This afternoon, March 16, 2013, I was lucky enough to enjoy the spontaneous visit of the 2nd Street Irish Society Pipes and Drums at Bridget Foy’s in Philadelphia. About the same time, two million people watched or participated in today’s 252nd St. Paddy’s Day parade.
Today and tomorrow many communities will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and the ethnic pride such events represent for the almost 40 million Americans that claim Irish or Scots-Irish heritage (2008 U.S. Census Bureau survey). Six times more people claiming Irish ancestry live in the U.S. than in Ireland and Northern Ireland combined. The popular memory of the Irish diaspora is the story of a struggling ethnic group overcoming poverty and discrimination. No slogan better represents the dark history of discrimination against Irish Americans than the 19th century phrase, “No Irish Need Apply” (NINA). Nevertheless, while many aspects of that popular story are true, Richard Jensen and others have shown that the NINA slogan is more myth than reality. Instead, the story of Irish Americans includes many interesting elements that are often overlooked on St. Patrick’s Day and help to explain why some immigrant groups assimilate faster than others.
Substantial immigration from Ireland to North America began in the 1740s. Dominated by Protestants from Ireland that were being displaced for a second time by the British government, many were from families that had originally migrated from Protestant Scotland to Catholic Ireland. After several decades, however, British land policies changed, luring many to the new British colonies in North America, especially the Carolinas. Staunchly anti-British, this first wave of Irish Americans were strong Patriots that fought bravely against British troops during the American Revolution. In the early National period, this wave of Irish Americans continued to hold anti-British sentiments, favoring the policies of Thomas Jefferson and the Republican opposition over George Washington and the Federalists. This made Irish Americans targets of the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts.
Irish immigration to the U.S. rose again in the 1840s amid the Great Potato Famine. The earlier generation of Irish Americans traced its roots to the Revolutionary Period and began to self-identify as Scots-Irish, distinguished from the new Irish Catholic immigrants arriving in rising numbers on U.S. shores. This latter wave of immigrants from Ireland faced intense anti-Catholic discrimination from a growing nativist, anti-immigrant native-born American political base. Nonetheless, Irish Catholics were important participants in the Mexican-American War and most fought for the Union in the Civil War. They also formed the largest ethnic group constructing the country’s first canals and the eastern section of the Transcontinental Railroad. Many also labored as miners and in other crucial jobs building fueling the Industrial Revolution. It is also fascinating to recognize as Hasia Diner argued in her book Erin’s Daughters, Irish Americans constituted the fist wave of new Americans dominated by female migrants. This foreshadowed patterns more common to the decades after 1965 and still a part of U.S. immigration today.
Somewhat contrary to the historical memory suggested by the slogan, “No Irish Need Apply,” Irish immigrants to the U.S. had important advantages over other ethnic groups that helped their children quickly assimilate to the mainstream. Irish immigrants generally spoke English, arrived when low wage labor jobs were plentiful, could move into higher paid positions because of their language skills, were considered “white,” had access to the expansion of urban public schools for their children, and female immigrants often married up and outside their ethnic group. In addition, as Richard Jensen discovered, the memory of the NINA slogan is more myth than historical accuracy. Instead of being a large part o of the Irish immigrant labor experience, the slogan was popularized in a song published in Philadelphia in 1862 disparaging Irish immigrant women.
The pride in America’s Irish heritage that I and many Americans will witness over the next two days shows that times and attitudes can change. Knowing the details of that history highlights the advantages for all Americans in helping immigrants easily assimilate and make valuable contributions to the future of the United States.