Thursday, April 19, 2007

Honoring those who came before us: a brief look at the history of the American Irish

Honoring those who came before us: a brief look at the history of the American Irish
When most people think of Saint Patrick’s Day, they think of green beer, goofy hats, and drunken debauchery. For the majority of the American Irish, it is a day to honor the saint who brought Christianity to Ireland, and most importantly, a day to honor not only their own heritage, but that of their ancestors as well. The majority of Americans today can trace their ancestry back to an Irish ancestor who made the decision to leave everything they knew behind, for a chance at a better life in America. In the United States today, one in four Americans can trace their ancestry back to the shores of the Emerald Isle.

The Irish first arrived in America prior to the Revolutionary War. These early immigrants came to America mainly as indentured servants. They left their homeland due to the lack of opportunity, British oppression, and religious persecution, which was rampant throughout Ireland in order to make a better life for themselves. However, massive immigration to America did not occur until the 1840s, with the onset of An Gorta Mor, also known as the Great Starvation.[1] Between the years of 1845 and 1921, over four million Irish immigrated to the United States, bringing their Catholic faith and Celtic culture with them.

Once the Irish arrived in America, they had to face the Native American Party’s (Know Nothings) bigotry against them. The Know Nothing movement was a response to increasing number of immigrants coming into America to flee hunger, disease, and death in Ireland. They feared that increasing numbers of Irish immigrants would harm America economically and felt Catholicism threatened their Protestant nation. Of these three, “anti-Catholicism was the core of nativism from the 1830s through the 1850s.”[2] Many well-known individuals such as Reverend Lyman Beecher and Samuel F.B. Morse “believed in an international conspiracy, engineered by European despots, mainly the Hapsburgs, to use Catholicism as a wedge to destroy American liberal democracy.”[3] After nativists burned down an Ursuline convent in Massachusetts in 1834, “a wave of shootings, hangings, and burnings” were carried out against the Irish immigrants.[4] In order to understand this bigotry and hatred of the Irish, it is necessary to see what was being said about them. A journal entry from a wealthy Protestant, George Templeton Strong, states that the Irish are “brutal, base cruel, cowards and as insolent as base; they came from a land populated by creatures that crawl and eat dirt and poison every community they infest.”[5]

The Irish were able to persevere over nativist attacks and start a new life in America. Irish immigrants settled throughout the United States in both urban and rural areas. They worked in a variety of jobs, mainly in the unskilled work such as street cleaners, ditch diggers, longshoremen, day laborers, domestic service, and the needle trade. As the Irish learned jobs skills, they were able to climb up the social ladder by working as carpenters, iron workers, and many entered politics. It was the Irish, along with African Americans and the Chinese that built the base for urban industrial America.

The Irish were able to make it in America for a variety of reasons. The expanding economy provided the Irish with almost an unlimited number of jobs. Second, their ability to use the English language aided in job mobility. Third, Irish political machines helped in many areas such as patronage and social welfare. Fourth, the Irish had a strong family support system which facilitated them in working together to make a better life for the family. Finally, they were glad to be free of British oppression and would do anything to remain free.

The American Irish have played a vital role in shaping our history and culture. Nineteen Presidents of the United States have claimed Irish heritage. One-third to one-half of the American troops during the Revolutionary War and 9 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were American Irish. Irish Americans explored our frontiers, built many of this nation's bridges, canals, and railroads, and their proud record of public service helped to fortify the United States. President John F. Kennedy commented on the success of the American Irish shortly after his election as President of the United States, “to think my grandfather came here from Ireland with nothing more than the pack upon his back.”[6]

[1] Also known as the more commonly used Famine, but I disagree with the word famine as that would indicate that there were no available food sources in Ireland and that all agricultural crops had failed. However, the only crop that failed was the potato, which 90% of the Irish relied on as their main source of food. According to noted Irish studies scholar the An Gorta Mor was “a time period when Irish peasants starved in the midst of plenty. Wheat, oats, barley, butter, eggs, beef, and pork were exported from Ireland in large quantities during the so-called “famine” in Seamus Metress & Richard A. Rajner, The Great Starvation: An Irish Holocaust (available in Carlson Library, University of Toledo), xviii. An Gorta Mor is an Irish phrase that is used extensively throughout the field of Irish Studies and in the Republic of Ireland.
[2] Lawrence J. McCaffrey, The Irish Catholic Diaspora in America (USA: The Catholic University of America Press, 1997), 99.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., 100.
[5] Kevin Kenny, The American Irish: A History (Great Britain: Pearson Education Limited, 2000), 117-118.
[6] Tim Pat Coogan, Wherever Green is Worn: The Story of the Irish Diaspora (London: Random House, 2000), 367-368.