What Immigrants of the Irish Great Hunger Can Teach US

In a recent conversation regarding the present migrant crisis in Europe, and the current fear mongering against Muslims, I began to see a similarity between the mass exodus of the Irish due to the Great Hunger in the years after 1845. Is there anything we can learn from a comparison?

Marginalisation of immigrants is a pattern that repeats throughout history. Europe and now America are continuing that pattern. Fear, always the main ingredient of marginalisation, now at an all-time high. “Who are we letting in?” being the question most people ask.

There are some similarities between the current European migrant crisis, our US terrorist situation and the Irish who managed to survive the treacherous trans-Atlantic ocean crossing in the years after 1845.

I’ve written here before about coffin ships and the horrible conditions Irish emigrants endured. Not every ship was a “coffin ship.” There were a few ships, such as the Dunbrody, and the Jeanie Johnston that made the journey with minimal or no loss of life. Most quarantined ships during the Great Hunger years brought emigrants to the Canadian port of Grosse Île in Quebec.

Grosse Ile quarantined the sick, controlled the spread of disease and the flow of immigrants into Canada and the US.

If Irish immigrants did survive the journey on the coffin ship, and many did not, it was the first in a series of hurdles that they would need to clear.

Approved for entry into their new homelands, the migrants did not look healthy compared to the natives. The skeletal immigrants were looked on as sub-human and diseased. They’d saved what they could for the long journey in a time when food and money were scarce. What little money they did have was put aside for passage fares on coffin ships, not food.

It was not long before “No-Irish Need Apply” signs began to appear in shop windows and lodging houses throughout the US.

The Irish, a starving people, did not fit in and were treated poorly because of it. They looked “sick.” Why was there a shortage of food in Ireland during the years 1845-1852? Ireland is a farming country. Lots of good farmland for growing crops and grazing livestock, so why not eat what you grow?

Christine Kinealy in History Ireland magazine says, “Almost 4,000 vessels carried food from Ireland to the ports of Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool and London during 1847,…The food was shipped under military guard from the most famine-stricken parts of Ireland;… A wide variety of commodities left Ireland during 1847, including peas, beans, onions, rabbits, salmon, oysters, herring, lard, honey, tongues, animal skins, rags, shoes, soap, glue and seed.”

Though popular opinion at the time would have alleged the Irish to be sick, lazy and half-witted, nothing could have been further from the truth. The Irish worked hard to assimilate into a new culture. Were all immigrants perfectly behaved? Of course not. But the larger population of Irish did work hard, making a respectable life in their new homelands.

Here’s a few  notable Irish-Americans who made a difference. There are a few gangsters in there too, I won’t revise history, but the positive immigrants and their lagacies by far out weigh the negative ones.

The Irish were not the only immigrants to go through a rough transition period. Italian, Chinese, German, Jewish and Mexican immigrants have all endured growing pains in the US. In 1875 the US government began to regulate immigration and only a few years later the US banned immigrants from certain countries. Sometimes ethnic groups such as African-Americans and Japanese,  already citizens and living in the US, were marginalized and discredited as well as being treated like third class citizens.

I am not against increased security checks for immigrants. I myself was interviewed, fingerprinted, TB tested, lung x-rayed and AIDS tested, yes I was. And so was every other Donnelly Visa Lottery winner. Determined to get a visa for the US, I was willing to jump through every hoop presented in order to get my legal visa, eventually a Green Card, and then citizenship.

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” (Picture via New York City Wallpapers)

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
(Picture via New York City Wallpapers)

In fact, I have nothing against comfortable and humane quarantine stations either, the cost of which should be burdened by all countries of processed immigrants. If we are taking in the tired, poor and huddled masses, share that burden with us.

There are a lot of ways  to do background checks and prevent undesirable immigrants from entering the US presently. Detaining immigrants until they have been fingerprinted and have background checks and deporting the ones who refuse is a good start.

Gun control is another excellent step in the right direction to protect us from terrorists at home and abroad. Despite what Donald Trump is saying, not every Muslim is a terrorist. Anti-Muslim sentiment is nothing more than Donald Trump’s scare-mongering for votes. Hitler did it and Oliver Cromwell did as well.

History. Sometimes we can learn from it, more often than not we learn nothing more than  we are doomed to repeat it.


What happened to the O’ or the Mac?

A friend of mine who is a social studies teacher showed me a picture of a cartoon used to discriminate against a specific social group of the mid 1800’s. The cartoon is from Alien Menace, an online history lesson by Michael O’Malley, Associate Professor of History and Art History at George Mason University. The lesson is a hard one, especially if you are Irish.

The cartoon is of a man standing at a podium yelling , crowds standing either side of him. When you zoom in the face looks like the face of an ape.

When you zoom out  it is a cartoon face of a man depicted to look monkey-like.

The whole cartoon shows the social group the man belongs to with symbols on the podium and on papers around him.

The man at the podium is an Irish man.

Depicting the  Irish as ape-like was a common thing to do when people were racist toward a specific person or group of people. The Irish are one of many groups who were treated this way. African-Americans also have been treated in the same fashion. I’ve seen similar attempts of racist attacks on President Obama recently.

There are plenty of cartoons once printed in Punch magazine to help propagate the myth that the Irish were ape-like in appearance. For other views of the famine view Steve Taylor’s website here.

