Today is St. Patrick’s Day, the celebration of all things Irish. The Irish are generally a special people. Handsome, or attractive, witty, musical, loyal, proud, and principalled. But it has not always been so easy.
Well-known is the exodus of the 1840’s when the potato famine and British landlord policies devastated the Irish population. Some sixty per cent boarded death ships for North America or died in their impoverished homes.
Less well-known, or at least less well-remembered, is the fate they found on arrival here. Presaging by six decades the misery that would befall European immigrants at Ellis Island between 1890 and World War I, the Irish were herded into ghettos in New York. Those who found their way inland were not so well received.
The best example that comes to mind is in New Orleans. A neighborhood known as Irish Channel adjoins the elegant Garden District along the levees of the Mississippi. It is so named because the Irish laborers built the levees and dikes that protect the city from the river and enable its shipping commerce. The Irish laborers were used because slaves were too valuable. They lived in shacks at the swampy job site. Thousands of them died of diseases such as typhoid and cholera and no one mourned; the next able body stepped up to man the shovels.
The Irish – Americans of the nineteenth century were the dregs, worse than blacks, worse than Mexicans in Texas, worse than anyone. And they never surrendered their roots and unique Irish-ness.
As school children we were taught that America is a melting pot, taking the best of immigrants from all lands, incorporating their culture and contributions, to add up to a uniquely American stew that has the flavor of all of us.
I hope we still are. The venom against immigrants today is no different than the venom of a century ago. We simply ought to mind it and learn from it rather than let it divide us.
Today, we are all Irish. So, Erin go Bragh and thank you for giving America the best of you.