The Irish are lucky to have a holiday to celebrate their culture, but why is it that St. Patrick's Day has come down to mean bar lines forming at 8 a.m., green beer and Irish drinking and fighting songs?
Many of these alleged "songs from the sod" were written in the late 1800s by Broadway songwriters, most of whom never lived in Ireland and knew nothing about the haunting tradition of lilting--which goes far beyond too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ra--but were eager to make a buck on homesick immigrants.
Traditional Celtic bands in the Washington-Baltimore area, who hardly consider this music Irish, are asked every St. Patrick's Day to compromise their repertoires and stand for hours playing the same three-chord drinking songs. They run the risk of losing their limbs--or musical instruments--if they don't adhere to the 19th request for "Wild Rover," or "The Wearing of the Green."
The joke among folk musicians--who don't even play Irish music the rest of the year--is that they must learn one set of drinking songs, bill the group as "Irish" and play the same set throughout St. Patrick's Day and night. It's a good way to make a lot of money. And, goes the rationale, the customers won't know the difference anyway.
Meanwhile, my lonely campaign goes on. I'm pushing for the time when those celebrating St. Patrick's Day do know the difference and have the chance to hear traditional Irish music performed by local groups in pubs and concerts all over the city.
And the day when one of the three networks, instead of covering another St. Patrick's Day parade, does an in-depth special on the contributions of those who made the Emerald Isle the literary giant that it is. What joy to watch broadcast time devoted to William Butler Yeats, Sean O'Casey, Brendan Behan, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Edna O'Brien, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Flann O'Brien!
Instead of repeating year-after-year the same tired story--interviews with green-clad revelers at the same Irish pubs--how about doing a remote from a Chieftains concert, or talking to Derek Bell about origins of the Celtic harp?
I have considered asking the FCC if there is a protection clause in which equal time must be provided: For every media story about green beer and raucous Irish drinking songs, there must be one about the intricacies of Irish step dancing.
My Cuban husband, a cameraman for a Hispanic media organization dedicated to altering stereotypes of Latinos, insists I have an almost impossible task ahead, unless I get network airtime. He is personally fighting the idea that all Cubans talk like Ricky Ricardo. Because of his fair skin, green eyes and light hair, interviewees invariably register surprise when he shows up for assignments after announcing himself as Carlos Alberto Gonzalez.
Blacks, Hispanics and American Indians have done a lot to obliterate stereotypes in the last few decades. It is time for the Irish to step forward and banish the notion that the land of our forefathers means little more than green elves and dark hops.
I want to see the day when audiences yell out, "Play a tune from the Bothy Band," or "Do you know a Paul Brady or Paddy Tunney song?" Or, when we turn on Channel 7, there is a March 17th story on the Gaelic League.
Or "Irish" radio broadcasts more than blarney stories, silly drinking ditties and IRA rousers. Or when our band is not inundated with calls two weeks before St. Patrick's Day asking if we can play "Real Irish music, you know, 'Danny Boy' and 'Cockles & Mussles,' " endearing as those songs may be.
This request for the same old tunes is the most disheartening because our quartet--and others--tour year-long at festivals, college campuses and listening pubs, performing traditional Irish music of our choice: poignant ballads, a cappella sean nos (a centuries-old form of Celtic singing) with harmonies, dance tunes in which one can actually hear the counterpoint between bouzouki and mandolin.
Irish Americans are rightfully proud of their heritage. I urge the media to give the public a chance to know why. The stories are out there. Maybe not as obvious as block-long lines dressed in green, but far more captivating and representative.
Ivy Harper is leader of "The Hags," a Washington-based traditional Irish vocal and instrumental group.