
None of which is to say that there wasn’t a gritty side to Boston – or to deny the role Irish Americans played in our city’s ethnic politics. But over the last generation, as this city has become a center of innovation, South Boston and its predominantly Irish community has proved it can not only transform along with it – but actually lead the transformation. Today, the Seaport district in the heart of South Boston has emerged as one of the most dynamic neighborhoods in the city. Mayor Walsh is leading the city into an exciting new era that is as diverse as any time in its history.
That’s the story we should be celebrating. Instead we’re handing out “Drunk Lives Matter” t-shirts. Would any other ethnic group or nationality not only reinforce but actually celebrate negative stereotypes about our own people? It’s hard to imagine they would.
Traditions like the St. Patrick’s Day Parade give our lives meaning, a sense of ritual and even comfort. They should be fun – and even a little boisterous. Instead of celebrating myths about the Irish, next year let’s pay homage to the truth. To our best Irish selves. Let’s show them who we really are.
Eileen O’Connor is a principal at Keyser Public Strategies, a public relations firm in Boston. She’s also a mom and resident of West Roxbury.