March 17th marks Saint Patrick's Day, a celebration of Irish-American culture and tradition in the United States. Viewed as a festive day when "everyone is Irish", historically such a tribute was viewed more as mockery than a compliment.
As you walk into my parent's house, a wooden plaque rests along the fireplace mantle, austere and abrupt against a plain white wall. A replica of a labor advertisement of the mid-1800s through the early-1900s, the plaque simply reads, "HELP WANTED. No Irish Need Apply". In our Irish-American household, the sign serves as a stark reminder of a time in American history when only a few groups were allowed to benefit from our country's wealth and prosperity.
The Irish were strongly discriminated against and alienated upon arrival to the New World; a story of immigrant struggle that most ethnic groups encountered on American soil. As to all who have made the journey to this land in search of a better life, the Irish-American experience is a blend of commonality and uniqueness. The Irish were forced into ethnic slums that exuded isolation and prejudice from the mainstream society. The limited and discriminatory access to labor prohibited a "better life" for many first and second generation Irish. The Irish made up for hard times by penetrating the very system that served as a blockade.
Most Irish fled Ireland as a result of the Great Potato Famine of the mid-1800s, which was a provocation of greed and destruction by the colonizing British. Britain's view that the Irish were an inferior race transcended into American judgment. The Irish were easy immigrates to initially separate with their harsh brogue, impoverished look, and clan communities. Their religion of Catholicism was considered archaic and lowly to the American Protestant State. It would be this clan nature and Catholic kinship of the Irish that would later allow them to flourish in this land.
As Irish babies were born on American soil, the Irish accent was replaced by American dialect. The Irish also had the advantage of having no discerning physical attributes--once the brogue was gone and last names were shortened, one couldn't visually tell an Irishman from an Englishman. This allowed many Irish to assimilate into the Anglo mainstream, opening doors of inclusion and promotion to a more prosperous life.
The tightness of the Irish community served as a pillar of support during the harsh adjustment to American life. Now able to assimilate, Irish communities began to flourish, without betraying their obligation to the Catholic Church and to their culture. Initially struck down by the governing and social system, the Irish found an interesting and rather unique way to end their discrimination-they became the ones in charge. Political offices and police and fire departments were soon filled and run by Irish-Americans, especially in the urban cities of Boston, New York and San Francisco. Sadly, though, as many Irish began to prosper in America, they returned the acrimonious attitudes of prejudice once used on them to other ethnic groups.
The month of March is filled with bittersweet irony. On March 17th we celebrate Saint Patrick's Day; a day when "everyone is Irish" and " the wearing o' the green" is mandatory (unless you wish to be pinched). The days of Irish discrimination are long gone in America. Irish-Americans are an extremely proud people, dedicated to restoring positive Irish traditions and preserving their history. It is amusing to think that it wasn't that long ago, mainstream America would have gawked at the observance of the Irish culture on Saint Patrick's Day. Just goes to show that yes, America can be that metaphorical "melting pot". Erin go Braugh.
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For more information on the Irish and other ethnic groups in America, the following suggested readings are provided:
A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present, by Howard Zinn
A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, by Ronald Takaki
May the Road Rise to Meet You: Everything You Need to Know
About Irish American History, by Michael Padden (editor) and Robert Sullivan (editor)
The Troubles: Ireland's Ordeal 1966-1996 and the Search for Peace, by Tim Pat Coogan
How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, by Thomas Cahill
Angela's Ashes, by Frank McCourt
©1999 Presidio, Inc./Alethea Callahan. Duplication without permission prohibited.