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The Irish among us

Posted: March 16, 2017 1:54 p.m.
Updated: March 17, 2017 1:00 a.m.

As the first Grand Marshall of the -- I hope annual -- Montessori Leprechaun Parade, I’m thinking today might offer an opportunity to comment on the Irish among us. 

Perhaps no group has suffered from so much misinformation as the Irish, the third-largest population group in America after people of German and African descent. Indeed, in 1897, President Theodore Roosevelt, part Irish on his father’s side, and Scotch-Irish on his mother’s, with Rear Admiral Richard Meade and sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens, founded the American Irish Historical Society across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “to set the record straight.” It still needs to be set straight.

One distortion is that the Irish, mostly Catholics, first arrived here during the Potato Famine of 1847, a laissez faire genocide; a million people starved to death when the island was producing five times the food it needed, all exported to England. Irish Catholics, British subjects, were subjected to the Penal Laws; it was illegal for a Catholic to own a gun or a boat, to vote, to teach in a school, to live in a city, or pass property on to the eldest son. A priest who married a Catholic and a Protestant was to be executed. The violence against Catholics remains a provocative question; Presbyterians were also treated savagely. Later, starting in 1919, Protestants and Catholics together led the successful revolution against predatory and oppressive British rule.

Despite the destruction of the most comprehensive educational system in Europe in 1603, followed by the wreckage of the banks and the guilds -- during the Middle Ages the Irish were the jewelers of the European courts, -- the Irish remained a people of learning. By World War One, after generations of poverty, clinical depression, and high rates of alcoholism, Irish Catholics had become the most educated group in the United States, the mainstay of the teachers in the New York public schools, already disproportionate in the professions at the same time they were commonly portrayed on the stage as drunks and household maids. Nevertheless, progress was fierce. By 1970, according to University of Chicago and Ford Foundation studies, Irish Catholics were the most educated and most affluent group in the U.S. after the Jews. 

The Potato Famine aside, there were Irish at Jamestown. The Charitable Irish Society of Boston organized the first Saint Patrick’s Day observance in 1737. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade in NYC was held in 1766. According to many historians, the Irish comprised about one-third of the Continental Army, as distinct from the Scots-Irish, who comprised another third. The militiamen at Lexington and Bunker Hill were predominantly Irish. George Washington, in fact, allowed his troops a holiday on March 17. In South Carolina, in addition to founders Thomas Lynch and Pierce Butler, possibly the best-known South Carolinians are of Irish descent: Mayor Joe Riley; Secretary of State/Governor/Senator/Supreme Court Justice James Byrnes; authors Pat Conroy and Elizabeth O’Neill Verner.

Like other immigrant groups, notably the English, the Irish produced armies of unskilled laborers. By the turn of the century, they had also produced store owners, generals, politicians, lawyers, doctors, nurses, farmers, and craftspeople. My own 19th century ancestors range from a New England silversmith to the leading Confederate banker in Washington, who also founded the first gallery of American art, the Corcoran. In the 20th century, in my family surgeons and corporate lawyers gave birth to a tribe of bankers and even a documentary filmmaker. One cousin led the Transport Workers Union of America; a Republican cousin served in the Reagan cabinet. Like most Irish families, mine had its share of proud Scots. The two groups, genetic cousins, have intermarried for at least a thousand years.

In the 20th Century, Irish by birth or descent contributed to the burgeoning American culture: filmmakers Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford, painters Georgia O’Keefe and Jackson Pollock, architect Louis Sullivan, the Barrymores, Mary Pickford (a founder of United Artists), the Noble Prize winning playwright, Eugene O’Neill, and of course Henry Ford. Most of our recent presidents have enjoyed a measure of Irish heritage. More importantly, out of collective tragedy have emerged champions of justice: Father Daniel Berrigan; Robert Kennedy; Margaret Higgins Sanger, who co-founded Planned Parenthood; and the legendary Mother Jones, born Mary Harris in Cork. African Americans claiming Irish ancestry include Dr. King, Muhammed Ali, Alice Walker, and Billie Holliday, evoking a time before Jim Crow when blacks and whites fell in love, raised families, lived happily ever after and maybe will again. Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

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