Thursday, May 18, 2006

The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

America was not a friendly place for my kind of people in the 1800s.

Ancestors and others from Ireland literally walked off the boat and scoured the streets of cities big and small to find work. Many were met with unwelcome signs, insults and sometimes physical confrontations when seeking opportunities to support their transplanted families.

My relatives made a move to cloak their origin. The family lore is that my ancestors took the "O" off the front of our name and dropped it into the Atlantic.

So the story goes.

In the early 1900s my great grandfather got laid off from a steel mill in Pennsylvania after he chose to do some campaigning for Al Smith, the first ever Catholic presidential candidate, in his off time.

My great grandfather Ignatius Aloisius was apparently one of the best employees at the mill, and so the Protestant managers had a change of heart, offering Ignatius his job back. As my dad tells the story, the managers showed up at the family house and asked to see my grandfather. He was out looking for work and so instead they struck up a conversation with my grandmother, who was busy changing my Great Uncle Bernie's diaper. The managers explained that they'd be interested in hiring Ignatius back, even if he was out campaigning for that Catholic Mick.

Well. Great grandma would have none of that.

She said, and I quote (in a third hand, loose translation kind of way) "Yes, he'll come work in your mill when you eat the shit in this diaper."

She was a feisty broad, and I think I inherited a piece of it, though I choose to reserve it for the most heinous of offenses.

The family moved to Youngstown after that little snafu.

The Irish people were lowest, most disrespected people during the great migration to America. They were forced to live in little shanty towns and Irish ghettos because they were considered bad for the neighborhood. People stereotyped the whole, freckle-faced lot as loud mouthed drunkards, and so they were forced to hang together and grow a community.

And grow they did.

Today Saint Patrick's Day is one of the most widely celebrated holidays on the calendar, right after New Year's Eve. Today you'll see Catholics, Protestants, blacks, whites, anyone drinking a mug of beer to be Irish for the day.

Today America's major cities are known for and proud of their ties to Irish heritage. Boston, New York and Chicago all have strong ties to Irish history and prosperous immigrants. One needs to look no further than the Kennedys to see an example of Celtic prosperity (no matter how drunk/unethical/shady/overzealous you may think them to be).

I am proud to be Irish. Every day, I proudly wear my Claddagh ring as a sign of my Celtic ancestry. My people have always been proud to be hard working, active members of their community, whether that be a community in the Land of Erin or a community in the Land of Freedom.

The Irish people were the lowest of the low a 150 years ago. Today they are source of pride and accomplishment.

Will we have to wait that long before our Hispanic friends earn the same respect?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I, too, am Irish and have debated the current situation with family members.
The big difference between now and then? My family, at least, came over LEGALLY to build a nation. (The railroad) It's not about race, it's about going about things the right way. Anyone illegal is a criminal, plain and simple.