By Joseph Xavier Martin
During the 1840s the Irish arrived in America, fleeing hunger and oppression in their famine-stricken land. They settled, like a great wave, in cities like Buffalo, and created smaller versions of their past. Colorful communities, like the “Beachers,” who squatted on land along Buffalo’s sea wall, would live out their lives little changed from the lands from which they had come.
O’Reilly, O’Malley, O’Toole, Deegan, Dugan & Dunne. It was a litany of the Gaels that crossed the wide oceans. Wherever they settled, they built great churches to honor their religion. Whether the church was called St. Patrick’s or St. Bridgid’s, it served as a spiritual shelter for the immigrants and a magnificent stone monument to Catholicism.
And the green was ever among them, to remind them of their homeland. In Ireland, the English, wary of nationalistic ideas, had decreed it a crime to be “wearin’ the green.” In the new lands like Buffalo, it was worn proudly, like a badge of identity.
On March 17, the feast of himself St. Patrick, Grand parades, with pipers and bands, marched down the south sides of these new cities to commemorate the heritage of the Irish. Corned beef and cabbage, from the slums of New York City, became as Irish as McNamara’s band. Neither was known in the homelands. For the immigrant Irish were evolving into a breed of Irish-Americans that had a culture all of their own. Dim memories of the “old sod” were of a spectral Brigadoon that emerged, only in reverie, over the odd glass or two of the barley.
The “High Holy Days of Erin” usually start off with a luncheon at the local Irish Center. It is an SRO affair serving hundreds “Irish turkey” (corned beef and cabbage) and “barley sandwiches” (beer). Next, came the parade downtown, involving thousands of marchers and units. Parties broke out everywhere afterward.
Like most immigrant groups, the Irish struggled in poverty as they adapted to the ways of the new land. The Irish had the advantage of being able to speak English here in America. It was marginally easier for them put shoulders to the wheel and work their way out of the slums. Many is the modern city, in America, that was built with the sweat of the Irish.
And sure, didn’t the proper natives think Paddy had the brains of a potato and was over-fond of the barley? They didn’t expect any of us to be good at what we did. It was the wit and the blarney that were our allies.
Soon, the lads had infiltrated the police and the fire brigades. Tammany, and other political machines, banded together the Gaels and gave them clout in statehouses and city halls. Hundreds of thousands, who fought in the American Civil War, earned their citizenship with the barrel of a gun.
The Irish were becoming a political force in the social fabric of America. From these political strongholds they were able to secure the municipal jobs and contracts that meant prosperity for their own.
Finally, one identified as one of their own, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, rose to the presidency of the United States. The stigma of being Irish and Catholic in America was gone forever. The wild geese had come home.
Joseph Xavier Martin, of Williamsville, is observing the “High Holy Days of Erin.”