Offend Me, I’m Irish

Local Hibernians protesting at Franklin Mills on Sunday.

Local Hibernians protesting at Franklin Mills on Sunday.

They’re almost the first thing you see when you visit Spencer Gifts in the Franklin Mills Mall. Hanging on a rack near the door is a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan, “Official St. Patty’s (sic) Day Drinking Team.” Nearby, a green plastic pint glass proclaims: “Green Beer Makes Me Horny.” Elsewhere in the store are shirts with more explicit messages, like one green tee adorned with two small shamrocks, strategically placed, and an invitation to “rub these for good luck.” And another one: “F**k Me, I’m Irish.”

To the folks at Egg Harbor-based Spencer’s, this extensive St. Patrick’s Day product line is all in good fun. To many Irish organizations—including the local Ancient Order of Hibernians—the shirts and other apparel are in bad taste, to say the least, and they perpetuate the notion that all Irish are debauched drunks.

For two hours on a sunny Sunday afternoon, about 20 Philly-area AOH members and supporters took their message directly to Spencer’s with a protest at Franklin Mills Mall, near the entrance closest to Spencer Gifts.

With Philadelphia police officers and mall cops hovering nearby, the protesters quietly stood near the entrance, holding up posters with handwritten messages, like “Boycott Spencer Gifts” and “St. Patrick’s Day Is Not a Drinking Day.” Every once in a while a shopper would stop to take in the scene, and occasionally one would hang around for a few minutes to chat with the picketers. Most passed right on by.

That was just fine with the protesters. They weren’t there to make a scene; they were there to make a point.

It’s a point they’ve made before, and with some success. Unfortunately, they suggested, Spencer’s has a short memory. “Spencer did something like this a couple of years ago, but it was taken care of,” said Tom O’Donnell, vice president of the state AOH board. “This year they popped back on the shelves again.”

No one in the group was suggesting that Spencer Gifts stop selling all St. Patrick’s Day products altogether—just the ones that, in their view, glorify drinking and those that are obscene.

“They portray St. Patrick’s Day as a drunk holiday,” O’Donnell said. “We don’t mind celebration on St. Patrick’s Day. What bothers us is the public display of ridicule. They put down the Irish. They wouldn’t do that with any other ethnic group.” O’Donnell also suggested that such products dishonor the memory of the saint after whom the day is named.

John Ragen, who helped his brother Tim Wilson organize the event, said Spencer’s has heard this message before. Last year, he and his brother visited Spencer Gift shops on their own, asking the managers to remove the offending items. This year, they wanted a better organized protest.

Like O’Donnell, Ragen said he isn’t against some celebratory products—he just objects to the ones, he said, that are “raunchy, sexually explicit and derogatory.”

From Spencer’s point of view, the St. Patrick’s Day products that their stores sell are not all that different from the shirts and novelty items sold in other Irish shops, both brick-and-mortar and online.

“Every one of those retailers sells exactly the same type of shirt,” said Spencer’s general counsel Kevin Mahoney, a self-described “good son of Erin.” He added, “It’s not our intention to demean the Irish people.”

If Spencer Gifts’ St. Patrick’s Day items were truly offensive, he suggested, customers wouldn’t buy them. But in reality, he said, “there is 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.”

To the suggestion that Spencer’s is being singled out unfairly, Ragen noted that other stores have sold St. Patrick’s Day products which he and other Irish Americans deemed offensive. AOH members and others have objected in those cases as well, he said. “They (Spencer’s) are not being singled out,” he added. “Acme had them in their stores. We e-mailed them, and they pulled them out. Old Navy had some shirts in their store and (when people objected), they pulled them right off.”

So far, there’s no indication Spencer’s intends to follow the example of other prominent retailers, Ragen said. “We haven’t heard a word,” he said.

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