Mass immigration changed the face of America forever. The tidal wave of immigrants coming to America from Europe transformed an English-dominated, American culture into a melting pot of refugees and renegades in search of new opportunities and a new way of life.
Relevantly, Gary Marx, in his 2006 book, “Sixteen Trends: Their Profound Impact on our Future,” writes: “When Irish, German, Italian and other European immigrants came to the United States during a wave of immigration at the turn of the 20th century, captivated by the promise that all immigrants can be transformed into Americans, a new alloy forged in the crucible of democracy, freedom and civic responsibility.”
For the immigrant Irish from Europe, the massive surge into America’s port cities was far from a welcoming experience. The treatment of Irish immigrants was especially detestable. Irish immigrants fought back and were resilient despite the common culture’s efforts in 19th century America to shun and discriminate against them, calling them savages and drunkards and reducing them to social outcasts.
By necessity, Irish immigrants became fighters for opportunity and fighters against Irish oppression. There were no other options for the Irish in early America.
The story of Irish immigrants was a treacherously enduring one that would eventually become a triumphant one, but not without remembering the pains from the past. Aptly, Joel Spring, in his 2010 book, “The American School: A Global Context from the Puritans to the Obama Era,” accurately depicts the malicious treatment of Irish immigrants in the 1800s this way: “ ‘No Irish need apply,’ a famous folk song of the common school period, referred to rental and employment signs telling Irish-Americans they were not welcomed as residents and workers. … Living in one-room mud huts with straw roofs with only a hole cut through the straw for a chimney, the typical Irish ate little more than a daily ration of potatoes.”
Those were desperate times, requiring desperate measures. To gain desirable employment in a union shop, many Irish-Americans omitted the “O” or “Mc” at the beginning of their names to mask their Irish origins.
Their numbers or demographics, as a group, helped as the early Irish gained eventual success in the workplace, especially in the labor and trade union movement. Large Irish populations in big cities like Boston, Chicago and New York paved the way for the election of Irish candidates to public offices, launching the genesis of Irish political organizations in municipalities. Observably, their incredible organization and systemic delineation of tasks cultivated great political successes for the Irish.
“The Irish did not simply take over the conventional apparatus of politics. They transformed American municipal politics. They changed the class consumption of municipal government, putting the reins of power in the hands of men who had risen from the working class,” writes Thomas Sowell in his 1981 book, “Ethnic America.”
“The culture of the Irish was one in which personal charm and fluency with words were highly valued in politics, law, business, the labor movement, journalism and the priesthood – all areas where the Irish became highly successful,” Sowell wrote.
As an ethnic group, Irish-Americans deserve tremendous credit and recognition for their spirit and determination to succeed in a hostile new world that they believed from the onset was going to be the land of opportunity. The early Irish survived and succeeded, and today’s America was and continues to be better for it.
Notably, the election of President John F. Kennedy in November 1960 spurred a prideful celebration on the streets back in Ireland, announcing him as Ireland’s “favorite American son.” After all, Kennedy’s grandfather was John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, the son of Irish immigrants who fled Ireland. He served twice as mayor of Boston and as a member of Congress. Honey Fitz became a political inspiration, ally and strategist for the Kennedy clan.
In June 1963, five months prior to his tragic death, Kennedy visited Ireland, parading in a motorcade, side by side with his Irish cousins, and later delivering a memorable speech to Ireland’s Parliament for posterity: “It is that quality of the Irish – that remarkable combination of hope, confidence and imagination – that is needed more than ever today.”
He was speaking to the confidence and resolve of the early Irish that he, himself, experienced through the trials and difficulties of his own family. Kennedy was a visionary. He was right then and he is even more right now in today’s economically and technologically changing America.
Hence, the confidence and resolve of the early Irish, a testament of their courageous will to succeed, has endured the test of time and is now the valued property and a pillar of the American experience for all to appreciate and emulate.
Al Bruno has earned three master’s degrees in education. He is a special education and English teacher for the Buffalo Public Schools and a member of Carmen’s Home, an online resource center for educators at SUNY Buffalo State, contributing as an academic writer.