Watching Irish teenagers buying green hats and balloons for St Patrick’s Day is an amazing feeling here in Alberta – the western province of Canada which has a history of immigrant Irishmen coming to work and build a life for their children and for future generations. Looking at these teenagers painting the town green, that dream seems to have become a reality.
The local Whyte Museum in Banff is aptly hosting a photography exhibition profiling the life of the 19th century miners in Alberta – mostly Irish. The exhibition shares stories of happy miners of Canmore (Alberta), many of who grew fond of their adopted land, and lived for more than 90 years – an indication of an active, healthy life.
As an immigrant and a son of an immigrant, I can relate to the stories of migrants – which are essentially the same – irrespective of whether one is talking about Irish immigrants or Indian migrants. It’s a story of leaving the comforts (or discomforts) of your shores, in search for a more promising or less unjust environment.
While St Patrick’s celebrations may seem more commercial today, they still mark the celebration of the life of a national saint. A large part of any immigration history is a history of the practice of slavery. St Patrick’s Day uniquely combines both – the saint was a slave and a migrant, and spent his life opposing slavery.
In that sense, St Patrick’s also symbolises the success of Irish migration to the US and Canada. The Irish were the first ethnic group to achieve success in the US, writes James Flannery in the Irish Times.
“For the immigrants who succeeded them – the Italians, Jews, Greeks, Poles and others – on the long climb up the ladder of success, the Irish became a model of what could be achieved with determination, hard work and a belief in the American Dream.”
In the United States, St Patrick’s is probably the only ethnic celebration that is a national holiday. It’s a celebration of successful migration, and by extension, a celebration of diversity.
It’s a day to remember that not all migration is exploratory; not all immigrants are coming from a good environment. The darker side of migration is filled with stories of a desire to escape from torture, atrocities, violence and bleak future.
Whether it was escaping from The Great Depression, or from the violence of Hitler, the stories of migration have continued to have the common theme – striving for a better future for our children.
In that sense, St Patrick’s is also a celebration of refugees who are escaping from the war-torn zones of Afghanistan, Somalia, Gaza, or from the poverty stricken states of India, Pakistan and Africa.
As the world tries to cope with economic recession which has lasted for more than three years already, with no end in sight, migratory winds are only likely to catch speed.
Economic and political trends will continue to dictate the direction of migration. And the need for cultural tolerance and ethnic integration will be even stronger in days to come.
In that sense, St Patrick’s has relevance to every citizen of the world – a global world.
(Vaibhav Gangan is the managing editor of The Global Indian magazine and is currently in Canada.)