Friday, March 17, 2017

Those Filthy Irish

An Anti-Irish 19th Century Cartoon, public domain, Wikipedia.

Greetings All:

It's St. Patrick's Day.  For those of us of Irish heritage, it is a day to celebrate being both Irish and American.  I say that for in America, St. Patrick's Day has become an informal national holiday.  The saying, "Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick's Day" will be repeated more than once.

Where I reside, the celebration will continue thru Saturday when "The Grand Parade" is held.  Our local St. Patrick's Society hosts this terrific parade, the only one where the route covers two states.  This is a highlight of the weekend.  There will be bag pipes and flags, and bands and floats and candy and fun, lots of fun.

The poster for this year's "The Grand Parade."  Photo by J. Berta

All across America, people will gather to celebrate the day.  You would be hard-pressed to find someone who is not proud, if not eager, to be a part of these festivities.  In fact, this entire month has been, by Presidential proclamation, decreed as Irish-American Heritage Month.  President Trump's opening paragraph of this proclamation reads:  

"Irish Americans have made an indelible mark on the United States.  From Dublin, California, to Limerick, Maine, from Emerald Isle, North Carolina, to Shamrock, Texas, we are reminded of the more than 35 million Americans of Irish descent who contribute every day to all facets of life in the United States.  Over generations, millions of Irish have crossed the ocean in search of the American Dream, and their contributions continue to enrich our country today."

Impressive, even if I am admittedly biased.  (I'm half-Irish on my Mom's side.)  The Irish are unquestionably part of America society and culture and we've got good reason to be proud of that.  Yet that was not always the case.  

The opening image of this blog is from the19th century in Harper's Weekly.  The Irish were far from the beloved people they are today in America.  If anything, they were despised, and feared.  They were different.  They drank, they were Catholics, they had a thick accent, they had lots of kids.  To those in power, the Irish were a threat to the order of things.  Thus began the campaign of rage against them.  The poster below is but one ugly example of the bigotry served up against people whose only crime was fleeing famine.

Perhaps no better city than sadly shows just how bad it was for the Irish upon their arrival than Boston. Boston, a base of Irish-American pride and the home state of America's only (to date) President of Irish-Catholic heritage was no place where "everyone was Irish."  No, no my friends, it was a place seething with rage by the locals against their new (and MOST un-invited) neighbors.

Edgar B. Herwick III has a dynamite article entitled, "Turning Boston Irish Was A Fight-Literally."  I have a link to it above and it's worth a read.  Here's an excerpt from it that sums up the attitude of some of Boston's "established" residents:

"'America was reserved for them and they were now having to defend themselves against the foreign papists, the Catholic hordes as they called them, coming from Europe,'" said Peter F. Stevens, journalist and author of 'Hidden History of the Boston Irish.'"

Simply put, some in America just didn't like those those filthy Irish.  And don't bother looking for work here Paddy...

"No Irish Need Apply" London,1862, public domain, Wikipedia.

Then came the fight that the south had been spoiling for with the attack on Fort Sumter.  The Civil War plunged America into the bloodiest abyss it had ever seen.  Soft green fields became a crimson colored charnel house.  After battles raged and the guns finally, mercifully fell silent, bloated bodies lay upon the ground as far as the eye could see and the nose could barely stand.  Approximately 620,00 died during that war.  Adam Goodheart's book, 1861:  The Civil War Awakening, tells the tale of that first year.  Here's The New York Times book review on it.

From this chaos of death and fear, heroes arose.  They included The Irish Brigade.  In 2011, Matthew Brennan wrote did a particularly insightful article entitled "The Irish Brigade:  Heroes of the Civil War," for Irish America magazine  about the costs borne by the battle of these sons of Ireland and now America.

At the front of the line was Thomas Francis Meagher.  Here is how he is described the article:

"The history of the Irish Brigade is tied inextricably to the story of their first and most celebrated commander, Colonel, later Brigadier General, Thomas Francis Meagher. Depending upon the sources one relies upon, Meagher was variously an inspired leader, a hopeless drunk, a patriotic American, an ardent Irish nationalist, a closet Fenian, or an inveterate politician. The complex reality was that he was, at various times and under different circumstances, all of these things."

