Saint Patrick’s Day is right around the corner. Or, as we call it- St. Paddy’s Day. Rivers are going to be dyed green. Crowds of men and women wearing top hats and tu-tu’s will run 5k and 10k’s during the month. Wal-Mart started selling ‘Pinch me; I am Irish’ shirts on Valentine’s day. And bars are receiving their shipment of extra glasses from Amazon in anticipation of the biggest holiday for beer. I am already planning my meal of Corned Beef and Cabbage with Soda bread- which is currently all on sale at Fred Meyer’s if you are interested.
Interestingly, this country is such an avid participator in the holiday, seeing how when the Irish first started arriving in droves during the 1845 devastating potato blight in Ireland, which is referred to as the ‘Great Hunger’, the country was not very accommodating to them. Nearly a quarter of the Irish nation came to these shores because there was nowhere else to run. Yet, at the time, Irish immigrants were looked down on as disease-ridden, unskilled, and a drain on welfare budgets.
The disease-ridden claim is entirely accurate. Ireland is known for its 40 shades of green; however, in this part of history, the green was staining the mouths of those trying to survive by feeding on the clumps of grass in a frantic effort to survive. The country had survived off of potatoes for years, as John Keating wrote in his book Irish Famine Facts– ‘the average adult working male in Ireland consumed a stiffening 14 pounds of potatoes per day, while the average adult women would eat 11.2 pounds.’
While there is no way that any doctor in the U.S. would deem this safe, potatoes are full of nutrition and are very easy to grow in a small area of land. Heck, buy a couple of 5-gallon buckets from Lowes and fill it was dirt and potatoes seeds- and you are set for the year! But take away that tiny area of land, as the British Protestant landowners did, and couple it with a strange potatoes disease that is described as a rotting red-brown mucus as a lethal pathogen. The Irish were faced with typhus, dysentery, tuberculosis, and cholera as a constant enemy knocking at their doors.
I know what you are thinking, why didn’t anyone try to help them? Where was the English government in all this since they were the ones that owned the land? Didn’t they have a moral obligation to help the Irish? Well, no, they didn’t. You see, Britain at that time supported Laissez-Faire Capitalism or better known as the Free-Market Capitalism thought process, which means ‘leave us alone. This meant that the government should not, and would not, get involved in the economy and instead allowed individuals to freely carry out their economic affairs- which is an excellent prospect if you are on the wealthy side of the population.
This idea is manifested in writing as shown in the London News in March 1849-
“Great Britain cannot continue to throw her hard-won millions into the bottomless pit of Celtic pauperism,”
Charles E. Trevelyan, the British civil servant in charge of the relief effort for Ireland, even viewed the famine as a divine solution to Irish overpopulation as he declared:
“The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated.”
The Irish departure is considered to be the most significant single population movement of the 19th century. The potato famine killed over 1 million Irish, but around 2 million fled the small island hoping for a better future somewhere else. They spent the last of their meager savings on the 3,000-mile journey across the Atlantic Ocean to the U.S., crossing in vessels where adults were given 18 inches of bed space, and children only half of that. These ships were commonly referred to as ‘Coffin Ships’ because nearly a quarter of them died while at sea- the bodies wrapped in cloth, weighed down with stones, and thrown overboard. If they made it through the terrifying 4-week journey, they were not coming off the ships breathing in the fresh air of freedom; they were searching for food!
Barely strong enough to walk across the street, they had no money or energy to dive into the competitive world of the U.S. Let’s face the facts, Americans are like the snooty teenage girl and boy groups in high school. The ones who formed a pack of friendships based on fear and intimidation against anyone new or poor. Unless you have proved your worth, you were not worthy of consideration in the secret society of U.S. citizenship. And then, on top of being sick, cold, scared, and destitute- the Irish were Catholic. At that time, you might as well put on a black cloak of doom and praised the unholy halls of hell because the is what level you were considered to be.
Why did Americans hate Irish Catholics? And let us address this question because at the same time that the Irish were flooding on to the U.S.’s shores- so were an equal number of German immigrants who were facing the same hatred- because of religion.
And for this question, we need to dive into the history. The original colonies were founded because of a religious departure from the Catholic church and its ideals. Feelings of distrust toward the Vatican had not softened in the two centuries since the Mayflower arrived on the shores. So scared were the Protestants that the Vatican was making a run on the U.S. for total control, that by 1849 there was a clandestine fraternal society of native-born Protestant men called the ‘Order of the Star-Spangled Banner’ in New York. They wanted a land of ‘Temperance, Liberty, and Protestantism.’ Other groups started growing, and within a few years, the ‘Know-Nothings’ partisan group grew in numbers and political seats.
