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Ireland–United States relations refers to the current and historical bilateral relationship between Ireland and the United States.
According to the governments of the United States and Ireland, relations have long been based on common ancestral ties and shared values. Besides regular dialogue on political and economic issues, the U.S. and Irish governments have official exchanges in areas such as medical research and education.
Ireland pursues a policy of neutrality through non-alignment and is consequently not a member of NATO, although it does participate in Partnership for Peace. However, on many occasions Ireland has provided tacit support to the United States and its allies.
In 2012 according to a U.S. Global Leadership Report, 67% of Irish people approved of the U.S. leadership of Barack Obama. This was the fourth-highest rating for any surveyed country in Europe.
Ireland was occupied by Celtic peoples, who came to be known as Gaels, sometime between 600 and 400 B.C. The Romans never invaded Ireland so the Gaels remained isolated and were able to develop a distinct culture. In the fifth century A.D. St. Patrick came to Ireland and introduced the Gaels to Christianity. Thus began a great religious and cultural period for the country. While the rest of Europe was swiftly declining into the Dark Ages, Irish monasteries—preserving the Greek and Latin of the ancient world—not only became great centers of learning, but also sent many famous missionaries to the Continent. Toward the end of the eighth century Vikings invaded Ireland and for over two centuries battled with the Irish. Finally in 1014 the Irish under King Brian Boru soundly defeated the Viking forces at the Battle of Clontarf. An important legacy of the Viking invasion was the establishment of such cities as Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Limerick, and Wexford. In the second half of the twelfth century King Henry II began the English Lordship of Ireland and the challenge of the Anglo-Norman Conquest commenced. By the close of the medieval period many of the Anglo-Norman invaders had been absorbed into the Gaelic population.
English kings traveled to Ireland on several occasions to effect order and increase allegiance to the Crown. The English were generally too occupied with the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) and with the War of the Roses (1455-1485) to deal adequately with the Irish, however. By the sixteenth century English control over Ireland was limited to a small area of land surrounding Dublin. Consequently, Henry VIII and his successors endeavored to force the Irish to submit through military incursions and by “planting” large areas of Ireland with settlers loyal to England. A forceful resistance to the English reconquest of Ireland was led by the Northern chieftain Hugh O’Neill at the end of the sixteenth century. Following O’Neill’s defeat in 1603 and his subsequent flight to the Continent, the Crown commenced the large-scale plantation of Ulster with English; Scottish Presbyterians soon followed. During the seventeenth century Ireland, continuing its steady decline, came increasingly under England’s rule. In 1641 the Irish allied themselves to the Stuart cause; however, after the defeat and execution of King Charles I in 1649 Cromwell and his Puritans devastated much of Ireland, massacred thousands, and parceled out vast tracts of land to their soldiers and followers. Hoping to regain some of their property, the Catholic Irish sided with the Catholic James II of England but their fortunes further declined when James was defeated by William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. To keep the Irish subservient and powerless the English enacted a series of brutal penal laws, which succeeded so well that eighteenth century Catholic Ireland was economically and socially wasted.
In 1800, two years after the defeat of the rebellion of Protestant and Catholic United Irishmen led by Wolfe Tone, the Act of Union was passed, combining Great Britain and Ireland into one United Kingdom. The Catholic Emancipation Act followed in 1829 chiefly due to the activities of the Irish politician Daniel O’Connell. During the 1830s and 1840s a new nationalist movement, Young Ireland, arose. A rebellion that it launched in 1848, however, was easily defeated. The second half of the 1840s was one of the grimmest periods in Irish history. Due to the great famine caused by the crop failure of Ireland’s staple food—the potato—millions died or emigrated. The second half of the nineteenth century saw increased nationalistic demands for self-government and land reform, most notably in the activities of the Home Rule Movement under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell. Though home rule was finally passed in 1914, it was deferred because of the onset of World War I. On Easter Monday in 1916 a small force of Irish nationalists rebelled in Dublin against British rule. The rising was a military failure and had little support among the public. However, the harsh response of the British government and particularly its execution of the rising’s leaders won many over to the cause. After the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in 1921, the Irish Free State, whose constitutional status was tied to the British Commonwealth and required allegiance to the Crown, was established. The Free State was composed of 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties; the other six remained part of Britain. In 1949 the 26 counties became the Republic of Ireland, an independent nation. Although the Republic has consistently maintained its claim over the six counties of the U.K.’s Northern Ireland and declared its wish to reunite the whole island into a sovereign nation, in recent decades it has placed more emphasis on economic and social rather than nationalistic issues. Nevertheless, the status of the six counties of Northern Ireland remains a highly critical concern for politicians in Dublin, Belfast, and London.
In 1800 under the Acts of Union 1800, Ireland was politically unified with Britain to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. All major diplomatic decisions regarding Ireland were made in London. From this time until 1922, when twenty-six of thirty-two counties of Ireland seceded to form the Irish Free State (later becoming the Republic of Ireland), the United States’ formal diplomatic affairs with Ireland were carried out through London.