Brigadier General, Thomas Francis Meagher. public domain, Wikipedia

The Brigade acquitted themselves upon the battlefield, fighting in some of the most bloody of battles.  Brennan concludes his article with this tribute: 

"By the end of the war, more than 950 men of the Brigade had died on the battlefield. Overall, the Irish Brigade saw over 4,000 men killed and wounded; more men than ever belonged to the Brigade at any one time. Yet at the same time they etched a name for themselves in history. With their blood and courage they made a name that was carved so deeply into the American heart that there would never again be a question as to whether the Irish had the right to call themselves…'Americans.'”

The Dropkick Murphys did a fantastic cover of "The Fighting 69th."  Please click the link below if you'd like to hear it and see an amazing slide show of Veterans.

The Following caption is taken from the Irish American  article mentioned above:  "'A Donnybrook at Dusk" by Bradley Shmel; Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher; Savage Station, Virginia. Union field hospital after the battle of June 21. / Photo by Courtesy of Bradley Schmel; Library of Congress; James F. Gibson/Library of Congress."Fair use/sharing authorized.

So one might reasonably conclude that any racial animosity ended after the rest of America saw what good Americans the Irish were.  Yeah, not so much.  That opening image for this post...was from 1871.  Yup, well after The Civil Ended.  Sometimes, prejudices stick around.

So for those of us who are of Irish heritage, by all means, let's celebrate today, this weekend, all month.  It is a time of celebration and I do hope all eyes are a' smiling.  Hoist a cup and toast all those who came before us.  

But let us also recall that at one time we were the persecuted.  Had Twitter been around 150 years ago, we'd be the ones attacked and vilified.  It was the Irish and their reproduction rates that caused fearful Protestants to bemoan these "other babies."  America was starting to look...a bit different.  That scared those in power.  "All those filthy Irish," they would say, shaking their heads...and fists.

What is to me so tragic about the blatant bigotry of this past time is that the Irish were not given a chance to become Americans, to assimilate.  Even when they did, paying the price through their toil and spilled blood, it was not good enough...and it never would.

My favorite poet is Yeats.  He captures the grand beauty and silent heartbreak of life.  I'll wrap up this blog post with this poem.

"I Am Of Ireland" by William Butler Yeats

'I am of Ireland,
And the Holy Land of Ireland,
And time runs on,' cried she.
'Come out of charity,
Come dance with me in Ireland.'

One man, one man alone
In that outlandish gear,
One solitary man
Of all that rambled there
Had turned his stately head.
That is a long way off,
And time runs on,' he said,
'And the night grows rough.'

'I am of Ireland,
And the Holy Land of Ireland,
And time runs on,' cried she.
'Come out of charity
And dance with me in Ireland.'

'The fiddlers are all thumbs,
Or the fiddle-string accursed,
The drums and the kettledrums
And the trumpets all are burst,
And the trombone,' cried he,
'The trumpet and trombone,'
And cocked a malicious eye,
'But time runs on, runs on.'

I am of Ireland,
And the Holy Land of Ireland,
And time runs on,' cried she.
"Come out of charity
And dance with me in Ireland.'

William Butler Yeats, Irish Man of Letters.  Public domain/fair use claimed regarding this photo.  Photo credit to the Academy of American Poets, link to website here.

What I love about this poem is what I will call the imagery it creates in the soul.  For me, being "of Ireland" is not so much about a place but a belief, a state of mind.  I think it is quite possible, if not preferred to be of Ireland in one's heart while having both feet firmly planted in America, endeavoring to contribute to building that "more perfect union."

So here's to remembering those who came before us.  Let us recall, not with bitterness but was the honest measurement of history's ruler what the Irish suffered in America. Here's to those "Filthy Irish." 

A bheith go maith le mo chairde,


Sunday, March 12, 2017

What vs. Who

From the recent Rotary pres-elect training in Ames, IA.  Photo by J. Berta.

