The left’s attempt to co-opt Irishness (and St. Patrick’s Day)

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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They say you should never let a crisis go to waste, and I suppose this applies even if that crisis was a potato famine that occurred more than a century and a half ago.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, the occasion of St. Patrick’s Day has provided yet another opportunity to bash conservatives.

For example, The New York Times’ Timothy Egan seized the festive occasion to vilify Irish-American Paul Ryan — and by extension, conservatives — for “using the same language that English Tories used to justify indifference to an epic tragedy.” (Listen to Paul Ryan’s “controversial” interview with Bill Bennett here, and tell me where he sounds like the Tories.)

Ryan’s sin was in suggesting that government policies had devastating, if unintended, consequences for inner-city families. (Although Ryan didn’t specify, the assumption was that he was talking about how misguided government programs can ironically hurt African-American families, trapping them in a cycle of poverty — a phenomenon that President Obama’s former spiritual leader cited as a problem during a recent interview with me).

Ironically, Egan begins his column by conceding that “There is no comparison, of course, between the de facto genocide that resulted from British policy, and conservative criticism of modern American poverty programs.” I say ironically, because after the concession, Egan proceeds to do just that — for another 18, or so, paragraphs. (When one considers what the British policy did to the Irish, the comparison becomes even more absurd.)

But Egan wasn’t alone in using the holiday as a cudgel. Lamenting the conservatism of Irish-Americans like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, Salon asked: “How did Irish-Americans get so disgusting” — a headline you couldn’t use about almost any other ethnic group (and get away with it.)

Columnists need timely content, and this sometimes leads to tortured narratives. But the larger lesson here is that liberals are so desperate to “own” the issue of poverty — and so keen to label their conservative adversaries as racists — that they’re willing to hearken back to the 1840s in order to do it.

This takes some gumption, considering not only Ryan’s Irish lineage, but also Ronald Reagan‘s. And while Egan and his colleagues love to talk about Ryan’s early affinity for Ayn Rand, there’s also the fact that the philosophical founder of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke (a Whig, I might add), was born in Dublin.

If, as Salon says, the Irish grew “disgusting,” it presumably began in the 18th century with Burke. And what did he do? “One of Burke’s chief endeavors in Parliament…was to effect the amendment of the ‘Penal Laws’ that weighed down Irish Catholics,” writes Russell Kirk in Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered.

Burke was “denounced as ‘Edmund Bonnyclabber,’ notes Jesse Norman in Edmund Burke: The First Conservative. “In caricatures he was standardly depicted as a thin and severe figure wearing the cassock and cornered hat, or biretta, of the Jesuits, sometime with a potato or a rosary and almost always with spectacles.”

This is all to say that the appropriation of St. Patrick’s Day is a sign of selective revisionism and desperation. But let’s give the left a break. If a day celebrating a devout saint can become an excuse to drink green beer at a pub, then appropriating the holiday as a political cudgel isn’t all that unseemly. I suppose.