When Irish Eyes Stop Smiling
It’s not that the Irish have suddenly lost their sense of humor or gotten touchy about their heritage, says Joe Fox, president of the Philadelphia County Ancient Order of Hibernians Board.
The reason he and other leaders in Philadelphia’s Irish community have formed a new Irish Anti-Defamation Federation is because there’s a big difference between the Lucky Charm’s “magically delicious” leprechaun and things like restaurant chains offering free potatoes in honor of the Irish famine and t-shirts that read “When my Irish eyes are smiling you know I’m drunk”—and worse.
“’Kiss me I’m Irish’ is not offensive,” says Fox, whose maternal grandparents came from Ireland. “’A Million Mick March’ is mildly offensive. What’s really offensive is the “Irish Today, Hungover Tomorrow” type of merchandise that we’re seeing that is very derogatory towards Irish people.”
That’s why the newly minted organization is holding a community-wide meeting on Thursday, May 12, at the Philadelphia Irish Center, 6815 Emlen Street in the Mt. Airy section of the city.
“We’re trying to create a united front of Irish organizations that will address defamation issues all year long, not just in March,” says Fox.
What’s providing the impetus now is a set-to the AOH had this winter with Spencer Gifts that culminated in a peaceful protest outside the Franklin Mills branch store which, like every other Spencer’s, sells all kinds of gag gifts, risqué items, and raunchy t-shirts and cards. At the time, Spencer Gifts’ general counsel Kevin Mahoney told www.irishphiladelphia.com that there was “an enormous market in the Irish community who are willing to buy these shirts. Most of them have a good sense of humor and understand it’s all meant as a joke, not to be demeaning or derogatory.”
Several other stores in the Philadelphia, including Old Navy and Acme, removed questionable Irish items when the AOH requested it. Last year, Denny’s, the restaurant chain, yanked a TV ad offering free potatoes to commemorate the Irish Famine after AOH National President Seamus Boyle along with hundreds of other angry Irish-Americans flooded them with calls and letters. Local radio stations have also scuttled on-air St. Patrick’s Day promotions at AOH request, says Fox. On St. Patrick’s Day, Philadelphia Councilwoman Joan Krajewski rallied support for the cause by reading a proclamation denouncing Spencer Gifts and other outlets for selling the merchandise that raised Irish ire. But Spencer Gifts refused to remove the merchandise.
Now, the AOH is seeking community-wide support, says Fox, because they’ve seen that without it, the problem gets worse every year. “And that’s because we’re so laid back about it and don’t let them know,” he says. “Not acting on it sooner allowed it to escalate. They’ll push it as far as we’ll let it.”
Fox is hoping representatives from many of the region’s Irish organizations show up for the strategy meeting. And he particularly hopes to see plenty of Irish immigrants. “I know from my own experience that there are things that I of Irish descent may find offensive, while the Irish born may not,” he says. “We need their input. But we want to expand this to all Irish organizations to show that this is not just an AOH thing—this is an Irish thing.”