Greetings All:

I haven't posted for a couple of weeks.  In that time, I've had a number of things going on, including MC'ing our local Veterans' Conference, spending a quite cold weekend in Wisconsin and then this past weekend behind "enemy lines" at Iowa State University for the North Central Regional Rotary Presidents-Elect Training Seminar.

Rotary International is a service organization I joined a few years back at the invitation of my neighbor Dave.  Founded in 1905 by Paul Harris (an University of Iowa Law School alum) it is truly an international organization.  Yet its strength (in my opinion) is in the local groups and the people who volunteer their time in their communities.

Paul Harris memorialized on a Brazilian postage stamp, 1968, public domain, Wikipedia

Likely best known for its work in eradicating polio, Rotary has been front and center in the efforts to rid the world of this horrific disease.  According to the Center For Disease Controls and Prevention, CDC,  polio is on the ropes.  Here's hoping for a knock out blow, and soon!

However, the works of Rotary are best seen not around the globe but around the block.  Local Rotary clubs spend their time, talent and treasure working to better the communities where they reside.  I am proud of the work my club does.

Yet if I am going to be honest, I am more than a bit apprehensive about this upcoming year.  I have a difficult time saying "NO" to joining groups and I am not exactly bored with my professional pursuits.  I think that when I committed to being on the leadership track for my club that I took comfort in the fact my term as president was years away.  Now, those years are now a few months.  Gulp.

It will be a LOT of work.  I want to do a solid job as club president and know that there will be moments of frustration.  I want to limit those and instead focus on the meaningful work that our club will do.  I am also profoundly aware of this inarguable fact:  I am incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by a terrific group of people genuinely committed to Rotary's mission.  I am already in their debt for their support for working together on this collective mission of "Service Above Self." (Rotary International's motto.)

Still, I know myself well enough to recognize there will be moments where I will be tired, overwhelmed by life, upset about something major or ridiculously trivial matter during this year term.  I want to be able to keep things in perspective and also view this year of service as a positive experience, not an event of dread.  Actually, I have been thinking about this matter for some time now.  It just all came to a head for me this weekend during the seminar.

On Friday afternoon, I was in an educational session when a new friend said something that hit me, hard.  She commented, "I want my club members to stop being Rotary Members and instead be Rotarians."

As the weekend went on, I kept thinking about that statement.  For me, it crystallized the whole "what" vs. "who" debate I suspect most, if not all of us experience in life.  In this context, it was the "what" of being a Rotary member versus the "who" of being a Rotarian.

Here's what this means to me:  Rotary membership is a public affirmation that I am a member of an organization whose mission, values and actions are things I support.  Being a Rotarian is saying to myself:  "I endeavor to live Rotary's mission, values and actions in my life."  I'll keep you posted on how it goes, yet in the short time I have been thinking about this, my apprehension about next year has gone down.

It can be applied to any group or organization, political party or religious affiliation.  This analysis may also be helpful in deciding if groups/organizations you have been a part of may no longer be as important to you if the "what" is kinda there and the "who" is really hard to find.

And I think it is OK to fail sometimes, to get angry, or frustrated or say, "I've had IT!" for today.  Where the relief, the energy to resume can come in is when you recognize that because (fill in the blank _____) is a part of who you are, it is easier (impossible not to, actually) get back on the horse.  

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche has a great quote:  "He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how."  And along with the "how" comes the "why."  I'd encourage you to watch this TED Talk by Simon Sinek.  I am pretty sure I have shared this talk before and it's even more appropriate for this post.  He is an author whose book, Start With Why helps (at least me) "get" the concept of what really matters.  

So as I get ready for my year as club president, I hope I can recall that I am first a Rotarian and my Rotary membership is a distant second.  If I can do that, then this next year (starting in July) should be one I will not forget and look back on with almost exclusively fond memories.  

I will leave you with a photo of "The Four-Way Test."  It nicely sums up what I believe all Rotarians strive for in their daily lives.  

Our Rotary Club's banner for "The Four-Way Test."  Photo by J. Berta

It's a great way to approach life and I know many people who perhaps unconsciously live their lives by this test.  They may not be Rotarians, yet sure live like one.  In the end, that is all that matters.

Be well my friends,