March 24, 2019

Overseas and Off-Campus Programs Blog

Full Circle Sea Turtle: An Ironic St. Paddy's

Author Name

Isabelle Grant

Author Program

Ireland: Social Sciences

Program Semester and Year

Spring 2019

Student Major

Sociology & Anthropology

This past weekend was St. Patrick’s Day and, feeling obligated to participate in some capacity, I attended the Dublin parade. As soon as the parade began, I was struck by the amount of American acts, notably marching bands, included. Although I understand that the parade is very much a tourist attraction, and the American presence makes sense in terms of a large Irish diaspora and the fact that the first St. Paddy’s parade took place in America (New York 1796), it still felt profoundly strange to text my friend who attends college in a small, Pennsylvania town called “Slippery Rock” that her school’s marching band was right in front of me. However, as the parade continued and various floats passed by, I soon found myself unsettled in a different way.

It began with a giant squid. As the massive orange figure crossed before me, I found myself delighting in the intricacy and details of its tentacles, but my attention soon shifted as I saw the accompanying performers’ costumes. They were dressed in what I took to be stereotypically “Asian” garb, featuring artificial silk robes and exaggerated winged eyeliner and they swayed to guqin (Chinese, seven-stringed instrumental) music. This was then followed by a giant sea turtle and performers wearing feathered headdresses as drums beat and voices chanted. And, next came a whale, a creature whom I generally adore, that was accompanied by performers in “Eskimo” fur cloaks. This was perhaps the most perplexing presentation, as the performers ran alongside the fence and growled at parade watchers, exposing “rotten teeth” mouth pieces they were wearing. It all felt extremely bizarre, confusing, and concerning.

Both troubled and puzzled by this component of the parade, I soon endeavored on a quest for explanation. At this time, I also revisited the definition of cultural appropriation which is “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society” (Oxford Dictionary). After visiting the parade’s website, I learned that this year’s theme was “storytelling.” I also learned that the group whose performance was in question hailed from Waterford and that their chosen subtheme was “here be monsters”, harkening to the phrase used on medieval maps for unknown, dangerous sea territories. Their floats were intended to convey the mystical, medieval stories of sea monsters and unexplored areas. While this provided context and offered insight into the group’s artistic approach, it was not necessarily comforting or reassuring in terms of my initial concerns.

However, as I continued to reflect on my parade encounter and unpack contemplations of cultural appropriation and questionable taste, I was suddenly overcome with what I feel is best described as embodied irony. While I sat and wondered if the Irish produced float I witnessed at a St. Patrick’s Day parade was culturally appropriative and/or problematic, I largely failed to recognize that the celebration and commercialization of St. Patrick’s Day by anyone who is not Irish conjures its very own discussion of cultural appropriation. And, although the St. Patrick’s Day debate does not affect whether or not the Waterford display was problematic and inclusive of crude and offensive stereotypical imagery, acknowledging it serves as reminder of the nuanced complexities surrounding the broad concept of “cultural appropriation.”

And although I continue to grapple with these thoughts and could expand on them much more extensively, I will end my blog post here. What perhaps is my biggest takeaway of this whole experience is the powerful overlap, irony, and interconnectedness of everything and if nothing else, a humbling embrace of my own constant state of confusion.