Monica Yant Kinney: Irish seeing red over St. Patrick's Day disrespect

"Demeaning an ethnic group this way is unique and unacceptable," said State Rep. Kevin Boyle (D., Phila.). "The Irish have accomplished too much in America to say this is OK."
"Demeaning an ethnic group this way is unique and unacceptable," said State Rep. Kevin Boyle (D., Phila.). "The Irish have accomplished too much in America to say this is OK." (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer, file)
Posted: March 07, 2012

Whoever designed the Franklin Mills mall must have been trying to thwart pickets and protests. The covered entrances become wind tunnels, and even day-old rain leaks water on those daring to pace around passing out pamphlets.

Despite the bitter conditions, none of the activists gathered outside the Aqua entrance Sunday wanted to come inside and warm up in Spencer's Gifts. Members of the Irish Anti-Defamation Federation (IADF) can't stomach the vulgar variations on "Kiss Me I'm Irish" trucker hats. They have no need for a St. Patrick's Day beer hookah.

"Spencer's thinks this stuff is cool and funny," sniffs Irish historian Clare McManus as she hands out neon-green fliers alerting shoppers to crimes against Irish culture.

"People are profiting hugely off turning our holiday into debauchery," adds Joe Fox, president of the Philadelphia County Ancient Order of Hibernians, one of several organizations angered by the annual desecration of the shamrock.

"Other nationalities," he says, "wouldn't stand for this treatment."

Stuck with a stereotype

IADF president Tim Wilson admits that when he asks coworkers at Home Depot what they think of when they think of the Irish, "it's always drinking and fighting." Wilson is 35, but says younger Irish Americans have told him to "lighten up" and "stop being so uptight" about the one day each year when everybody wears, and sees, green.

The protesters, who live in Chester County, at the Jersey Shore, and in Northeast Philadelphia, tell me they spend St. Patrick's Day more solemnly, at Mass and listening to traditional music with family.

"To us," says Tom O'Donnell, "it's like Thanksgiving."

But mainstream celebrants skip work and drink the day away in bars, some of which hold "St. Practice Day" events to build tolerance. Spencer's and Urban Outfitters, no strangers to lowbrow retailing, offer a full line of timely items catering to the clueless and classless who use party as a verb.

Philadelphia-based Urban Outfitters sells an $18 beer growler emblazoned with the words "Leprechaun Piss." The $24 "Kiss Me. I'm Drunk, or Irish, or Whatever" T-shirt may be the only culturally insensitive piece of clothing on the market correctly using an Oxford comma.

Spencer's, based in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., sells a $14.99 ladies tube top ("Rub My [xxx] for Good Luck") and, for the men, a hat reading "Hello My Name is Pat McCrotch." Toddlers can tie one on wearing a "drinking team" onesie.

Bring on the boycott?

The IADF's 150 or so members want Spencer's to pull offensive items and "respect" their heritage. That may be impossible, since "Husband beater" undershirts, Elmo string bikinis, and "I Love Farting" mugs strongly suggest Spencer's does not respect itself or its customers.

Spencer's has pushed the limits of taste since 1947, but chief counsel Kevin Mahoney - a proud Irishman - insists it's all just good fun.

"We sell irreverent, edgy merchandise," Mahoney tells me. "Humor is subjective."

But Urban Outfitters made headlines with its "Ghettopoly" game, "Everyone Loves a Jewish Girl" shirts, and a dress-up magnet of Jesus on the cross, only to succumb to pressure and pull controversial items. Why do some aggrieved groups prevail and others fail?

In the 1980s, Irish Americans successfully pushed Hallmark to rethink St. Patrick's Day cards by focusing more on blessings and less on beer. The protesters will work with the enemy but may resort to boycott - a power play rooted in Ireland, if you didn't know.

"Young people are impressionable," notes State Rep. Kevin Boyle (D., Phila.), whose parents hail from Sligo and Donegal but met in Upper Darby. "Demeaning an ethnic group this way is unique and unacceptable. The Irish have accomplished too much in America to say this is OK."


Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670 or myant@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @myantkinney. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.

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