I sometimes feel irked by the image of the cartoon Irishman with his pipe and his cocked green derby and that frank ‘in your face’ wink. It reminds me of a saying, heard on the playgrounds of my youth, about how there were two kinds of people in the world, the Irish and those who wish they were Irish.
I never heard that kind of talk in my own Irish-American home.
I think back to those early days and see again the people at our dining room table:
My single-parent mom, who, having borne children at the last possible reproductive moment, was by then pushing 50; my sister Nan and me, both so young we looked, in those big oak chairs, like Lily Tomlin’s Edith Ann character from the old Laugh In show; two ancient great-aunties in their thick rolled stocking and Civil War-style shoes; and our widowed grandfather, also in his 80s, who had who invited all these people into his house, most recently the daughter who was our mom, a woman abandoned almost immediately by her charming blue-eyed groom.
It was this grandfather who, every March 17th, came home with the shamrocks in their wee clay pots, their bright-green foliage foaming up over the rims.
“Why do you bring these home?” my sister asked one year.
“Because we’re Irish,” replied the grownups as one. “But we’re Americans first,” they hastily added.
We lived in Boston, the nation’s most Irish-American city, but that’s how people felt in those years: Happy to be American. We all might have ‘been’ from someplace else, but now we were here – and wasn’t Nan pledging allegiance to the flag in kindergarten each morning?
Still, though at home we never heard that silly phrase about ‘two kinds of people in the world’, we knew the names ‘County Cork’ and ‘County Kerry’, practically before we could tie our own shoes. We knew that our family had come here in the 1850’s and in time we knew too the shameful tale of a people’s starvation.
So, I guess I do understand that ‘in your face’ pose struck by the cartoon Irishman. It says, “I’m still here,” which is just the attitude a person might well have after surviving the hardships most immigrants have faced in coming here – and the Irish certainly faced plenty.
As historian Frank Russell writes in his book The Irish Immigrant, they were “the base of the social pyramid, the unfailing source of exploitable labor. Construction bosses from all over America sent to Boston for fresh supplies of Irish workers. They went as contract laborers, in coaches with sealed doors, the curtains nailed across the windows.
“Along the Erie Canal and the new railroad lines, they died like flies.”
Try substituting ‘we’ for ‘they’ and say, “We died like flies.”
And yet, “We’re still here.” That’s how many people at the bottom of that so-called social pyramid might feel, from the willing immigrants, to the native populations they sought to displace, to the millions of Africans brought to the New World in chains.
My grandfather rose, but he rose only with the help of the older brother who borrowed against their little family farm to send him to college, and the older sister who gave from her earnings as a nurse to help get him through law school. Then, over a long life of public service, he chased down rascals of every stripe, got the Boston schoolteachers their first raise, and helped establish the Massachusetts state college system.
It’s a universal story. He benefited by the sacrifices of others and then gave back, as I believe we all wish to do and none more so than those newly arriving on our shores today.