They’re done with images of tipsy colleens and leering, belligerent leprechauns. Some Irish Americans have grown weary of “negative stereotyping” in popular culture that consistently depicts their demographic as bawdy drunks and hooligans.
Now they’ve done something about it.
The Ancient Order of Hibernians - the nation’s largest Irish Catholic fraternal organization - have launched what they deem an “anti-defamation” action against national retailers who sell what the organization deems “denigrating merchandise” that promotes often humorous but nonetheless negative stereotypes of Irish-Americans.
In the weeks leading up to Saint Patrick’s Day, the group has called on Walmart to stop selling things like t-Shirts emblazoned with such mottos as “I may not be Irish, but I Can Drink like one” and “Blame the Irish for my Behavior”.
They want an apology too.
“These items are an outrage to those whose Irish Heritage traces to hard working Irish immigrants, not to a beer bottle - and seek in March, which is Irish American Heritage Month, to see their culture celebrated, not used as an excuse for aberrant behavior,” the Chicago-based organization said in a message to 80,000 members in 46 states and Canada, urging them to demand an apology from Walmart.
“It is particularly egregious that these items seem targeted to non-Irish Americans and invites them to be fools using our proud heritage as coverage for their behavior. Strike out ‘Irish’ and put in any other ethnic group, would a national retailer even dare consider selling it? Would the media be as silent?” asks Neil Cosgrove, the Hibernian’s anti-defamation chairman.
“It appears that Walmart is stuck in a time warp with a view of Irish Americans from the 19th-century of the ‘Know Nothing’ Party,” he adds.
The 178-year-old group also took of Bed Bath and Beyond, protesting such products as a beer glass emblazoned with the phrase “I’ll be Irish in a few beers” and brilliant green suspenders with shot glasses attached.
Their efforts won. The chain has removed the items in question and promised to “sensitize” their buyers against such fare in the future.
The Hibernians - who count “friendship, unity and Christian charity” as their own motto - have also called for a boycott of retailers who continue to carry offensive merchandise. It could present a potential problem in a tight economy. There are currently 34 million U.S. residents who claim Irish American heritage according to the U.S. Census - which is more than seven times the total population of Ireland itself.
The Hibernians have had limited success in recent months with Spencer’s Gifts, a national novelty company which continues to carry a wide array of wearables and accessories of the questionable variety.
The group organized local protests in the New York City area that drew a response statement last year from Spencer’s corporate offices that stated, “We do not feel our merchandise is offensive - but reflects the attitude of our core customers who are 18-24 year olds.”
Says Mr. Cosgrove in his latest message to the membership, “There is a long struggle ahead of us.”
Other ethnic groups have been unhappy with their position in popular culture. On several occasions in the last decade, such organizations as the Order Sons of Italy and the National Italian-American Association took HBO to task for the portrayal of Italian-Americans in their uber-popular series “The Sopranos”.
They groups called for the cable network to broadcast a disclaimer during each episode indicating that the series is “not representative of the 25 million Americans of Italian heritage.” They did not call for censorship, but hoped that their fellow citizens become more acquainted with the “law-abiding” side of things.
The demand ultimately resulted in some proposed legislation. Rep. Marge Roukema, New Jersey Republican, introduced the “Sense of Congress Resolution” in 2008 which condemned “unfair racial stereotyping” in Hollywood style productions.