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Response to PoindexterOglethorpe (Reply #1)

Wed Nov 13, 2019, 06:12 AM

2. The Irish in my family came at different times in the 1800s...

There were two sisters that were the sole survivors in their family of a journey on a "coffin ship" during the Famine. There was a tailor who left his apprenticeship in Ireland and stowed away on a ship because of the cruelty of his master. I can't remember the rest just now, and of course never met them.

Before I took a tour of Ireland in my 60s I had only met two people from Ireland in my life. LOL I've mentioned how I was born in California and raised in Hawai'i, and now live in California again. I look like my immediate family, as expected, but really had no idea that there were a whole nation of people who look like they could be my actual cousins.

The history of the Irish in America makes for some interesting reading -- and I learned some startling and even sad things from the PBS series on the Irish in America. (PBS documentaries have just about all the ethnicities covered. Recommended.)

One of the things I learned along the way was the reason the Irish dug the Erie Canal. It seems the original idea was to rent slaves from Southern plantation owners, but as it happened the Southerners were well aware that the job was going to be a man-killer, so they declined. Slaves, after all, were valuable property. Enter the immigrant Irish.

Many of the early Irish immigrants arrived completely illiterate. The British, who had ruled Ireland for centuries, tried to stamp out Roman Catholicism in all of Britain, Scotland, and Ireland, after King Henry VIII broke with the Pope. It was brutal and violent. Religion became an emblem of identity for the Irish that they refused to give up, and since they'd been fighting the British for centuries already, it was just one more grievance. One tool of oppression was to close all the schools run by the Church, and since public secular education was a completely alien concept, this meant no education for anyone who refused to convert. I don't know when education became a thing again.

They farmed potatoes for themselves; the land was fertile, and a diet based on potatoes, buttermilk, and (I think) cabbages was nourishing enough. A pig was wealth. The rest of their energies went to the English landlords who sold their crops away. Then the potatoes failed, and rotted to black goo. The landlords still sold the crops grown for their estates out of the country, even during the Famine.

Half the people either died or left. The population never recovered its original numbers until just about the time I went on tour there. For generations after the Famine their biggest export was people. Even today there are more sheep than people.

Thinking on this is depressing. Their manner of living had been quite primitive, compared to what the US had become by that time. They arrived in a largely Protestant country that was mighty suspicious of their supposed allegiance to Rome. Some spoke no English, and nearly all had an accent that was hard to understand. Their behavior was not polished. They brawled, seemingly for entertainment. They lacked skills. They arrived at the bottom of the social ladder. I think I heard the quote, "They will never assimilate," in that PBS documentary.

I think the stories of some of the single women were inspiring. A fair number went to work in the mills -- and sent money home. Many became cooks and maids, and thought themselves fortunate to be living in a grand house instead of a thatched cottage with a peat fire and no running water -- and they sent money home, too. These women discovered independence.

In any case, your grandparents were of a more fortunate generation -- and even they were part of Ireland's human exports looking for a better life.

I think about the Irish who came in the 1800s not so much because they are exceptional in either achievements or suffering or sheer numbers, but because for me they typify the way immigrants both change America and are changed by it. The Italians, the Irish, the Eastern European Jews, all came in waves and all changed America and made it (us) a richer culture. What do we have to fear from what some call "the browning of America"? In my mind, nothing. The only thing we have to fear is white nationalists losing their freaking minds over the prospect -- and until Trump came along I naively believed we had mostly grown out of that poison.

Sorry this is too long, but your post provoked a thread of thought I had to untangle, and now it's way past midnight.


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