Sunday, March 18, 2012

Irish Need Not Apply

St. Patrick died in 461 A.D.
So does your head hurt?

Chances are, that if you celebrated St. Patrick’s Day yesterday in what has become the traditional American method, you’re a little hung over as you read this.

Sorry about that.

I’ll try not to make your head hurt any more.

It seems that St. Patrick’s Day is not a terribly religious holiday.

It is less about a Roman Catholic missionary who died in 461 A.D. than it is about Irish culture.

It is, in essence, Americans celebrating the culture of un-wanted immigrants to our shores.

Make no mistake, when the Irish – fleeing the potato blight that made life in the Emerald Isle all but impossible – began to arrive in Boston, New York City and Philadelphia, they were welcomed with anything but open arms.

In many cases, the hardships they endured to get to their destination are beyond anything to which “regular folks” would subject themselves.

Like many immigrant groups, they stuck with their own, living in near-homogenous communities rarely considered to be valuable real estate.

In New York, some formed famous gangs, such as 40 Thieves, the Dead Rabbits and, later, the Westies.

(Any of this starting to sound analogous yet to the immigrant experience of today?)

“No Irish Need Apply” was a sign hung in more than one shop window.

Like immigrants before and since, those unable to find desirable jobs that paid a living wage, did the work no one else wanted to do in order to support their families.

The 1st Regular Irish Brigade in battle
They built the nation’s railroads, cleaned the city streets and fought in the Army during the Civil War.

Eventually, as is the case with nearly all immigrant groups over generations, they blended with American society, becoming part of its fabric.

For example, without the Irish we might not have country music. For as the Irish and Scottish immigrants who came before the potato blight arrived in the American colonies, they headed into the mountains of Appalachia.

It is not hard to find the roots of Appalachian mountain music in Irish and Scottish tunes, and that mountain music eventually evolved into Bluegrass and, finally, today’s country music, which was also influenced by southern Blues, which has its roots in African music.

Never a fan of country music, I nevertheless became a convert to Celtic music (as it’s now called) on that fateful evening when my then-girlfriend (now wife) took me to a Chieftain’s concert in Englewood, N.J.
The Chieftains

A fan ever since, I appreciate them particularly because of their willingness to collaborate with non-Celtic performers, including many of the rock artists I listened to as a rebellious teenager.

(I tried to included a few of those collaborations here for your listening enjoyment, but technology, ever my wresting opponent, defeated me).

Perhaps what’s so surprising about the Irish immigrant experience is that it’s not so surprising. They followed the path of so many others, Italian, Polish, Jewish, you name it.

Fasnacht Anyone?
We need look no further than our own Pennsylvania “Dutch” to see the influence of another group of immigrants on our lives and culture. (Fasnacht any one?)

And don’t even get me started on how the true natives of this continent might comment on the cultural influences of the newcomers.

So on a day (or the day after) we celebrate the culture of ethnic immigrants and how they enriched the American experience, it seems relevant to ask: “why do we hate immigrants so much?”

These people come to America because, in many ways, if offers them the best chance to improve their lives and, if we let them, our own as well.

The often epitomize the self-help, pull-your-self-up-by-your-own-boot-straps-not-afraid-of-a-hard-day’s-work ethic that we all claim to admire.

Apparently, the lesson offered by Alabama's inability to get its crops in after passing the nation's toughest anti-immigration law is a lesson lost on the party that is all about business and jobs. Where were all the out of work Americans flocking to take those jobs those immigrants had stolen right out from under them?

The border fence literally goes into the sea.
But nevertheless, it seems like anyone running for the GOP presidential nomination can advocate nothing less than a “great wall of China” along the Rio Grande if they hope to secure their name on the ballot.

(Or, as Rick Santorum recently did, tell Puerto Rico it should adopt English as its official language if it wants to become the 51st state.)

In Arizona, the state that allows police to seek identification from anyone who looks like they might be an alien, it is now against state law for public schools to teach anything that might "advocate ethnic solidarity.”

If you have any question about who that’s aimed at, ask yourself how many Arizona school children were likely dressed in green and coloring in shamrocks for St. Patrick’s Day.

But I take comfort from the example of the Irish. Within a generation or two, they moved up into society, becoming business leaders and elected officials.

By the next Census, projects are that Hispanics will be the largest minority and may even constitute a majority in this country.

Maybe then we will finally recognize that this is their country too.

Hope I didn't make your head hurt more.

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