Friday, March 15, 2019
March 15, 2019: Irish Americans: Macklemore’s “Irish Celebration”
[March 17th is St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday that is apparently a far bigger deal in the U.S. than in Ireland. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of famous Irish American cultural figures, leading up to a post on some wonderful Irish American literary voices!]
On a song that reinforces and yet also transcends cultural stereotypes.
One of the difficulties of writing a weeklong series focused on an ethnic community (and I would argue that in America at least Irish Americans are more of an ethnic than a national community and perhaps have always been, although that 2020 census question is no less pernicious for that overall trend) is how easy it is to resort to stereotypical or clichéd images and narratives of that community. Even if they seem to align with historical trends, it’s just such a slippery slope to painting an entire community with that broad brush; so for example I decided not to include a post on the New York City Draft Riots because of the stereotypical narrative of Irish Americans as antagonist to African Americans. “The Irish are not known for their fondness for the coloreds” is one of the only lines in Glory that really gripes my cookies, for precisely that reason; indeed they are not, and perhaps the regiment’s overly demanding Irish American drill sergeant was indeed influenced by that broader tendency, but it seems to me that in a film so dedicated to moving beyond cultural stereotypes, there would be other ways to characterize that important figure in the story.
Mackelmore’s “Irish Celebration” (2009), an irresistibly catchy rap song about the artist’s Irish American heritage and family, is far from immune to those issues with stereotypes. In particular, Macklemore rests hard on the image of Irish people as hard-drinkers; the video (the first hyperlink in this paragraph) is largely set in a bar, and the song features lines like “Now with whisky in our veins/Claiming we’re the bravest men” and “Challenge us in football, yeah we might lose/But don’t put us next to a bar stool.” Hell, the chorus itself identifies the entire song as a drinking song, as it includes the repeated phrases “We put our glass to the sky” and “So raise a pint.” Obviously any community has their celebratory times and occasions, and many of those celebrations are linked to alcohol; but in a song that begins with the line “I’m an Irishman,” this central thread of alcohol and drinking seems a bit more culturally defining than it needs to be. Given how much the image of the “drunken Irishman” was tied to anti-Irish and (in the United States) anti-immigrant propaganda, this is a particularly frustrating emphasis to get in a celebratory pro-Irish song from a proudly Irish American artist.
Yet at the same time, Macklemore reveals personal histories in the song that complicate and perhaps even transcend these stereotypical issues. He has struggled for more than a decade with addictions, including alcoholism; he entered rehab in 2008, stayed sober for a few years, relapsed in 2011 (the subject of his 2012 song “Starting Over”), and has been working to remain sober ever since. “Irish Celebration” was released during that initial post-rehab period, and Macklemore references these personal histories directly, writing, “Dad sipped Guinness, I sipped Old English/’Til he sat me down at 16 and said ‘Boy, this is what a beer is’/I put down the drink, couldn’t drink like a gentleman/Doesn’t mean I can’t make a drinking song for the rest of ‘em.” There is of course significant irony in a person trying to stay sober writing a “drinking song,” irony not only for the speaker but perhaps also for the culture associated with alcoholism, and Macklemore is clearly aware of and engaging with those ironies. Yet you could also argue that by noting the possibility of alcohol being something more positive, part of a communal celebration rather than an ethnic slur, Macklemore is working to reclaim this oft-maligned element of both his own identity and his heritage. At the very least, he’s thinking through these personal and cultural issues, as he so often does.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other Irish Americans you’d highlight?