Tuesday, March 19, 2019

On Irishness, and How Those Immigrants Differed

Some say the Irish are different - and, in some respects, they were - and are.

Like most immigrants, the Newcomers to America were clannish (for those younger readers, that refers to the extended family grouping - denoted by the color and plaid of their kilts - known as a Clan). When they first started arriving - around the 1830s - they weren't desperately poor and starving. They did what most immigrants do, working at various jobs, gaining experience, and putting away money. The indentured servitude system was over, apprenticeships were available, and the economy was growing.

Some of the more educated men drifted into better jobs: clerks, railroad workers, cops. The Irish had a leg up on some jobs, as they were relatively fluent in English, had lived under an English system of law, and were culturally more of a fit than other immigrants. They wormed their way into government.

The later arrivals, from 1845-1849, were desperate. They'd had a terrible existence even before the Famine.
The French sociologist, Gustave de Beaumont, visited Ireland in 1835 and wrote: "I have seen the Indian in his forests, and the Negro in his chains, and thought, as I contemplated their pitiable condition, that I saw the very extreme of human wretchedness; but I did not then know the condition of unfortunate Ireland...In all countries, more or less, paupers may be discovered; but an entire nation of paupers is what was never seen until it was shown in Ireland."
The English despised the Irish. They thought them superstitious, dirty, stupid, given to sloth and debauchery, and generally a lesser form of human being. Despite many centuries of trying, the Irish persisted in remaining Catholic, rather than converting to the English Church. They fought back against armed men, used sneaky means, such as organizing boycotts, to evade the King's laws, and generally refused to cooperate in the pacification of Ireland.

Now, to be fair, the English reformers wanted to "de-Irish" the rebellious land for some worthy reasons. They believed that conversion, use of the English language, change of their schools, and other efforts would actually improve their lives. And, the changes might have, in a purely economic sense.

But, the changed people would no longer be Irish. Their culture would have changed beyond recognition.

In America, the Irish were permitted to be Irish. They generally gave up speaking Gaelic over time, as their familiarity with the dominant language of English enabled them to push ahead of the other immigrants, whose command of English lagged behind. They had few barriers to practicing their faith, living as they wished, and creating little enclaves within the cities where Irish ruled.

Because the earliest arrivals preceded the Famine, the cities had influential people in power postions who helped the newcomers acclimate to the new land. When war broke out - the Mexican-American war - the Irish were there, in large numbers.

Same with the Civil War - the Irish joined up in numbers large enough to justify their own units. After the war, the pressure in the cities was relieved by the Westward Expansion.

1 comment:

milton f said...

and the Irish formalized their clan, in the form of the Knights of Columbus, a safety net against oppression. Memento Mori.