America's Immigrant Troubles: The Irish

I am proud of my Irish heritage. I get excited about celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, getting my green on, and keeping time with the fiddle while quenching my thirst with a pint of ale. I’m not alone in this holiday enthusiasm. But there was a time in this country when the Irish were looked down on, discriminated against, and oppressed.

During the mid-1800s to early 1900s masses of Irish immigrants fled the starvation and poverty of their homeland. Many boarded overcrowded "coffin" ships and died of disease before they even stepped foot on American soil. They flooded into places like Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, New York and other east coast cities. 

Many Americans viewed the Irish as an immigrant problem that was gobbling up jobs and resources, and ruining the American way of life. They felt threatened by the strange ways of Irish Catholics with their large broods of children, prayer beads, and allegiance to the Pope. The Irish were often depicted as stupid drunken brutes, reckless breeders, and zealous religious fanatics. Irish men and women often took the lowest paying jobs, while some employers hung signs in their shops that read, “No Irish Need Apply,” or NINA for short. Assimilation soon became the goal of many Irish immigrants.

And now? Now, everyone gets to be Irish on St. Paddy’s Day. Put a shamrock button on your shirt, gulp some green beer, and proclaim, “Kiss me, I’m Irish!” Plenty of non-Irish are more than happy to join in the celebrations. Boston, New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Savannah, and other cities worldwide host huge St. Paddy’s Parades. Chicago even dyes its river green.

The Irish are no longer the scourge of the American population. They work skilled jobs, hold political power, pay their taxes, and participate in our society as responsible citizens. Aside from an annual fling every March 17 with the Chieftains and Guinness, being Irish is practically unremarkable. It’s merely one of the many ethnicities found in the US, one that's very fond of potatoes and bagpipes. The Irish have melted into the pot and mingled their customs, music, and food into the stew of American culture.

It’s almost funny how history is so easily forgotten. Perhaps today’s "problem" immigrants will look very different tomorrow.

 

 Ellis Island Immigrants by National Photo Co., ca. 1909-1932

Ellis Island Immigrants by National Photo Co., ca. 1909-1932

 
 Immigrant children, Ellis Island, New York, 1908. By Brown Brothers. Records of the Public Health Service. (90-G-125-29) / US GOV National Archives

Immigrant children, Ellis Island, New York, 1908. By Brown Brothers. Records of the Public Health Service. (90-G-125-29) / US GOV National Archives

 
 New York Times Want Ad - "No Irish Need Apply"

New York Times Want Ad - "No Irish Need Apply"

 
 
 St. Patrick's Parade, Montreal, photo by jpmpinmontreal, CC 2.0

St. Patrick's Parade, Montreal, photo by jpmpinmontreal, CC 2.0

 
 Chicago dyes its river green for St. Patrick's Day.

Chicago dyes its river green for St. Patrick's Day.