About a century and a half ago, the Irish came to America en masse. We were “the wretched refuse” on her shores. Fleeing famine and oppression at home, over a million Irish emigrated, mostly to the United States, and another million died of starvation while landlords of the Protestant Ascendancy shipped tons of Irish grown food overseas. The Potato Blight was a natural disaster, but the Potato Famine was a hate crime.
My ancestors were not welcomed. They were the wrong religion, they were stereotyped as alcoholics, as lazy, uneducated, prone to violence, unruly, ill disciplined and a threat to decent society.
They took jobs few native born Americans wanted, in the mines, on the railroad, the army. They went into politics and took jobs on the fire and police departments. They formed some of the first, and not entirely peaceful, labor unions. The Irish may not have been welcomed into American society as much as they shoved their way in.
Today, it is immigrants from other nations that bear the brunt of fear and resistance from the native born. Maybe they are the wrong religion, maybe they don’t speak our language, maybe they take the jobs no American wants, because that’s the first step on the journey to a better life for their children.
But they aren’t that different from us.
I’ve heard people say (often people whose ancestors, like mine, came over in coffin ships and stood in bread lines and took the worst jobs until they made those jobs respectable, until they voted enough of their own kind into office) that the Irish assimilated, that we became Americans.
Well, perhaps we became Americans, but we sure as hell didn’t assimilate.
We didn’t convert to Protestantism on any large scale. We didn’t give up our music or our culture or our ethnic pride. We wouldn’t have given up our cuisine if we had any that didn’t have to be boiled.
The Irish became American not by melting into the existing culture, but by changing that culture to include Irish heritage. America with the Irish removed wouldn’t be American anymore.
This is an American story, but it’s not a unique one. While the path each new wave of immigrants took varied somewhat, every new group has added a thread to the quilt, not vanished into it.
Now it is up to us to decide how to meet the newest Americans. To decide how we teach our children to greet them.
So as you celebrate your Irish heritage, just remember that your people were once the poor, the tired, the huddled masses. People fleeing civil war and hunger and the crushing heel of a foreign occupier.
So look at people in the same position today, and don’t be a feckin’ shite to them.