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,


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