Today is St. Patrick’s Day. The majority of Canadians, regardless of their ethnicity, will pretend to be Irish today. Most will wear green. Some, alas, will drink beer dyed green. I am not Irish, although some of my ancestors were, if you go back far enough. Others were Scots, Welsh or English. I am none of those things. I am Canadian.
I do not say that out of patriotic pride, and I’m not in the least ashamed of the cultures and countries my ancestors hailed from. But they came so long ago now, I have no claim to their cultures. My Irish ancestors, for example, emigrated here sometime in the 18th or 19th centuries. I’m not even sure which. Was it my maternal grandmother’s parents or grandparents who sailed across the Atlantic? Or was it their parents, or their grandparents? I don’t know. I’ve heard that the Irishness, or at least the Catholicism, still clung to my great-grandmother, who I never met, but my own grandmother had no hint of it. My mother, her sister and brothers had none, either.
Similarly, on my father’s side of the family. Tradition has it that my grandfather’s roots were in Scotland. But he was born in Nova Scotia, with an English name (albeit one that is not uncommon in Scotland), and I have no idea how many generations preceded him. He didn’t even give a strong sense of the Maritimes, never mind of Scottishness. My father liked bagpipe music, and scotch, but he also liked Southern Gospel, jazz, blues and country music, so what does it really tell you?
Some North Americans cling to the cultures of their ancestors – whether Polish, Chinese, Indian, or whatever – long after I would have thought it still mattered. In some cases, this likely stems from growing up in enclaves – Italian neighbourhoods, or Greek, for example. When everyone you meet hails from ‘the old country’, traditions are more likely to be preserved. Language is one of the motivations for such enclaves. It’s hard to learn a new language, especially when you’re older. And English is one of the more difficult to pick up, being so full of inconsistencies and irregularities.
As time goes on, though, ethnic identity becomes more or less notional. Children grow up as Canadians, even if, in some cases, they still look Asian, or Italian, or Nigerian, or Swedish. But they cease to be those things. Generation by generation, they become part of the fabric of Canadian, and it in turn becomes part of them. Intermarriage hastens this. In my opinion that’s a good thing, although I may be biased, having married a woman who immigrated from Belgium at a young age, and whose own ethnicity was a blend of Flemish and Algerian, although after 50+ years here she is at least as Canadian as me. Maybe moreso. Certainly, she is more patriotic.
So, on St. Patrick’s Day, I’ll be just as Irish as my fellow Canadians, wherever they or their ancestors hailed from. No more than any, and much less than some. You can keep the green beer, though. I’ll have a Guinness, thanks. Slainte.