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Shamrock Surprise

We each hold our culture personal. This green and orange thing is a good part of that.



For religious observance, most of us tend to stick to our own cultures, except we have almost universally embraced two religion-based holidays that have Celtic or Irish origins. In the fall, there is Halloween, which is often explained as being of Gaelic Pagan origin, with witches and spells, etc. And in March, everyone seems to go bonkers over St. Patrick's Day, which is a full-on celebration of the patron Saint of Ireland.

When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., we all dressed up in costume for Halloween and canvassed for candy door-to-door, just like everybody else. But I didn't know that the holiday was attached to the Irish, nor did I know that springtime holiday for Saint Patrick was, well, for a Catholic saint. Everyone in my neighborhood was Jewish and everyone in the next neighborhood over was black. I don't know what religion(s) they were, but they, too, celebrated Halloween and St. Patrick's Day.

After I graduated college, I went to work at the phone company (back then, of course, there was only one phone company). Most of the top management were Protestant and the middle and lower rungs were predominantly Irish Catholic. Mary Russell, the first woman to become a manager at the company in New York, was a mentor to me. She was Irish and she told me that "the company" liked Irish Catholics because Catholics were taught in parochial school to take orders, do what they are told and not talk back. I take that, today, as being the view of corporate America in the '70s.

Both she and her boss Gene Carey told me I had a great future at New York Telephone because—and I remember this as clearly as if it were yesterday—"You are young, smart and Jewish. We don't have many Jews in the company. You can go far." I worked at a desk with a Puerto Rican and they told him just about the same thing. Anyway, this is a St. Patrick's Day story, so I'm getting ahead of myself.

One day, Mary told me that she had volunteered herself and me to run the St. Patrick's Day party in our office. Considering the preponderance of Irish Catholic coworkers, this was a big deal. Mary got us a budget and we went shopping for decorations during a few successive lunch times. We got green cups, green hats and green paper tablecloths and napkins, and Canada Dry ginger ale, because Canada Dry came in green bottles with green labels.

"Why do we do everything in green?" I wanted to know. "It's tradition," she answered. "In fact, both green and orange are traditions." So, she also bought some orange decorations. What she didn't mentor me on was that the basis of green and orange dated back to the year 1690 when Protestant King William III of England, aka William of Orange, brought his orange army to Ireland, kicked the ass of Roman Catholic King James II and took over the country, causing what, up until recently, was referred to as "the troubles," the longest continuous revolution I can recall.

So the Irish Catholics wear green, a sign of the Emerald Isle and the shamrock, while the Protestants wear orange. Mary bought a lot of green things and enough orange to decorate one office. I didn't know about any of the politics, but I was young and eager to help. So, Mary told me that orange was special and we should decorate our boss Gene Carey's office in orange, which we did, then closed the door and went home. Did I mention that Mr. Carey also was Catholic?

Irish people are a lot like the rest of us—Mormons, Jews, Mexicans, Navajos, Blacks. We all tend to be a bit sensitive about things we can discuss freely among our own folks, but don't like when others do the same. We each hold our culture personal. This green and orange thing is a good part of that. Another thing is the symbol of the shamrock, which any red-blooded Irish person will tell you is the sign of the trinity.

Within the past few news cycles, our president and his team got taught that lesson the hard way when they tried to tie St. Patrick's Day to Trump's 2020 presidential campaign by selling "Make America Great Again" baseball hats in Irish green instead of the current hats that are more like Russian red. I seem to remember that, during the last campaign, then-candidate Trump bragged to us, "I am really rich," and that he would bankroll his entire campaign himself and not be indebted to donors. Today, several of his highest-level appointees, we note, have turned out to be big, huge campaign donors and he needs to sell $50 hats and T-shirts to the rest of us. Now that's what I call "really rich".

Neither the green hat color nor the expensive price is the problem. What offends many Irish is that the hats have four-leaf clovers embossed on them. When Irish around the world saw those four-leaf clovers instead of the Trinity-based three-leaf shamrocks which are the real symbol, they created a Twitter storm the likes of which we haven't even seen from the White House Twitterer-in-Chief.

To be fair and balanced, people of the world over are sensitive and protective about their own culture—which is why, when my phone company manager came to work the next morning and saw everything in his office from desk to drapes in bright orange, he sat me down for a history lesson on Ireland that I remember to this day.

By the way, never say St. Patty's day. Patty is a girl's name, I have been told.