The Scots-Irish were some of the first settlers in the 13 colonies and played an important role in The War of Independence, as well as being some of the first cattle drivers in North America. The Irish exerted their own influence inside the United States, particularly through Democratic Party politics. From 1820 to 1860, 2 million Irish arrived in the United States, 75% of these after the Great Irish Famine (or The Great Hunger) of 1845–1852, struck. Most of them joined fast-growing Irish shantytowns in American cities. The famine hurt Irish men and women alike, especially those poorest or without land. It altered the family structures of Ireland because fewer people could afford to marry and raise children, causing many to adopt a single lifestyle. Consequently, many Irish citizens were less bound to family obligations and could more easily migrate to the United States in the following decade.
The Irish like to boast that St. Brendan sailed to America almost a millennium before Christopher Columbus; but even if St. Brendan did not make it to the New World, Galway-born William Ayers was one of Columbus’s crew in 1492. During the seventeenth century the majority of the Irish immigrants to America were Catholics. Most were poor, many coming as indentured servants, others under agreements to reimburse their fare sometime after arrival, a minority somehow managing to pay their own way. A small number were more prosperous and came seeking adventure. Still others were among the thousands who were exiled to the West Indies by Cromwell during the 1640s and later made their way to America. There was an increase in Irish immigration during the eighteenth century, though the numbers were still relatively small. Most of the century’s arrivals were Presbyterians from the northern province of Ulster who had originally been sent there from Scotland as colonists by the British crown. Many of these, dissenters from the established Protestant church, came to America fleeing religious discrimination. In later years, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century, it was common to assign the term Scotch-Irish to these Ulster Protestant immigrants, although they thought of themselves as strictly Irish. There were also numerous Irish Quaker immigrants, as well as some Protestants from the south. A significant minority of eighteenth century immigrants were southern Catholics. Most of these were escaping the appalling social and economic conditions as well as the draconian penal laws enacted by the British to annihilate the Celtic heritage and the religion of the Catholic majority. Some of these Catholic arrivals in America in time converted to Protestantism after encountering severe anti-papist discrimination as well as an absence of Catholic churches and priests. The preferred destinations of most of the eighteenth century Irish immigrants were New England, Maryland, Pennsylvania, the Carolinas, and Virginia.
IMMIGRATION UNTIL THE FAMINE YEARS
In the early years of the nineteenth century Protestants, many of whom were skilled tradesmen, continued to account for the majority of Irish immigrants. There were also numerous political refugees especially after the abortive United Irishmen uprising of 1798. However, by the 1820s and 1830s the overwhelming majority of those fleeing the country were unskilled, Catholic, peasant laborers. By this time Ireland was becoming Europe’s most densely populated country, the population having increased from about three million in 1725 to over eight million by 1841. The land could not support such a number. One of the main problems was the absence of the practice of primogeniture among the Irish. Family farms or plots were divided again and again until individual allotments were often so small— perhaps only one or two acres in size—that they were of little use in raising a family. Conditions worsened when, in the wake of a post-Napoleonic Wars agricultural depression, many Irish were evicted from the land they had leased as tenants because the landlords wanted it used for grazing. The concurrent great rise in population left thousands of discontented, landless Irish eager to seek new horizons. Moreover, the increase in industrialization had all but ended the modest amount of domestic weaving and spinning that had helped to supplement the income of some families. In addition, famine was never distant—a number of severe potato failures occurred during the 1820s and 1830s before the major famine of the 1840s.
As the passage from Britain to the Canadian Maritimes was substantially cheaper than that to the United States, many Irish immigrants came first to Canada, landing at Quebec, Montreal, or Halifax, and then sailed or even walked down into America. After about 1840, however, most immigrants sailed from Ireland to an American port. Whereas most of the Irish Catholic immigrants during the eighteenth century became engaged in some sort of farming occupation, those in the subsequent century tended to remain in such urban centers as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia or in the textile towns where their unskilled labor could be readily utilized. The immigrants were impoverished but usually not as destitute as those who came during the famine. Many readily found jobs building roads or canals such as the Erie. Still, times were tough for most of them, especially the Catholics who frequently found themselves a minority and targets of discrimination in an overwhelmingly Protestant nation.
FROM FAMINE YEARS TO THE PRESENT
It was the cataclysmic Potato Famine of 1845-1851, one of the most severe disasters in Irish history, that initiated the greatest departure of Irish immigrants to the United States. The potato constituted the main dietary staple for most Irish and when the blight struck a number of successive harvests social and economic disintegration ensued. As many as 1.5 million individuals perished of starvation and the diverse epidemics that accompanied the famine. A great number of the survivors emigrated, many of them to the United States. From the beginning of the famine in the mid-1840s until 1860 about 1.7 million Irish immigrated to the United States, mainly from the provinces of Connaught and Munster. In the latter part of the century, though the numbers fell from the highs of the famine years, the influx from Ireland continued to be large. While families predominated during the Famine exodus, single people now accounted for a far higher proportion of the immigrants. By 1880 more single women than single men were immigrants. It has been estimated that from 1820 to 1900 about four million Irish immigrated to the United States.
