Something Else: If you're not Irish, you may wish you were on St. Patrick's Day

by Eric Marotta | News Leader Editor Published:

The Feast of St. Patrick, marked annually on the March 17, is both a cultural and religious holiday honoring the patron saint of Ireland. Remember, he banished the snakes?

For one day a year, it seems anyone with a drop of Irish blood, and many with no hereditary claim, celebrates the contributions of the Irish to American culture.

But it's not all green beer, corned beef and cabbage.

My claim of Irish blood comes via my maternal grandmother, the daughter of a mixed marriage between an Englishman and an O'Byrne, which makes me 1/16th blessed with blarney.

That may be where I got my taste for Guinness, said to be the national drink of the Emerald Isle. More likely, it's due to the several weeks I spent touring Ireland with my mother, brother and sister the year I turned 18.

Would you believe I've never once tasted green beer?

As you probably learned in school, many Irish emigrated to the United States in the wake of the great famine of the mid-1800s, when a fungus decimated potato crops. In the five-year catastrophe, a million Irish died of starvation and 500,000 arrived in America, according to a history of Irish heritage by the Library of Congress.

My mother and her parents -- culturally more English than Irish -- were immigrants from southeast England after World War II, when their tiny island was a wreck and this country began to boom.

According to the Library of Congress history, the migration of Irish to America started in colonial times, but began growing around 1820 -- about the same time Ohio was being settled -- and continued until an estimated 4.5 million had arrived by 1930.

During that time, the population of Ireland went from more than 8 million in 1841 to 4.7 million in 1891.

I find it kind of chilling, knowing the often violent history of Irish settlement in the United States, to hear some of the anti-immigrant comments in our current political debate. It seems the fear of immigrants is as American as apple pie.

According to the Ancient Order of Hibernians, established in Pennsylvania in the 1830s, prejudice against Irish Catholics ranged from the annual March 17 "Pope Day" burning of straw effigies of St. Patrick during the late 1700s, to outright violence: A mob razed St. Mary's Church in New York in 1831; a convent in Massachusetts was burned in 1834.

The 2002 motion picture "Gangs of New York" depicts riots pitting "native" Americans against Irish immigrants in the Five Points neighborhood of New York City.

One of the most successful anti-immigrant movements gained power during the 1850s. The so-called American Party came to be known as the "Know Nothings," as members would claim to "know nothing" about the organization's activities.

A document at the Library of Congress outlines an "obligation" assumed by prospective members, who would "pledge to elect only native-born citizens to office, to the exclusion of all foreigners and Roman Catholics," according to a library summary. The "obligation" was reminiscent of the late 1700s, when Irishmen seeking public office were forced to take an oath renouncing the Pope's authority.

The American Party was powerful: It nominated Millard Filmore for president in 1856. Vice President Filmore had served the remainder of Zachary Taylor's term as 13th president after Taylor died and was seeking election to a second, non-consecutive term. He lost to President James Buchanan, but earned 21 percent of the popular vote.

Fortunately, the Know Nothings faded into history, while the Irish continued to contribute.

As workers on the great canals that opened the Midwest, as miners in Appalachia and workers in the North's great industries, as American soldiers on battlefields across the globe and in innumerable occupations and professions, the Irish have had as much a part of building the United States as any other group of people.

In recognition of their contributions, the month of March is traditionally proclaimed "Irish-American Heritage Month," by U.S. presidents.

Here's an excerpt from President Barack Obama's Feb. 28 proclamation:

"Irish Americans have defended our country through times of war, strengthened communities from coast to coast, and poured sweat and blood into building our infrastructure and raising our skyscrapers.

"Some endured hunger, hardship, and prejudice; many rose to be leaders of government, industry, or culture. Their journey is a testament to the resilience of the Irish character, a people who never stopped dreaming of a brighter future and never stopped striving to make that dream a reality.

"Today, Americans of all backgrounds can find common ground in the values of faith and perseverance, and we can all draw strength from the unshakable belief that through hard work and sacrifice, we can forge better lives for ourselves and our families."

As the saying goes: There are only two kinds of people in the world -- the Irish and those who wish they were.

Eric Marotta: 330-541-9433

emarotta@recordpub.com

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