The Right Coast

March 17, 2005
Happy St. Patrick's Day
By Gail "My Ex-Mother-in-Law Was a Murphy" Heriot

Calling them dirty, lazy and ignorant hasn’t always been regarded as rude or inappropriate. At one point it was considered a simple fact, amply demonstrated by the evidence. They were not like the rest of us; they were different. Anyone who thought otherwise could try wandering into one of their inner city neighborhoods unarmed. Even the police would venture in only in groups of six or more....

Racism? Perhaps. But the "race" I am referring to is the Irish-–a "racial group" that has become so mainstream today that... well... it is the mainstream. Everyone seems to have a mother (or in my case an ex-mother-in-law) whose maiden name was Murphy. To say that you’re an Irish American is to say that you’re an ordinary American, a member of the "majority."

But it was not always thus. Nineteenth-century Ireland--from which the ancestors of present-day Irish Americans fled in boatloads--was a remarkably dismal place even before the Great Potato Famine. As Gustave de Beaumont, traveling companion to Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote in the 1830s:

"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 know then the condition of unfortunate Ireland."

The evidence seems to bear him out. At 19 years, the Irish peasant's life expectancy was less than the American slave's 36 years (which was not a great deal less than that of other Americans). While the American slave lived in crude log cabins, the Irish peasant lived in even cruder mud huts. And while the American slave ate only small amounts of meat and the meat was of poor quality, the Irish peasant, like peasants across Europe, often had none at all. The world of the 19th century was still a grim place nearly everywhere, but the Irish peasant's world was extraordinarily grim.

With the famine, things took an almost unimaginable turn for the worse. In a remarkably short period of time, the potato, Ireland's staple crop, essentially disappeared. One and a half million, half-starved souls were cast on American shores in the years between 1845 and 1855. And these were the lucky ones. One million out of Ireland's population of eight million died.

When these immigrants got off the boat, they were largely illiterate, unskilled, unwashed and ill-equipped for urban life. What they knew how to do was grow potatoes, something there wasn't much of a call for in New York, Boston or any other American city. Not everyone sympathized with their plight. Friedrich Engels, who fancied himself a champion of the workingman, regarded the Irish immigrant to Great Britain as having a "crudity" that "places him little above the savage." For work requiring skill or patience, Engels complained, "the dissolute, unsteady, drunken Irishman is on too low a plane."

Here in America, many agreed with Engels. Signs reading "No Irish Need Apply" started popping up soon after large numbers of Irish began arriving. Some employers no doubt thought they were being more polite by expressing a preference for "Protestant" applicants; other made sure they were understood by insisting on "any color or country except Irish." Almost nobody thought these Irish immigrants were just like the rest of us.

I would like to be able to say that each and every one of them struggled heroically against all these obstacles, refusing to let his dignity or sense of responsibility flag even for a moment. But the world's not like that. That's why most of us should thank our Creator that circumstances have never put us to the test; real human beings, unlike the characters in melodrama, can be disappointing. Irish neighborhoods had more than their share of crime, prostitution, and other urban pathologies. Family abandonment was more common among the Irish than among other immigrant groups at the time. And in 1914, more than half a century after the first great wave of Irish immigration, about half the Irish families living on the West Side in New York were still (for that and other reasons) without fathers.

It would also be nice to report that the notion of the hard drinking Irishman is just an untrue and vicious stereotype. But in fact, as a group, the Irish were justifiably known for their drinking. When the Irish began to pour into Boston between 1846 and 1849, the number of liquor dealers increased from 850 to 1200. Most catered to the newcomers. Even as late as World War II, more Irish Americans were rejected from the military for alcoholism than Blacks, Italian Americans or Jews.

But why rehash the sins of the fathers? Why not tell the many positive stories about Irish immigrants to America? Well, perhaps it's not good to dwell on the negative side for too long, but I think in this case it says something great about America and its people: If these scruffy Irish immigrants (and I've been told that I'm a tiny bit Irish too, so I hope that gives me a bit of license)... if they can assimilate and have their grandchildren can become part of the American Establishment, anyone can. It may (and usually does) take generations for a group to become just another part of the majority. But everybody can do it. After a while, we're all as American as ... well ... the potato.

What are the implications of all this for today's immigration policy? Maybe very little. The issues that confront us there are difficult and complex. Reasonable people disagree and will continue to do so. But St. Patrick's Day is not a day for resolving thorny issues of public policy. It's a day for raising a glass and toasting all things Irish or even partly Irish. Like baseball and apple pie ... and the Great American middle class.