I was taken aback. The term, which I’d encountered in a 1960s comic novel, had struck me as funny; it had never occurred to me to think of it as a real slur, once applied to real people, including my family.
The only anti-Irish discrimination I’d ever encountered personally involved an elderly guest at a Catskills hotel where I was working as a maid for the summer. For some reason, she kept calling me “Millie,” and when another guest pointed out that this wasn’t my name, the woman looked right at me and said “Oh, we always changed the names of our Irish maids. The Irish never seem to care about things like that.”
I confess I was more pleased than dismayed. I had a romantic disposition, and hearing such blatant bigotry about myself was a bit like unexpectedly finding everyone around you dolled up in full Victorian costume.
But my father had been a young man in 1950s Boston, when disdaining the Irish was far from anachronistic. People had stopped arguing that we weren’t really white, but if you tried to break out of your ethnic enclave, you found a surprising number of places where you were considered a race apart.
Prejudice was not as virulent then as it had been a century or even a decade earlier; soon after my father entered college, John F. Kennedy was elected president despite the whispers of papal fealty. But still, you knew it was out there. You would sometimes meet it, and if you grew up with that knowledge, “mackerel snapper” isn’t very funny.
I’ve been reflecting on the distance between my father’s youth and mine thanks to the Republican National Committee. If you haven’t yet heard, the RNC commemorated St. Patrick’s Day by tweeting a mugshot of Beto O’Rourke, the newly declared Democratic presidential candidate, from his 1998 arrest (later dismissed) for driving while intoxicated. The RNC had crudely Photoshopped a green top hat onto his head and added the legend: “Please drink responsibly.” The text of the tweet: “On this St. Paddy’s Day, a special message from noted Irishman Robert Francis O’Rourke.”
Many commentators, right and left, treated the episode as evidence of the GOP’s anti-Irish bigotry. It seems doubtful that the tweet was intended that way, since Irish American voters now make up an important part of the GOP coalition. Presumably, the GOP was actually trying to tweak O’Rourke over his youthful DWI, while also pointing out that despite using a nickname popular among Latinos, Beto himself isn’t Hispanic.
So we should take a moment to note that this was, for us, a good sign: Anti-Irish bigotry is now so alien to most Americans that it no longer occurs to them to think of us as a minority group who might suffer from stereotyping. This lack of delicacy justifiably irks those who actually faced down those prejudices — but it is probably the price of raising a generation who has never heard an anti-Catholic or anti-Irish slur used in earnest by someone who mattered.
One could easily argue that this was less a moment for Irish Americans to get mad than to turn to our parents and say “Well done.” So, why didn’t we? Perhaps because it’s not always easy to let go of old bigotries, even when you’re their victim.
When we measure the strides we’ve made since my father was growing up, we should also note what we were walking away from: the specialness of being Irish, not in the sense of being better but of being something specific and unique and, alas, impossible to adequately describe in a 750-word column.
That unique community and character was bred in neighborhoods that were long kept intact by redlining and other discriminatory practices. When the discrimination abated, so did the neighborhoods. As our neighborhoods and our hyphens disappear, successive generations are losing that iron tether to our ancestral Irish culture, and the somewhat different thing it became in America.
I don’t regret never having heard “mackerel snapper” used unironically. And yet some things I do regret losing are inextricably tied to those words and others like them. Because while that prejudice was taking so many things away, it was also giving something back, something that’s now slipping through our fingers: the gift of being Irish.