Jay P. Dolan writes in The Irish Americans: A History that
“once in power in Massachusetts the Know-Nothings mandated the reading of the King James Bible in public schools, disbanded Irish militia units while confiscating their weapons and deported nearly 300 poor Irish back to Liverpool because they were a drain on the public treasury. They also barred naturalized citizens from voting unless they had spent 21 years in the United States.”
There are reports of Jesuit Priests being tarred and feathers, Catholic churches being burnt to the ground, a German Priest. He was killed in Louisville, Kentucky, while trying to visit a sick parishioner. It went so far that protestors tossed in a marble block gifted by Pope Pius the IX (9th) for the Washington Monument to the Potomac River because John F. Weishampel suggests that the stone would be a signal from the Pope to launch an immigrant uprising to take over the U.S.
The Irish fought back, fighting back smartly. They went to the polls. They voted in a higher proportion than any other ethnic group. They knew first hand what it was like to not have control over their future because of someone else’s decisions, and they were not going to do it again. They would find their path in this country by being placed in positions where they could control.
Their dedication to voting and the political system helped propel William R. Grace to become the first Irish-Catholic mayor of New York City in 1880 and Hugh O’Brien, the first Irish-Catholic mayor of Boston four years later.
After the Great Hunger, the Irish controlled influential political machines in cities across the United States. This allowed them to move up the social ladder into the middle class – “Being from the British Isles, the Irish were now considered acceptable and assimilable to the American way of life,” Dolan wrote.
It took years and dedication, but here we are- all Irish on March 17th!
But let’s get to some interesting facts about St. Patrick’s Day that a majority of Americans don’t know about:
The first Saint Patrick’s Day parade started here in the U.S. The parade was held on March 17, 1601, in a small Spanish colony now called St. Augustine, Florida, because Florida is what I think about when I think of Saint Patrick’s Day! This so makes sense! It does if you remember that this is not an ‘Irish Holiday,’ but a Catholic holiday and the Spanish were strict and devoted Catholics.
That Shamrock that everyone loves to put on their windows or wear as a symbol of their Irish support has a few different meanings, depending on what you’re researching. One, St. Patrick used the Shamrock to explain the holy trinity. Two, it could symbolize re-birth since they appear at the beginning of spring. Or three, it is a sign of Irish nationalism that the Irish started wearing to show their displeasure with English rule.
The famous Irish music that we all love to love in March, you know what I am talking about- the month where every American is trying to sing ‘Danny Boy’ like we know the words or the meaning. After being conquered by the English and prohibited from speaking their language, the Irish turned to music to help them remember important events and hold on to their heritage and history. Queen Elizabeth I announced that all artists and pipers were to be arrested and hanged on the spot during her rule. She would be so mad right about now if she knew that Irish music had seven different Pandora channels!
We have to mention the Corned Beef and Cabbage that I am even planning to make- it is an American dress. Irish immigrants living on New York City’s Lower East Side substituted corned beef for their traditional Irish bacon dish to save money. According to Delish.com-
‘brining was a technique of the Eastern Europeans, which is a way of salt-curing meat. And the corn? Well, “corned” has nothing to do with corn but instead refers to the corn-sized salt crystals used during the brining process (In fact, corned beef is sometimes referred to as “pickled beef,” as you are quite literally pickling brisket with this particular brining process.). The corned beef was paired with cabbage, as it was one of the cheapest vegetables available to the Irish immigrants.’
And finally, I have sad news to announce. In contrast, Guinness was first produced in Ireland and created by an Irish man named Arthur Guinness (1725-1803), the inspiration and came from an English porter brew. And while the beer is certainly cherished as a favorite Irish pastime, the creator was a committed Unionist who vehemently opposed Irish nationalism. Who would have thought!
Regardless of why you celebrate or how you celebrate…. Like every culture in the U.S., I think it is a great idea to get to know your neighbors and their cultural backgrounds. It just so happens that on this particular day, we all get to get decent food, fantastic beer, and dress up in Tutu’s and Shamrocks while running next to a dyed green river!
As always, my friends, I invite you to do more research on this subject, there were too many side tales to the tale, and I feel like I might have done the Irish Americans an injustice by not going more in-depth. But if you even type Irish Catholics or Great Hunger into the search bar of Google.com- then I have done my job!
And please remember……be Great and what you are Good at!