Between 1820 and 1978, approximately 48 million Europeans immigrated to the United States. The first large wave of immigrants came between 1820 and 1860, largely due to deteriorating social conditions within Europe. The years 1880 to 1902 saw a second wave of emigration from Europe caused by revolutions and religious persecutions of Catholics and Jews. Irish immigrants were seen during both waves, but most came to the United States between 1845 and 1849 when a series of potato blights caused thousands of Irish to flee Ireland and almost certain death.
Before the famine, most immigrants to the United States had been either wealthy or reasonably skilled and able to find work. However, the Irish seemed to be poor and uneducated. Many were sick, and the tenements they lived in only made matters worse The American Irish were soon placed at the bottom of the white tier of societal status. They were viewed as having an inferior family life, little ambition, and troubles with alcoholism (Greeley, 1972, p. 119-120). Also, the freed slaves, having been trained to work, were often highly skilled, and therefore difficult for the Irish to compete with. This tension led to rioting and attacks lasting four days in 1863, caused by Irish discontent with the Civil War. The struggle for acceptance and success has caused a certain degree of resentment and respectability to become important parts of American Irish heritage (Greeley, 1972, p. 42).
Irish-Americans became proficient at hiding their cultural differences. To quote Irish-American writer, Andrew M. Greeley: “The legitimation of ethnicity came too late for the American Irish. They are the only European American immigrant group to have over-acculturated. They stopped being Irish the day before it became all right to be Irish (Greeley, 1972, p. 263).
The history of the Irish people unfolds as a harsh tale of war, destruction, famine, prejudice, and death. Conquest of Irish land also sculpted the faces of the Irish people known today. Beginning in 1537, Henry VIII had his eye on Irish land, and subsequently conquered all of Ireland for the English in 1541. By 1556, the Irish were continually forced to make room for the English colonists that established themselves in Ireland. While the British undertook expansion into their territory, the Irish desperately clung to their Gaelic language, culture, and faith (Duff, 1971, p. 5).
Irish bitterness intensified from 1695 to 1727 when the harsh Penal Laws were subjected to Irish Catholics. These laws, among other things, forbade Catholics from voting, holding office, participating in the military and running Catholic schools. Forced eviction and the burning of homes were common at the time. One of the major influences of the Penal Laws was the rule that a Catholic could not leave all of his land to one son. Because of this, land plots were divided equally within the family, and the plots got smaller and smaller. The potato, able to survive on small plots of farmland, began to emerge as a staple crop (McCarthy, 1964, p. 49).
A little over a century later, 1845-1851, the Irish suffered a blow more devastating than they had ever known. The Great Famine or Great Starvation, as it is popularly referred to, was a time in which horrible fungus destroyed most of the Irish potato crop. Because of British exploitation, most Irish farmers were reduced to depending on the cultivation of potatoes on their tiny acres of land (McCarthy, 1964, p. 113). According to many Irish, this situation was created by “systematic British exploitation…inaction in the face of the potato crop failure, and a vindictive racist attitude toward the Irish” (Metress, 1996, p. 2).
From 1820-1920, about five million Irish entered America for the first time. A vast majority immigrated during the potato famine. Others came because of political or religious persecution and domination by Britain (McCaffrey, 1992, p. 10). Early Irish were forced to live in crime-infested, filthy neighborhoods with a lack of conventional opportunities. They were also forced to work in low-income, menial jobs. Bitterness about failures in both Ireland and America heightened the anger some Irish had for the British. As they rationalized, Britain had “conquered and misgoverned the homeland, driving large numbers of its people to a strange land where they again suffered hard times and persecution” (McCaffrey, 1992, p. 5).
Much Irish anger also turned to the competition, more specifically, African-Americans. The Irish were determined to hold onto the last rung of the social ladder while preventing African-Americans from climbing up (Duff, 1971, p. 32). The Irish feared that once blacks were freed from slavery, they would further the delay of Irish-American achievement. When a Virginia planter of the time was asked why he employed only Irishmen on a drainage project, the man replied, “It’s dangerous work and a negro’s life is too valuable to be risked at it. If a Negro dies, it is a considerable loss you know” (Duff, 1971, p. 31). This kind of prejudicial attitude did not help Irish feelings toward African-Americans.
By the 1920s, large numbers of Irish had overcome the obstacles and joined the middle class in America. Just when they were getting a taste of success and acceptance, their homeland was again encountering problems. In 1920-21, Ireland was separated into Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. This caused tremendous frustration for the Irish that still troubles them today. (McCaffrey, 1992, p. 36).
