Historical Happenings for April 2018

Paddy

by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

By Nheyob - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39732088The name Patrick is one of the most popular names in Ireland, and that is quite understandable that parents would name their offspring after our patron saint.  In the Irish language, the name is spelled Padraic, which accounts for the nickname Paddy, and there’s nothing wrong with that, as Paddy Noonan and Paddy Moloney will tell you.  However, when an otherwise innocent word is used as a derogatory term to denigrate an entire race or nationality, it becomes a racial slur.

There is nothing wrong with `negro‘, the French word for black; and not all of our black brethren came from Nigeria, but the collective term, derived from either or both of those words, which was used to denote an entire race is an example of prejudice at its worst and insults our God-given intelligence.  Even sadder is when some members of the insulted nationality use that term themselves in ignorance of its meaning, or to impress those who employ them or for their own economic benefit.

Thankfully, anti-defamation groups within many nationalities have eliminated most of those terms from our national vocabulary by voicing objections to their use, whenever and wherever they appear, even when it’s not intended as an insult.  It was simply a process of education.

There was a time when all Irish were collectively referred to as Paddies, and it wasn’t always a nickname for Patrick used by a friend.  Just ask any Irishman who emigrated to England.  Mick is another term that was used.  It originated because so many Irish carried Mc (a Gaelic term meaning `son of ) as a preface to their names.  Even though the words, Paddy and Mick, are not unusual, the use of those terms in a derogatory manner made them a racial slur that carried the connotation that those whom it described were inferior.  It was associated with a stereo-typical character, unskilled, unlettered, and alcoholic.  As in most cases it was not the word that offended, but the stereotype that it represented.

Here in America, we are many years and many miles from the source of those terms, but that stereotypical `stage Irishman’ crossed the seas and almost became a part of our American culture.  In the early 1800s Irishmen were regularly portrayed with monkey-like features in Harper’s Magazine.  Fortunately, that has changed, and I dare say that no one intends an insult when they refer to March 17 as Paddy’s Day, nor do they know that it originally meant a day celebrated by the Paddies.  Otherwise who would advertise a Paddy’s Day Dance and expect a good attendance by the Irish.  Like other races that have fought the use of such terms, the Irish defeated the derogatory meaning by proving their worth in the lands where they settled, as well as in Ireland after Independence.  As for the unskilled, unlettered, alcoholic stage Irish image: museums around the world, hosting exhibitions of creative Celtic and Irish art, have helped to defeat the notion of unskilled; the fact that one Irish city has produced more Nobel Prizewinners in literature than most other countries, has defeated the impression of illiteracy; and recent EEC surveys show Ireland to have not only the highest percentage non-drinking population in Europe, but the second lowest nation for alcohol consumption with only 2.2 gallons per year.  Maybe we can document that we never deserved to be known as Paddies, but the stereotypical Stage Irishman unfortunately can still be found from time to time, often on St. Patrick’s Day cards.

While we have altered the meaning of Paddy as it is applied to Irishmen, there are still two issues we should oppose — and oppose vehemently.  One is the use of that stereotypical stage Irish image on signs, posters, and greeting cards; the other is the application of the term Paddy to our Patron Saint.  Even if no malicious meaning is intended, our patron saint should not be referred to by a nickname.  Our Italian brethren never call St. Anthony, St. Tony, nor do our Scottish cousins refer to St. Andy or St. Maggie.

To avoid sounding paranoid, I hasten to add that this practice is done more through ignorance than malice, so it calls for education.  If we hold St. Patrick in the reverent honor to which he is entitled, then let us protect his name, and let those who designate him as St. Paddy hear from us by mail or phone or in person.  Educate them to our feelings, and they will avoid that mistake in the future.  If we are effective, we shall never again see the insulting image of a bumbling drunk to represent us and our families, and we shall never hear the term St. Paddy’s Day again. . . As for the term Paddies itself, it should be a source of pride that we were able to change its meaning simply by exhibiting our true character.  It’s like the term Narrowback: originally a derogatory term to signify American-born Irish who were not as strong and as broad-shouldered as their immigrant fathers.  Today, it signifies the proud combination of American by birth and Irish by the Grace of God.