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Last Saturday, at the YMCA where I go to swim, there was a flyer on the front counter. It advertised the Fifth Annual Black Irish St. Patrick’s Day Heritage Celebration.

Now, I was confused, because there is this term “black Irish,” which – mainly outside of Ireland – refers to Irish people with dark hair and dark complexions. I first heard that term years ago; I used to tint my hair with a dark red color, and a friend of mine said I looked like I was black Irish. But this particular YMCA is in the Central District, so I wondered if it might refer to African-Americans who have Irish ancestry.

There were three YMCA employees behind the counter, two young men folding towels and one young woman sitting at the computer. When I asked them what the term meant, I got the impression that they’d never heard of it meaning Irish people that we’d call white but with dark hair and dark complexions. Politely but reservedly, they told me that the flyer meant black people who have Irish ancestry. I thanked them, took a towel, and went to the women’s locker room.

As I changed into my swimsuit, I kept wondering if they assumed I was so ignorant that I didn’t know that black people could have Irish ancestry. I half wanted to go back to them and say, I do know! I’m not another unthinking white person!

Years ago, I was joking with this black man who had an Irish last name. It was when I was a phone conciliator at the King County Dispute Resolution Center. This man called about a dispute he was in, and I was going to mail him some information, so I asked for his name and address. When he told me his last name – I don’t remember what it was, maybe McGovern – I quipped, “McGovern! That’s a good Irish name!”

He replied, “Every year I get a flyer in the mail about the family reunion back in Ireland.”

“You should go,” I said. “That’d surprise them.”

“It sure would.”

We laughed, both picturing a group of what you typically think that Irish people look like: fair-skinned white, freckled, red haired, blue- or green-eyed. And then a black person walks in.

It turns out that, besides there being African Americans of Irish descent, there actually are “Irish-African” people. Wikipedia says that on the island of Montserrat, most of the people are of African-Irish descent. A lot of Irish people were forcibly settled on the island, and a lot of people were taken from Africa and enslaved on the island. These Montserratians call themselves Black Irish. There was a slave revolt on 17 March 1768, and people on Montserrat commemorate it each year on St. Patrick’s Day. St. Patrick’s Day was a holiday by then, so I assume they must have chosen the date deliberately.

As I left the YMCA last Saturday, I took a copy of the flyer. I hoped there’d be a website about the event, so I could find out more, but there isn’t one listed on the flyer.

I’m tempted to drive by the celebration, just to see a group of black people enjoying St. Patrick’s Day. Besides, the flyer says that the organizers are on a mission to tell the truth about St. Patrick. So I’m wondering, what don’t I know about St. Patrick?

Was St. Patrick black?

As I’m writing about wanting to see a group of black people celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, I realize why. I’ve always seen St. Patrick’s Day as a white holiday. When I was growing up in a white neighborhood, St. Patrick’s Day was a white holiday. Well, in that neighborhood, every holiday was a white holiday.

When I was a kid, if someone wasn’t wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day, we’d pinch them. But I don’t think we ever thought to pinch someone who wasn’t white. At that point in my life, I never thought how African Americans could have Irish ancestry. But of course, they can.

In fact, those people behind the counter at the YMCA – any one of them could have Irish ancestry. Maybe they all do. Wow. They must have thought I was a complete idiot.

It’s funny, when I told Kyle about this event, he was trying to figure how Africans could have gotten to Ireland. I was the one who reminded him that Irish ancestry could have come from white slaveholders. But actually, there are theories that Spanish people escaping the Spanish Armada settled in Ireland, and that’s where the Irish “black Irish” came from. Unfortunately, that theory has been discredited.

Whatever your ancestry or origin, happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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