We think of St. Patrick’s Day as a time to wear green, drink beer, enjoy folk music, and drink more beer. What the Irish represent to this country, however, includes lessons in both immigration and labor that we might do well to remember and heed between pints of Guinness.
Answering no to any of those questions puts one on the wrong side of history, for that is exactly the situation and circumstances surrounding the Irish immigration that began early in the 19th century. Holding the benefit of history, we can see now just what benefit the Irish brought to the United States; but be sure those who were their contemporaries were none to happy to have them here and largely considered them a scourge on the American landscape.
When learning US History, we are taught that it was the potato famine of 1845 that brought the Irish to our shores. While the famine did force a large number of Irish to leave, the immigration to the US had actually started several years earlier, even before we were a country. Irishmen were a significant part of General George Washington’s troops and were especially significant in much of the construction that took place in New York and Boston early in our country’s history. These early immigrants were largely artisans, tradespeople, and professionals. They helped built the Statue of Liberty and dig the Erie Canal. Assimilation came easily.
Then, somewhere around 1820, the picture began to change as farmers began immigrating in large numbers. These were not the well-educated, but illiterate and largely unskilled people who came looking for even a thread of opportunity. They found work mostly as laborers. They built the transcontinental railroad and dug coal from the mines. By 1840, their number was over one million, which was significant considering the population of the time. Unrest among “traditional” Americans began to grow.
When tragedy hit Ireland in the form of the potato famine in 1845, many Irish had only two choices: move to America or starve. By 1851, only 6.5 million remained in Ireland from a population that had been over 8 million ten years earlier. They arrived in huddled masses, often with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. They lived in squalor, giving definition to the term, “Hell’s Kitchen.” Suddenly, America didn’t want them.
What is difficult to imagine now was commonplace then. Ads for employment often included the warning, “Irish need not apply.” They had trouble renting apartments or houses, they were cheated in banking, they were beaten, murdered, robbed, and denied justice at every turn.
But they didn’t go home. They couldn’t. “Home” didn’t want them, either. Even after the potato crop in Ireland began to flourish again, the economy there remained too fragile to support any repatriation. So, they stayed. Eventually, they found jobs or started their own businesses. The Catholic church helped many with housing assistance. Slowly but surely, they began to find footing in this new country that still wasn’t sure they were welcome.
We don’t give much thought to the Irish immigration now. We enjoy the folk style fiddling they introduced to American music. We enjoy their beer. We enjoy their tales of leprechauns and such. And more than anything we enjoy having the excuse to indulge in drunken revelry every March 17.
I fear, though, that for some such celebration is hypocritical. To celebrate the triumph of America’s first serious wave of immigration but challenge the immigration of any other people group is pretty serious hypocrisy. To wear green and swill cheap beer while deriding the benefits of organized labor is nothing short of insulting.
As Americans, we have this tendency to be terribly superficial about our holidays. We rarely seem to care anymore about what meaning lies behind any of them and we rarely pay attention when asked. I mean, come on, how many people actually know who Saint Patrick really was and why he’s important to the Irish? [The answer can be found here.]
While fife and drum parades in celebration of “the Irish Saint,” have been around in the US since at least 1777, it wasn’t until after the Civil War, when anti-Irish and anti-immigration sentiments once again raised their ugly heads did the Irish American communities in Boston, New York, Chicago, Savannah, New Orleans, and even as far West as San Francisco began to hold annual celebrations on March 17 to celebrate their heritage and their contribution.
As with most American holidays, what we celebrate now is a dramatically dumbed-down and overly commercialized version of day meant to celebrate the heritage of a people not native to this soil and the contributions they have made to the development of this country. And in celebrating the Irish we must be mindful of the fact there are millions more just like them who continue to immigrate from other countries, just as much in need, just as willing to work, and equally ready to participate in the multi-cultural blanket that is the United States.
So, when you raise that pint today, raise it not only for the green and the luck and the red-haired beauty serving the beer; raise it for all the immigrants who took a risk, who suffered immeasurable hardship, and put their lives on the line to make this a better country, raise it to organized labor and the benefits of collective bargaining.
Better yet, buy that immigrant or a union boss a beer. They deserve it.