"Erin go bragh" - "Ireland forever." For a few hours yesterday our communities celebrated a minority culture. Although the 1980 Census determined That 18 percent of the U.S. population claims Irish ancestry, that number is exceeded only by the 21 percent who claim German heritage and the 22 percent who claim English ancestors. About 41 million Americans claim Irish roots.
Despite this heritage, many in the United States seem geographically and culturally illiterate. Just for the record:1. The Republic of Ireland is not governed by England.
2. The republic is independent of Northern Ireland.
3. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) is not the army of the republic. It is an illegal urban guerilla organization.
4. People are safer on the streets of Belfast than in Denver, Colo.
The 1989-90 almanac of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints notes that 76 percent of the population of Utah is Mormon. The percentage of Mormons in the rural communities of Utah approaches 95 percent. Irish data indicate that the Republic of Ireland is 95 percent Catholic.
This data immediately suggests an analogy.
In 1984-85 I had the opportunity to compare two cultures and school systems influenced by a predominant Christian religion. The Baker children were minority students for a year in the Dublin schools.
We have lived mostly in Utah as members of the predominant culture without sensing the frustrations and the problems that we benignly impose on members of minority religious cultures.
But in 1984, we moved to the Republic of Ireland while working on a research project for Dublin City University and for the European Economic Community. In Ireland we were the minority.
When it was time for my kids to attend school in Ireland, we purchased books and uniforms and were ready for day one. I was only mildly nervous about the fact that a nun would be teaching one of my children. It never occurred to me that many Mormon leaders in Utah are teachers in the public schools and that some Utah families may be as nervous as I was in Ireland.
Added to the nervous feeling was the fact that none of my children had ever seen a nun before in Utah, and now one was to be their teacher.
What time are new students to be at the school to register? We called and visited the school frequently trying to discover the answer to this simple question but couldn't ever seem to make connections with someone who knew the answer.
The first day came, so we guessed at the time and took the kids to the school and found ourselves in a queue of parents with other children new to the school. I asked the woman ahead of me how she knew what time to come to the school.
The answer jarred me because it was an echo of an answer that could have been given in any Utah community with no sense that it excluded anyone.
"It's been announced in church for the last three weeks."
The point is that it wasn't announced in my church. Apparently it was announced in the church that implicitly sets the curriculum, governs the school through legal process and imposes itself on a somewhat powerless and passive minority.
In Utah and Ireland neither majority seems malicious to me. The majority establishment sees itself as in control but benevolent. The majority seems to be trying to accommodate and help.
In Ireland, the preparations for confirmation, the Irish prayer each morning, the opportunity to celebrate Mass as a class, the class time used for confession and discussions with a priest and the celebration of Ash Wednesday all illustrate the closeness of the education and church institutions. Even though the church is extended into the Irish school, teachers were sensitive to our children. One gave our son a candy bar when the rest of the class received religious awards in this public school.
Despite this self-concept of the majority, that they are accommodating and benevolent, there is a theology that may contradict. The theology in Ireland and Utah claims that the majority is "true" and therefore right. The theology in both instances teaches the importance of conversion; and in both cultures missionaries - and members of religious orders - zealously try to convert others to the "truth" throughout the world.
Since this year we spent in Ireland as a minority, I wonder each time I hear a public LDS prayer if perhaps someone I don't wish to offend is uncomfortable and feels excluded. Is the prayer somehow, to a devout minority, a symbol that the majority is very much in charge?
Perhaps St. Patrick's Day is a time when we can celebrate with a minority group in other ways than by marching in parades. Maybe it and other holidays can remind us that minorities and minority cultures need sensitivity more than Celebration.