Today is St. Patrick’s Day…what does it mean?
For a country roiled by a contentious debate over immigration and race, we sure have some strange customs, among them St. Patrick’s Day.
Today, for instance, many Americans will pretend to have a heritage they don’t have, and across this country many will wear green. It’s an Irish holiday, and one, which Americans gleefully celebrate.
Today, there is a contentious debate going on over immigration and the scores of children fleeing Central America, seeking refuge in America by crossing the Mexican border into the U.S. We do not know what they are running from, but in their eyes what they are coming to has to be better than what they are fleeing.
Yes, there are obvious differences between a light-hearted holiday and a contentious political issue, yet, they highlight part of the American history we’ve forgotten, but could still learn from.
The lesson is this: For a long time, Irish immigration to the United States was just as controversial as today’s immigration from Mexico, Central America, and other parts of the world. Here, in Northeast Tennessee, many are quite proud of their Scotch-Irish ancestry.
Lest we forget, all of our ancestor immigrated to America from some other country. So why is it today we celebrate our Irish ancestry — whether we have any or not — by wearing green, celebrating with parades, and eating corn beef and cabbage, etc. Yet, we feel threatened by today’s immigrants that many see as frightening, and some don’t even want in their midst!
Perhaps a history lesson is in order. Tracing the early Irish immigration to America is complicated by what we mean by Irish. The first waves of immigrants past the Blue Ridge were predominantly German and what today we’d call Scots-Irish — the descendants of the mostly English (and sometimes Scottish) Protestants who settled in Ulster in the 1600s. (That British attempt to colonize Catholic Ireland with Protestant dissenters from the Church of England is what forms the basis for a separate Northern Ireland, and all of its political troubles, today.)
When some of those Scots-Irish immigrated to America in the 1700s, they simply called themselves Irish and no one thought much about that. It wasn’t until Irish Catholics — from what today we’d call the Republic of Ireland — began to immigrate that the term Scots-Irish came to be used to differentiate the two.
The first big influx of Irish immigration began in the 1820s, lured by the promise of jobs building canals in New England. Then came the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s, and Irish immigration to the United States surged. In the 1820s, about 54,000 Irish immigrants arrived. By the 1840s, that number jumped to nearly 781,000; by the 1850s; more than 914,000. “This was the first time that Americans had to confront an immigrant class whose origin stories, last names, and religious beliefs set them apart from the British settlers who had cleared her forests and populated her first towns centuries earlier,” The New Republic magazine wrote in a story some time ago.
Americans unwittingly responded much like they do toward the Mexicans and Hispanics crossing the border today. As Irish immigration arose, so did discrimination, much of it tied up in anti-Catholic prejudice. Many of the Irishmen were unable to find jobs because of the immigration backlash.
The political reaction to Irish immigration produced a new party — the American Party, often called the Know-Nothings because party members were so secretive they were supposed to say “I know nothing” if asked about their membership.
In 1854, the Know-Nothings scored their first big political success by winning control of the Massachusetts state legislature — running strongest among working-class voters. Once in office, the Know-Nothings fired Irish workers from state government and banned Catholics from holding state office. They forbade teaching foreign languages in schools as an affront to true Americanism. They shipped 300 Irish-born wards of the state to Liverpool, where, The Boston Globe tells us, “they landed on the quay with no one to meet them.” That doesn’t sound that much different from the possible deportation of “Dreamers” today — back to a country in which they may have been born but don’t remember because they left when they were children.
The Know-Nothings soon faded away as a national force as immigration debates gave way to a more contentious one over slavery.
Today, as we wear our green, and celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, perhaps we should reflect on today’s immigration debates in light of what the Irish immigrants to this land went through 200 years ago when they came to America.
Everywhere we go in America, we will find people from different lands, different nationalities, all of whom have come to America because of the dream of a better life. We all have dreams of a better life for those we love, and that can’t be so wrong that it would cause us to hate others.