We let these people into our country, and what did we get but an epidemic of cholera and criminals. They filled the jails and mental hospitals, the orphanages and poor houses. More than half of those arrested in New York City, just before the Civil War, were Irish.
“Scratch a convict or a pauper, and the chances are you tickle the skin of an Irish Catholic,” The Chicago Post wrote in the 1850s. The Irish gangs of New York — the Forty Thieves, the Roach Guards, the Plug Uglies — terrorized a big part of the city.
These immigrants even had the gall to raise their own army and invade a neighboring territory. On the first day of June 1866, a thousand armed Irishmen crossed into Canada, intending to hold key locations hostage until England loosened its iron grip on the little island nation across the Atlantic.
As of this moment, an estimated 50,000 undocumented Irish are living in the shadows of our country. Will Donald Trump’s deportation police eventually get around to them?
On this St. Patrick’s Day, at a time when too many Americans want to close the door to the wretched and rejected, a time when some politicians and pundits with Irish surnames suffer from Irish historical amnesia, it’s worth recalling a few inconvenient facts.
As any deep dive into Irish-America, the diaspora of nearly 35 million citizens, will reveal, it wasn’t all blarney and bagpipes for these exiles. My father’s ancestors fled a famine that killed a million people and forced another 1.5 million onto disease-ridden ships to live in squalor in a strange land.
Could these clannish, strange-sounding, ragged people ever make America great? Not to some in power today. Steve King, the Iowa representative whose words are hailed by Klan sympathizers and neo-Nazis, was channeling the ghosts of the anti-Irish Know-Nothing Party when he spoke about the Americans who don’t belong.
Civilization, he said, was about the right kind of demographics and culture: “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” Last year, in trying to block Harriet Tubman’s visage from appearing on the $20 bill, he said a similar thing. Putting a former slave on American currency, he said, was an attempt to “upset this society and this civilization.”
But civilization is not a people. It’s not a race. It’s a process. A refinement from tribal hatreds and primitive fears to common bonds. Certainly, much of American civilization was built on the backs of human property. The war fought over that original sin, and the hundred years of struggle afterward to grant full citizenship to the formerly enslaved, is the process — that upward arc that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about.
Count me as a proud Celt, and a Europhile, a lover of everything from tiny French villages to the Gothic vastness of a thousand-year-old cathedral to the ruins of Greek theaters on Sicilian slopes. Of course, that same Europe gave us religious wars that killed three million in the 16th century, and up to eight million in the 17th. And what savagery from any other civilization can match the Holocaust, the slaughter of six million Jews by the blue-eyed and the blond?
The Irish were once hailed for saving civilization, after monks and scribes maintained the rich record of Greek, Latin and Christian writers that was being destroyed elsewhere in Europe. By the time they’d clustered, poor and unwanted on American shores, a prominent writer, George C. Foster, said their New York community was “the very rotting skeleton of city civilization.”
The Mexicans and refugees from Muslim countries targeted by Trump commit fewer crimes than Americans born here, and certainly fewer as a percentage than the immigrant Irish did. Imagine what Sean Hannity would say if Mexicans burned down much of New York City, as the Irish did in 1863, in what may have been the bloodiest riot in American history.
Those four days of carnage, spurred in part by the disproportionate number of Irish drafted to fight in the Civil War, was a spasm of racial hatred and mob violence at its worse. Blacks were hanged. Pro-Union Irish who tried to stop the rioters were pummeled. The New York Times used a Gatling gun to defend its headquarters.
This horrid episode was followed, just a few years later, by the Fenian Brotherhood raids into what was known as British North America. Their song was a call to arms:
“And we’ll go and capture Canada,
For we’ve nothing else to do.”
No ethnic group, and very few religions, are immune from violent madness. The Sunni versus Shiite savagery in so much of the world today was preceded by all the bloodshed between Protestants and Catholics in Europe.
We raise a glass on the saint’s holiday for that part of civilization saved by the Irish, that part of civilization enriched by the Irish and that part of the Irish story that shows a path of redemption after no small amount of crimes.
Timothy Egan worked for 18 years as a writer for The New York Times, first as the Pacific Northwest correspondent, then as a national enterprise reporter.