One considerable paradox for Irish-Americans was that, as they achieved success and assimilated into America, the conditions of their homeland seemed to get far worse. The tensions in Ireland escalated so forcefully that on January 30, 1972, thirteen people leading a civil rights march in Derry were killed by British soldiers. From that day forward, the date has been carved into the minds of all Irish as “Bloody Sunday” (McCaffrey, 1992, p. 157). Disputes and continual strain between Catholic and Protestant Irish in Northern Ireland prompted a new wave of Irish immigrants to the United States.
Generally, Irish people are somewhat conservative in their beliefs. They are known to mask their emotions in some situations while being more assertive in others. Stubbornness and angry outbursts occur occasionally. The Irish are also a fun-loving, social people who enjoy drinking, telling stories, dancing, and singing (McCarthy, 1964, p. 26, 32).
The Irish are natural curiosity seekers. They also tend to put much emphasis on nature, land, and their faith. They firmly believe in existing and working with nature and accepting what nature or the Almighty provides for them. Using my own insight, I assume that this is because of Ireland’s restrictive and tragic history. In the midst of tragedy and oppression, nature, faith, and hope are the basis of many peoples’ defense mechanisms.
Irish-Americans, as well as native Irish, are also well known for their political voices. Generally, they are quite respectful of the political process, and according to some sources, they are more trusting and more likely to vote and/or campaign in politics (Farrows, 1979, p. 108). A nationality that has been hit by hard times in both their homeland and in America, the Irish probably find comfort in knowing their voice can be heard through participation in politics. For Irish-Americans, John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s election to the office of the President of the United States was the epitome of Irish Catholic success in America. His death in November 1963 hit the Irish-American community especially hard.
RELIGION, MYTHS, AND LEGENDS:
As people, Irish are traditionally religious as well as superstitious. Most Irish and Irish-Americans consider themselves to be either Protestant or Catholic, two of the largest religious affiliations in contemporary America.
When immigrating to the United States and elsewhere, reliance on their spiritual faith gave the Irish comfort and security in the midst of the good and the bad. The Irish are superstitious and they believe the physical world is inhabited by spirits. They often tell tales of ghosts, fairies, and leprechauns. “I don’t believe in them,” an Irishman will say about fairies, “but they are there” (McCarthy, 1964, p. 32). The uniqueness of their legends and mythology has not only touched those of Irish descent. Countless others around the world are aware of the most famous Irish folklore.
Saint Patrick is the source of many of the most famous legends and traditions in Ireland. As told in the present day, young Patrick was captured and forced into slavery with several other hostages. He spent several years as a shepherd until one day a spirit guided Patrick to a ship bound for Gaul. After setting sail, Patrick and his crew lasted for less than thirty days on the food provided. Performing his first miracle, Patrick magically caused a herd of pigs to appear and suddenly they had food again. Patrick went on to become a Roman Bishop. However, he returned to Ireland soon after, and the Irish people hold him solely responsible for converting them to Christianity and ridding the land of Druid influence. By the time of this death on 461, Saint Patrick had created a structured church throughout Ireland.
Although his death was so long ago, Saint Patrick’s legend thrives. To this day, more than 70,000 Irish-Catholics climb the barren, two-mile ascent of Saint Patrick’s hill. The pilgrimage is used to commemorate the forty days and forty nights of fasting Patrick participated in while he fought away evil spirits in his attempts to Christianize the hill.
The many stories of Saint Patrick also brought forth the most revered symbol in Ireland: the shamrock. As legend has it, some of Patrick’s followers admitted to him that they had problems believing in the Holy Trinity Doctrine. To illustrate his point, Patrick utilized a simple shamrock and its leaves to show them a living example that three deities exist within one God. Shamrock, from the Gaelic word, “seamrog” or summer plant, is believed to hold mystical powers and the legendary luck of the Irish so it is highly respected (Mills, 1995, p. 1-2).
Another well-known legend is that of the leprechaun. If you happen to be walking around on a spring night and hear the “faint tap-tapping of a tiny hammer,” you might catch a glimpse of the little people, known for their elfish tricks. As many people know, the leprechaun has a pot of gold stashed away somewhere. If someone is cunning enough or fast enough to catch him, he must relinquish the treasure. So far, no one has been so lucky. The closest anyone got was when a young man conned the elfish imp into leading him to the exact bush where the gold was hidden. To mark the spot, the man tied a red handkerchief to the bush and raced away to fetch a shovel. When he returned minutes later, red handkerchiefs existed on every bush in the field. Outsmarted by the leprechaun, the man gave up. Within the folklore of the little people exists the fun and storytelling that many people continue to identify with Irish tradition (Mills, 1995, p. 4).
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