Another cartoon called Irish Frankenstein

And a final one, from Punch called “Two Forces” shows how the Irish were perceived and how powerful the propaganda machine was.

The Irish did indeed look odd and almost monkey like arriving in the USA in the middle of the 1800’s. They were starving skeletons with flesh, that’s literally what they were, due to the Great Hunger of 1845 and the conditions on the coffin ships.  The ships were disease ridden and foul smelling, many people died on the journey across the Atlantic, others grew emaciated due to a lack of food or they simply became too sick to eat.

When they disembarked the ships in New York  the Irish looked wild and animal like, and were treated with bigotry. Loosing the O’ or the Mac and sounding less “Irish” to avoid racism was a sound option.

In Ireland itself the Act of Union in 1801 and subsequent Penal Laws forbid the people speaking in Irish/Gaelic and being educated. So more than likely the omission of prefixes such as O’ or Mac were dropped because again, the names didn’t sound as Irish without them.

There is also the very real possibility that Irish coming through Ellis Island and prior points of entry may have either misspelled their own names or the person taking records have written the name inaccurately.

Another fact remains, the Irish spoke English and America was an English speaking country. The reality was that the Irish immigrants posed a real threat to other immigrants already in America who did not speak the English language. Because the Irish spoke the language of the Americans, jobs would be given readily to them. It would benefit non-English speaking immigrants to perpetuate the image of the Irish as wild, ignorant ape-like beings.

The Easter Rising in 1916 was the beginning of the end of the Crown’s Rule in Ireland. It is significant to this discussion because the period of English rule in Ireland created a dislike and racist attitude toward the Irish.

Under English rule the Irish endured the Great Hunger (I refuse to call it a famine because there was food in the country, it was being exported though) and massive emigration on coffin ships to America. The Penal Laws due to the 1801 Act of Union saw the Irish thrown in prison for practicing their religion, being educated and speaking their native tongue. There are far more laws that aimed to eradicate the Irish in Ireland but to describe and discuss them here would take too long. If you are interested in learning more read about the Irish potato blight and the Penal Laws at these links.

The Easter Rising of 1916 was the first step toward political independence from England. Initially the Irish condemned the rebels for starting the uprising. It was a short lived rebellion in reality but the consequences and punishments exacted on captured rebels changed attitudes towards English government ruling Ireland.

James Connolly, one of the rebels,  was brought to Kilmainham jail’s courtyard on a stretcher, tied to a chair and shot by firing squad on May 12th 1916. His body and the bodies of other executed rebels were thrown in a mass grave, no coffins permitted. The attitudes of the Irish changed and Independence from England became a priority. Connolly was listed number 64 on BBC’s  100 Greatest Britons broadcast in 2002. Historically, in 1916 Connolly was a Briton.

James Connolly

The saddest part of Irish history came after the 1916 rising, the civil war. Michael Collins signed the Treaty resulting in the six counties of the north to remain under British rule, and thus dividing the country;  geographically and politically. Brother fought against brother and the nation became pro-treaty or anti-treaty. The pro-treaty group led by Michael Collins and the anti-treaty led by Eamonn de Valera.

The movie The Wind that Shakes the Barley depicts this tumultuous and divisive time very accurately as does the short story The Sniper by Liam O’ Flaherty. (He kept the O’)

Kilmainham Jail in Dublin is an interesting tour and gives background to the Easter Rising in 1916. I always have mixed emotions though about whether or not people will LEARN something from the tour or walk away with bias toward the English. I am not one to advocate revision of historical facts, but I hate it when it breeds contempt instead of using history to teach us how we should do things differently in the future.

Losing the prefixes of O’ and Mac in family names was a mixture of the Irish losing their Irishness, attempts at avoiding racism, misspellings and record keeping errors and lack of education. There are towns in Ireland that are known as garrison towns, and local perception is that they are more English influenced than Irish. Country people in Ireland are known as “Culchie’s” and Dubliners are known as Jackeens. The derivitive of “Culchie” is unclear. It could refer to  a rural town in Mayo called Culchiemach or “Cul an Ti” which is Irish for “back of the house,” denoting a crudeness or roughness. “Jackeen” refers to the Union Jack, the British flag. The suffix “een” is Irish for “little,” thus Dubliners are known as “little British.”

In reality both Ireland and England have had good and bad relations throughout history and are forever connected because of it.

In 5 years from now the Irish will be commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 1916 rising, tastefully I hope, with genuinely closer ties with England. We have more in common than we have that differentiates.

If you are reading this and are building hatred toward the English, or indeed believe that I harbor any resentment, the real message is lost.

The real message is that we remember what happened so that neither side will have to endure those circumstances in the future and others will learn from it also. To blame the English people for what happened is untrue and unfair. Let’s remember that the Cornish, Welsh and Scottish were also treated poorly by the government of the time.

To blame the establishment of the time is closer to the truth, and more than likely a handful of people made the decisions that caused the problems. To learn from all that has passed would be wise.

Ernestine Cobb Interview on Video

Ernestine Cobb kindly spent over an hour talking with me about life growing up in segregated Fountain, North Carolina, her thoughts on civil rights, moving to Norwalk, Connecticut and her involvement in the intergenerational quitling project, Peace by Piece.