Is Anti-Evacuation Day Anti-Irish?

The terrain onto which the four major candidates for governor of the Commonwealth tread is one fundamentally different-looking than the turf onto which a former Justice Department official and corporate attorney named Deval Patrick trod in early 2005.

And it's not just the economy, the Obama-altered electorate, or the cultural uncertainty jolted into voters by the uncertainty of living in a post-Farrah, post-Jacko, post-Ed McMahon world.

It'll be the first election after the great Bunker Hill Day/Evacuation Day Imbroglio of 2009.

The whole to-do started tamely enough, during a budget debate on the Senate floor that resembled other such kick-ups over the two Suffolk County holidays. Senate budget amendment #182 aimed to excise from the state's calendar the pair of vacation days.

Light history: Bunker Hill Day commemorates a June 1775 battle seminal in the American Revolution, largely misnamed, locals know, because much of the pitched portion of the battle was actually waged on nearby Breed's Hill. Evacuation Day came a few months later, when British forces withdrew amid shelling in Boston Harbor to Nova Scotia after a siege of about 11 months. Both helped make possible the Fourth of July, which is celebrated everywhere in the country.

Bringing us back to the Senate budget debate this May, when amendment #182, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei, Republican of Wakefield, came to the floor and initiated a weeks-long debate over the legitimacy of the holidays. Sen. Michael Knapik, Republican of Westfield, launched the opening broadsides, mocking the holidays and charging they would provoke resentment in the private sector.

Sen. Jack Hart, who as the Democratic state senator from South Boston, is the de facto mayor of Evacuation/St. Patrick's Day festivities, claiming a need to respect history, suggested that eliminating the holidays could lead to the eradication of Christmas.

Knapik came back, briefly donning an Irish brogue to discuss the achievements of the Irish and George Washington with lilting tone. Hart parried, suggesting with scant fear of widespread contradiction that his rhetorical opponent was questing for headlines

Back and forth it went, before the repeal fell by a five-vote margin with heavy Democratic defections and debate bounced over to the House, where Speaker Robert DeLeo held the vote for hours while holiday loyalists hustled the votes they needed to hold off the headlines and preserve Evacuation and Bunker Hill.

In the Senate, at least, some who watched the debate felt there was a strain of anti-Irish sentiment shot through the debate, that the thousands of county jobs held by Irish-Americans (thanks to Messrs. O'Neill, Bulger, Finneran, Flaherty, Moakley, and the like) and the positions' inhabitants themselves had stirred in the holidays' critics a sort of, hmmm, lack of appreciation for the historical moments. It's an interesting question, one that at its essence suggests not a lack of respect for the ethnicity of the Boston Irish, but the historicity of Boston itself.

For the sake of the Commonwealth, republic, and all the citizenry therein it would be best if the Suffolk County holidays did not play a significant role in the 2010 campaign. They're headline-accessible, small-dollar issues, terrifically symbolic, and most of those most vociferous on both sides of the issue failed to address the small matter that the county holidays are extended to other state workers as "floating" holidays to enjoy on the date of their choosing.

In part because that particular fact doesn't particularly help either side, the pro-repeal side driving the case that Suffolk workers get special treatment, and the anti-repeal advocates not particularly fond of details that could lead the average voter to believe that, jeez, a lot more people are getting those days off than we thought, and we ain't among them.

It was, for a brief and mildly silly time, the controversy du jour on the Hill, the type of vote that made freshman and swing-district lawmakers edgy, the leadership a little harried, and a large bloc of lawmakers bemused. The issue has flagged on the agenda and will likely continue to until next holiday season, when mischievous Republicans could raise it again, force it onto the campaign agenda, and make the candidates choose sides.

To the hills.