Despite the fact that I’m about ¾ Irish, my dad wanted to name me “Bridget” and I have vivid memories of my elderly uncles pulling their whiskey bottles out from under the kitchen sink, the struggle of the Irish was never something talked about in my family or in history class. It just wasn’t something they dwelled on. When I learned just how tough it really has been over the centuries, I am amazed at where Irish Americans are today and what we can learn from their experiences.
The Irish immigrants came to America with a shocking past including starvation, slavery and racism, yet their path became one of assimilation rather than separatism. Some people might say that we can’t compare the Irish to ethnic and racial groups of today, but I say we absolutely can. Consider just a few things from their past:
In the 12 year period during and following the Confederation revolt, from 1641 to 1652, over 550,000 Irish were killed by the English and 300,000 were sold as slaves, as the Irish population of Ireland fell from 1,466,000 to 616,000.
During the 1650s decade of Cromwell’s Reign of Terror, over 100,000 Irish children, generally from 10 to 14 years old, were taken from Catholic parents and sold as slaves in the West Indies, Virginia and New England. In fact, more Irish were sold as slaves to the American colonies and plantations from 1651 to 1660 than the total existing “free” population of the Americas!
The French sociologist, Gustave de Beaumont, visited Ireland in 1835 and wrote: “I have seen the Indian in his forests, and the Negro in his chains, and thought, as I contemplated their pitiable condition, that I saw the very extreme of human wretchedness; but I did not then know the condition of unfortunate Ireland…In all countries, more or less, paupers may be discovered; but an entire nation of paupers is what was never seen until it was shown in Ireland.”
Just about everyone has heard of the signs posted back in the days of the biggest immigrant wave from Ireland, “No Irish Need Apply,” and shop door signs reading, “No Dogs or Irish Allowed.”
Rather than fall back on today’s “victimization” mentality, the Irish worked long and hard at the toughest jobs out there and became active in the community and in politics, gradually improving their lot as the years went by. Although people of this generation might not realize it, the election of JFK was a huge milestone to Irish Catholics and my elderly uncles’ walls were adorned with JFK’s portrait. They were so proud of him, not necessarily as a politician, but as a fellow Irishman who made it all the way to the top. As very young kids at the time, we didn’t know why they was so excited about this, because the denial of opportunity for the Irish was not something that we had ever been aware of.
The Irish suffered racism, prejudice, poverty, famine and slavery, yet they continued the fight to overcome it on their own. To become part of the melting pot, the Irish did work on their accents and give up some customs to blend in and assimilate. I am not suggesting that they gave up all of their Irish identity, nor that any group has to take it that far. Keeping cultural customs alive and honoring our ancestry is great. On the other hand, refusing to embrace the country you live in and continuing to embrace victimization harms everyone.
I believe many of today’s minority groups are being held back and bitter words of racism thrown around by those who profit from it. These groups and leaders encourage separatism and victimization over assimilation for their own gain, both monetary and political. There is no doubt that some level of racism and prejudice has always existed and always will, but it’s a beast we don’t have to keep feeding.
What can we learn today from the Irish struggle? Perhaps how we can benefit from some degree of assimilation as opposed to separatism. When groups cling too exclusively to their own culture and reject American culture, it not only divides us as a people, but loyalties tend to be stronger within the group than towards the nation as a whole. Evidence of this has been seen recently when groups like La Raza raise Mexican flags in place of the United States flag. How can anyone think this approach is good for the nation as a whole? But it is very good, indeed, for those who seek to divide and conquer.
United we stand, divided we fall. Question the motives behind anyone who seeks to divide us and keep others dependent on their special interest groups and the government for survival. Question anyone who uses racism to tear down this country and divide its’ citizens, when we have fought and continue to fight so hard to overcome it.
We don’t have to give up all of our customs and culture to be a place of opportunity for everyone, but every American must understand the value of assimilation in promoting unity and opportunity. We can thank the Irish for being a great example of this.
“May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields,
And until we meet again,
May God hold you
In the palm of his hand.”