Irish Let's Learn from Our Past
It’s About Immigrants, Not Irishness
By PETER BEHRENS Brooklin, Me. March 16, 2012
ON this side of the Atlantic, St. Patrick’s Day has become a boisterous, often bogus, celebration of America’s Irish roots. For most, the holiday is an excuse to drink, and perhaps pinch people who aren’t wearing green.
But for many Irish-Americans and Irish-Canadians, including me, St. Patrick’s Day isn’t really about Ireland. It’s about our ancestors leaving that country, often in bitter circumstances, and risking everything on a hazardous journey and being met with fierce hostility and scorn. It is about immigrants struggling, and mostly succeeding, in their new life, or making success possible for their children and grandchildren.
It is a story that should describe all newcomers to America. This March 17, on this side of the water, we ought to be celebrating immigration, not just Irishness.
Before the mass exodus from Ireland provoked by the great famine of the 1840s, new arrivals to North America were either settlers or slaves. The Catholic Gaelic Irish were the first cohort consistently labeled as “immigrants” in the modern, quasi-pejorative sense, and their experience established a stereotype, a template, applied ever since to whichever national or ethnic group happened to be the latest impoverished arrivals: French-Canadians, Chinese, Italians, Eastern Europeans, Hispanics.
It’s embarrassing to listen to prosperous 21st-century Americans with Irish surnames lavish on Mexican or Central American immigrants the same slurs — “dark,” “dirty,” “violent,” “ignorant” — once slapped on our own, possibly shoeless, forebears. The Irish were seen as unclean, immoral and dangerously in thrall to a bizarre religion. They were said to be peculiarly prone to violence. As caricatured by illustrators like Thomas Nast in magazines like Harper’s Weekly, “Paddy Irishman,” low of brow and massive of jaw, was more ape than human, fists trailing on the ground when they weren’t cocked and ready for brawling.
Soon it was another people’s turn. During the 1890s, when hundreds of thousands of French-Canadians were quitting rocky farms in Quebec for jobs in New England textile towns, The New York Times wrote, “It is next to impossible to penetrate this mass of protected and secluded humanity with modern ideas or to induce them to interest themselves in democratic institutions and methods of government.”
It was bad enough to be invaded by unmoderns. But the real danger was in the numbers, because, as The Times went on, “No other people, except the Indians, are so persistent in repeating themselves. Where they halt they stay, and where they stay they multiply and cover the earth.”
I live in Maine, where these days Hispanics and Somalis, not French-Canadians, are the most visible immigrant groups. I wonder if our governor, Paul LePage, born in Lewiston, oldest of 18 children in a family of French-Canadian descent, ever came across that thoughtless article while formulating a raft of anti-immigrant policies.
After all, the governor’s grandparents were immigrants, members of a generation commonly treated as a despised minority in New England. From the Civil War through the 1950s, many if not most newly arrived French-Canadians looking for work in Maine’s mill towns or north woods were illegal immigrants.
If it’s really true that all politics are personal, Governor LePage ought to be an immigrant champion. However, in one of his first acts upon taking office in January 2011, he issued an executive order encouraging officials in state agencies to question people about their immigration status.
LePage insisted his action was needed to prevent welfare and social service programs from being squandered on non-Mainers. Civil libertarians, however, claimed there was no evidence of illegal immigrants’ getting special treatment, and the governor produced none. But in Maine, as anywhere, especially during hard times, it’s sound political strategy to blame the people from away, whether “away” is Quebec, Mexico or Somalia.
Since we have all been more or less constantly on the move since our ancestors decamped from the old neighborhood in Ethiopia, 195,000 years ago, you’d think that, as a species, we might have worked through our hostility and suspicion of newbies by now. But we haven’t.
So let’s have one day — March 17 — where the word “immigration” is not immediately followed by the word “problem” in our national conversation. Because that has never, ever been our real immigrant story. St. Patrick’s Day reminds us to celebrate, not despise or fear, immigrants. And the hyphenated-Irish, descendants of the first “immigrants,” ought to lead the parade.
Peter Behrens is the author, most recently, of “The O’Briens.
Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company