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May 19, 2019

Go ahead, appropriate Ireland’s culture on St. Patrick’s Day — the Irish don’t mind, and neither should you

March 15, 2019
A group of teenagers take shots of alcohol on the sidelines of the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade along 5th Ave. on March 17, 2018 in New York City. (Stephanie Keith / Getty Images)

I’m not a big St. Patrick’s Day person. You’d think with my name I’d be all about green beer. Truth is, I’m adopted, and only fractionally Irish, but in our age of constant ululation that somebody’s culture has been appropriated, the Irish are most instructive.

They do not care that Vinny from Little Italy and college sophomore Kveller from Long Island drape themselves in Ireland’s flag every March 17 and blast Pogues songs.

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Just as Irish people mount no real objection to mascots like the louche leprechaun the Celtics feature — a fellow who looks like he’s about to blackjack you for your last $20 bill — or Notre Dame’s pugnacious sprite, with his bedraggled aspect of having just tumbled from a bar fight.

The Irish don’t care much if you glom on to their culture. And while you’re probably not going to lift a page from “Finnegans Wake” and pen your version of a postmodern novel, you should rip this particular lesson from the Irish book of life: Cultures are there for us to partake of. If you stick solely with yours, if you never try anybody else’s on, you’re going to be one myopic person. You could end up a xenophobe, or, worse, someone who polices these matters like that traffic cop in “Frosty” who is always bellowing “Stop!”

So: Appropriate! Incorporate. Add to your life’s mosaic. Get into a culture’s art. Music. Fashion. Cuisine. Culture is like clay. It’s something we stick our hands deep into, pulling up fistfuls, feeling that cool, space-filling richness, how it plays against our bodies, the ideas it suggests in our minds for what we might make with it.

I think the Irish have welcomed what we call appropriation — but which they would call exploration — because they know their culture offers so much in the way of liberating a person’s mind, their spirit, the hold of the past for the surge to the future.

I started listening to the Dubliners, which got me into Planxty, which moved me to writers like Brendan Behan and Flann O’Brien.

I laughed and learned, pondered and grew. I piled those books high, cranked that music loud. I didn’t get a shamrock tattooed on my neck — still saving up the funds for that (the Irish are funny!) — but I felt no compunction in plunging as fervently headlong into Russian culture, English culture, Mexican culture, French culture. Yeah, I’ll take all of that, it makes me me. Third-party chemistry doesn’t make me me. I do.

Why would anyone want to stop this? Is it taking something from you? Is it cheapening your life? This is not usurping, it’s imagination-enhancing. You need to appropriate — experience — in order to create art. Otherwise, you’re just talking about your narrow circle. To live well — richly, fully — is artful humanizing. You are not going anywhere if you make your life choices on what you can experience and what others can experience because of some deoxyribonucleic acid and geography totally not of your choosing. Don’t you want to decide what your life is going to be about?

Consider Joyce’s “Ulysses.” What’s the chief theme? Mentally perambulating. Becoming more of a person by entering fulsomely into the lives of others. Disparate others. Sure, it’s an Irish book. It unfolds in Dublin. But it’s a life book. It’s equally relevant to everybody above ground. Throw the long shadow, cast the wide net, keep moving, it says. Leap and love. The Irish value where they come from because they know there are no limits in where they can go.

When Shane MacGowan, songwriter for the Pogues, asked his dad where he came from, his father — the Irish, again, being funny — said that he came out of his, well, member. In other words, who cares?

Appropriate the hell out of everything in this life. You are a tiled mosaic, not a bland beam of color from a roller. You make you you, and so do your experiences and what you find in yourself from the places where you’ve flung yourself and found accordance, sense, direction. Drink hearty to that. And sic that pugnacious leprechaun on anyone who tries to restrict you and tell you otherwise.

Fleming writes on culture.

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