Ah, Saint Paddy’s day. In my wilder days, I will admit to throwing some great parties to celebrate. I vaguely recall nearly missing a Black 47 concert due too many car bombs (the drink, not the act of violence) the night before. I was living in New York City, the home of the St. Patrick’s Day parade, and I’m Irish, after all. I had to represent my heritage with some pride! What I didn’t realize until later, was the history of the Irish in America, and the blatant racism my great grandparents faced. Or even that the St. Patrick’s Day parade was originally a show of solidarity by a repressed people.
As the waves of Irish immigrants landed on America’s shores from the Great Potato Famine, they were looked upon as a drunk, ignorant, and violent people, and ranked lower on the social scale than freed slaves. At a time when an entire race was being subjugated and oppressed through the horrors of slavery, the Irish were thought to be nearly as low.
This idea that the Irish were more than a lower class, that they were a separate race, has deep roots in England, and continued for decades in America. An Irish-Italian union was even considered an interracial marriage up until the mid-20th century.
No Irish Need Apply (NINA) signs were so common that there was popular Irish folk song of the same name. They were so prevalent, that recently even an eighth-grader could find detailed accounts of NINA postings, and published a research paper documenting their widespread use throughout America for decades.
The American Civil War was raging while the Irish were still fleeing their homeland, and they were recruited heavily into the Union ranks, mostly because they couldn’t get jobs elsewhere. In the army, they were often treated as cannon fodder.
The history of the anti-Irish sentiment stems from Medieval England, and is largely due to religious differences. The Irish held fast to their Roman Catholic beliefs while England turned towards Protestantism. This carried over into America, manifesting in everything from extreme prejudice to acts of violence such as burning down convents.
The ties of the Irish plight to modern America are uncanny.
Can you imagine an entire country of immigrants being discriminated against so blatantly? Of course you can.
Can you imagine discriminating against people just based on religion? Of course you can.
The story of immigration in America is filled with stories like the Irish. Just ask African-Americans. Or Chinese. Or Polish. Or Indians. Or Mexicans. Or Muslims. Or any non-settler people who emigrated to the US.
My wife is half Mexican, and so our son is one quarter Mexican, half Irish, and one quarter “American mutt.” I suppose that makes him 100% American Mutt. But some people don’t see their fellow Americans that way — they see differences instead of similarities.
What will his future be like? Will he be discriminated against because of his Irish heritage? I doubt that, as we’ve moved past that prejudice. Will he be discriminated against because of his Mexican heritage? Maybe. I certainly hope that as a country we can move on from that prejudice, as well as all others.
My incredible Grandmother, who turns 97 next month, used to say to me all the time, “we Irish need to stick together.” She was referring to the lingering bias she saw growing up, and a desire to unite Irish descendants under a common banner. When a group of people are being actively discriminated against, it makes sense to stick together based on those bonds. The original St. Patrick’s Day Parade in NYC was an example of this: a show of solidarity, showcasing the Irish presence in New York as a positive thing, not a negative.
Now that we no longer have to fight blatant prejudice and NINA posters, we Irish should stick together to welcome other ethnic groups, religions, and races. We should never promote prejudice, but instead reflect on what it felt like for our forefathers, and banish hatred from future generations. We should open our hearts to people who are different, so that we can “stick together” as one amazing, eclectic, and colorful mass of Americans.