The Irish worked too hard to be ridiculed by Spencer Gifts T-shirts

Posted: March 17, 2011

DURING the Great Famine of the 1840s, thousands of Irish fled their homeland for America and a chance at a better life. They arrived in Boston, New York and Philadelphia and were met with scorn and discrimination. People who lived off the land with miles and miles of sky were now packed into filthy rooming houses.

With few skills and not much schooling, 70 percent wound up in domestic servitude - doing housework for the same people who looked down on them with such disdain. The Irish would take any job for any wage because they refused to let their families starve. The American working class resented these "Micks on the make" because they'd work for anything.

The Irish, especially Catholics, were ridiculed in cartoons and editorials because of their faith. Businesses would post "Help Wanted" signs that would also say "Irish need not apply," often purposely next to the sign "No Dogs Allowed."

Fast-forward 171 years to Philadelphia's 241st St. Patrick's Day Parade on Sunday. It's what being Irish is all about. The pride, the community, the celebration and the history of what we came from, and what we will be.

I'm Irish on my mother's side (Anna McColgan) and know how to take a joke, and I know well enough that the Irish love a good celebration as well as a good wake. I also know there are more who use St. Patrick's as a day to drink, party and have a good time.

Everyone is Irish on March 17.

There is something called "having Irish humor" that is a mysterious thing. There is also something called "Irish class" and letting the little things not multiply into big things.

So I'm trying to have some of my Irish humor and Irish class for Spencer Gifts, the mall novelty shops famous for lava lamps, whoopee cushions and edgy party goods.

And Spencer's sells novelty items for St. Patrick's Day. Green wigs and leprechaun costumes, green suspenders and shamrock-emblazoned socks, boxers and earrings, and T-shirts poking fun at the Irish. Fine, we can take it. If the Great Famine didn't kill us, this won't either. The T-shirts say "Instant Irishman: Just Add Alcohol" and "If My Irish Eyes Are Smiling I Must Be Drunk." Stupid humor at its best.

But then there's a T-shirt with the image of a leprechaun, pants down, drunk and urinating. With his middle finger up, he exclaims "Happy [Bleeping] St. Patrick's Day." This gem is on sale for $14.99.

No other nationality would be ridiculed like this, especially by a national company. No other ethnic group would allow this shirt to be sold - but it seems to be OK to mock the Irish Catholics.

For years, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, as well as other Catholic- Irish organizations, has asked Spencer Gifts to stop selling these offensive T-shirts. A few weekends ago, local Philadelphia AOHs protested at the Spencer's at Franklin Mills Mall in hopes of drawing attention to the distasteful shirts and hurtful message. But Spencer Gifts says they investigated and found that "the Irish community finds that shirt humorous and not offensive" and the leprechaun shirt will stay in the stores.

So today, I plan to introduce a City Council resolution calling on Spencer Gifts to stop selling this merchandise that degrades the Irish people.

And so to the proud Irish of Philadelphia, dedicated to the Hibernian Hunger Project, the Jack Costello Boxing Program, the Emerald Society and to those whose ancestors are depicted on the immensely moving Irish Memorial sculpture on Front Street, I ask you to remember the sign "Irish Need Not Apply" that mocked the Irish.

Now the Irish need not apply to buy anything from Spencer Gifts.

City Councilwoman Joan L. Krajewski represents the 6th District in Northeast Philadelphia.

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