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Given this century’sMiddle Eastern terrorist attacks and refugee crises, it’s not hard to fathom the intense Irish immigrant bigotry of the mid 1800’s. The great Irish Potato Famine lasted from 1845 to 1855 and brought massive numbers of starving Irish refugees to America’s eastern shores. Ireland’s strict landlords evicted poor tenant farmers who could no longer pay rent with their blighted crops. So, faced with starvation or death, hundreds of thousands of Irish emigrated across the Atlantic Ocean to the US, a nation which boasted freedom, liberty and opportunity above all else.
To say these immigrants were not welcomed by the American public of the time is a vast understatement.
Bigotry against the Irish in the US included many different stereotypes like the belligerent Irish drunkards, thieving criminals, dangerous drunken hooligans, certainly not to ever be trusted. Newspaper cartoons of the day depicted a prehistoric species to bolster claims the Irish were an inferior, servant race compared to white Protestant, Anglo-Saxons of English decent. The common derogatory terms tossed about loudly were ‘Micks, Paddies or Biddies,’ based on common Irish firs or last family names. Irish Catholic laws and customs were particularly open to ridicule by the wealthy, protestants, politicians, and the press alike.
Immigrant refugees were subjected to distortions of their Catholic religion and ostracized simply because of their faith. Catholics were labeled as barbaric pagans, papists, not being ‘real Christians.’ Some Protestant ministers forbid association with the heathen Catholics. Intermarriage was strictly forbidden. Many Protestants distrusted a religion that in their eyes was highly suspicious with its rosary beads for the Virgin Mary and Latin prayers to long dead Saints. The sheer number of families coming across the Atlantic Ocean caused wide spread fear and even led to attacks on US Catholic churches, some being burned to the ground.
Many poor Irish came ashore with few skills besides farming, but just enough for the women to be low paid servants and the men factory workers. The Industrial Revolution was still running strong in the 1800’s. The poor Irish monopolized the lowest-paying jobs, creating growing resentment amongst established citizens as they were seen by the public as taking work away from ‘Real Americans.’ It became common practice for those with Irish names or brogue accents to be barred from voting, entering public buildings, and employment opportunities.
“NO IRISH NEED APPLY” signs were common in the windows of U.S. businesses and even newspaper advertisements for work.
It was felt in the mid 1800’s that the Irish hated America’s patriotism and its ‘purer’ form of Christianity. Irish were considered illiterate, hot-tempered, tended to congregate by suspiciously themselves, and perhaps most shockingly bred like rabbits, having far more children than was common back then. The ‘pure’ or ‘real’ Americans felt that this ‘reckless, slothful, and superstitious race‘ was overtaking them. They certainly had no place in the U.S. society and should all be packed on ships and deported back to where they came! Sound familiar?
During the Civil War, the Irish immigrants found some bit of respect of sorts. As willing Yankee soldiers, they could help outnumber the Southern Confederacy and win major military battles. Many Irish Americans fought at the fierce battles of Gettysburg and Antietam. However, after the war, that camaraderie did not change the opinion of most Americans for decades. By the 1880’s, many Irish still occupied the poorest slums of major U.S. cities like Boston, New York and Chicago. Time was on their side however, as future generations took their rightful place.
Of course, we know today that the Irish were eventually embraced by the U.S. and in fact became a vibrant, healthy part of America’s melting pot culture. Just imagine a March without St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. Irish Americans eventually became a force to be reckoned with in the police departments, labor unions and local politics. President John F. Kennedy was of Irish decent, as was the actor John Wayne and car maker Henry Ford. One could say the same for European, Mexican and Asian immigrants. Just imagine the U.S. without its beloved pizza, beer, nachos or egg rolls!
Unfortunately, the same foul treatment was true for those subsequent waves of immigrants who arrived after the Irish. Whether from Eastern Europe, China, or India, they brought their own strange languages, religions and customs to our shores. Each wave, like the Irish before them, faced decades of bigotry and racism at the hands of the established Americans, including ironically, Irish Americans. That is until their descendants too were ultimately, and often reluctantly, considered Americans. I make no mention here of African American slaves or their descendants here. That is the topic for another blog. Their plight and journey before and after slavery was far worse.
And the human cycle continues today with the latest waves of immigrants and refugees arriving in the United States and Western Europe from places like Mexico, Central America, the Middle East and southeast Asia. The struggle they face today sounds oddly familiar given the lens of history.
I leave you with this line from Emma Lazarus’ 1883 stirring poem, The New Colossus, etched into the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York City harbor:
BRING US YOUR TIRED, YOUR POOR, YOUR HUDDLED MASSES YEARNING TO BREATH FREE. THE WRETCHED REFUSE OF YOUR TEAMING SHORES. SEND THESE, THE TEMPEST TOST TO ME. I LIFT MY LAMP BESIDE THE GOLDEN DOOR.Statue of Liberty poem, 1883