Though the majority of Irish immigrants continued to inhabit urban centers, principally in the northeast but also in such cities as Chicago, New Orleans, and San Francisco, a significant minority went further afield. Only a small number went west to engage in farming, however. Most Irish immigrants were indeed peasants, but few had the money to purchase land or had sufficient skill and experience
“T he first time I saw the Statue of Liberty all the people were rushing to the side of the boat. ‘Look at her, look at her,’ and in all kinds of tongues. ‘There she is, there she is,’ like it was somebody who was greeting them.”
Elizabeth Phillips in 1920, cited in Ellis Island: An Illustrated History of the Immigrant Experience, edited by Ivan Chermayeff et al. (New York: Macmillan, 1991).
to make a success of large-scale agriculture. Still, despite the great exploitation, oppression, and hardships suffered by many nineteenth-century Irish immigrants, the majority endured and their occupational mobility began to improve slowly. Their prowess and patriotic fervor in the Civil War helped to diminish anti-Irish bigotry and discrimination. As the years went by, the occupational caliber of Irish immigrants gradually improved in line with the slow amelioration of conditions in Ireland. By the end of the century a high proportion were skilled or semi-skilled laborers or had trades. Moreover, these immigrants were greatly aided by the Irish American infrastructure that awaited them. While life was still harsh for most immigrants, the parochial schools, charitable societies, workers’ organizations, and social clubs aided their entry into a society that still frequently discriminated against Irish Catholics. Furthermore, the influx of even poorer southern and eastern European immigrants helped the Irish attain increased status.
In the twentieth century immigration from Ireland has ebbed and flowed. After World War I Irish immigration to the United States was high. After Congress passed legislation limiting immigration during the 1920s, however, the numbers declined. Numbers for the 1930s were particularly low. After World War II numbers again increased; but the 1960s saw emigration from Ireland falling dramatically as a result of new quota laws restricting northern Europeans. Accordingly, the number of Irish-born legal residents now in the United States is far lower than it was in the mid-twentieth century. From the 1980s onward, however, there has been an unprecedented influx of undocumented Irish immigrants, especially to such traditionally Irish centers as New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco. These have been mainly young, well-educated individuals who have left an economically troubled country with one of the highest rates of unemployment in the European Community (EC). They prefer to work illegally in the United States, frequently in Irish-owned businesses, as bartenders, construction workers, nannies, and food servers, exposed to the dangers of exploitation and apprehension by the law, rather than remain on the dole at home. Their number is unknown, though the figure is estimated to be between 100,000 and 150,000.
Irish Role in American Independence
rish participation in the American Revolution helped make American independence a reality.
While tens of thousands of old Gaelic names of 17th and 18th Century Irish immigrants appear with astonishing regularity in completely verifiable colonial records, any reference to these people is almost totally omitted from our standard American histories, including the American Revolution.
The following documented facts is an example of Irish participation in the American Revolution.
- At the Battle of Lexington (April 19, 1775), 174 Irish were present.
- At the Battle of Bunker Hill (June 17, 1775), 698 Irish were present.
- A prominent American, Joseph Galloway, also an English Tory told the English House of Commons, on October 27, 1779, that one-half of Washington’s Continental Army was Irish.
- On April 2, 1784, Luke Gardiner, afterward Lord Mountjoy, told the English Parliament, “America was lost by Irish emigrants … I am assured from the best authority, the major part of the American Army was composed of Irish and that the Irish language was as commonly spoken in the American ranks as English, I am also informed it was their valor that determined the contest …“
- Many Irish, banished by England, fought with Lafayette. At the Siege of Savannah, 637 Irish were killed.
Irish Immigration: 17th – 18th Centuries
According to the Dictionary of American History approximately 50,000 to 100,00 Irish (over 75% Catholic) came to the American colonies in the 1600s. During the 18th century, more than 100,000 additional Irish Catholics arrived, many as indentured servants. In the 1740s, nine out of ten indentured servants were of Irish origin.
Most colonial settlers coming from the Irish province of Ulster came to be known in America as the “Scotch-Irish“. They were descendants of Scottish and English tenant farmers who had been settled in Ireland by the British government during the 17th-century Plantation of Ulster.
An estimated 250,000 migrated to America during the colonial era. The Scotch-Irish settled mainly in the colonial “back country” of the Appalachian Mountain region, and became the prominent ethnic strain in the culture that developed there. The descendants of Scotch-Irish settlers had a great influence on the later culture of the United States through such contributions as American folk music, Country and Western music, and stock car racing, which became popular throughout the country in the late 20th century.
Irish immigrants of this period participated in significant numbers in the American Revolution, leading one British major general to testify at the House of Commons that “half the rebel Continental Army were from Ireland.”
Irish Americans were also signatories on such foundational documents of the United States as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Beginning with Andrew Jackson, many Irish Americans served as President of the United States.
The early Ulster immigrants and their descendants at first usually referred to themselves simply as “Irish,” without the qualifier “Scotch.” It was not until more than a century later, following the surge in Irish immigration after the Great Hunger of the 1840s, that the descendants of the Protestant Irish began to refer to themselves as “Scotch-Irish” to distinguish them from the predominantly Catholic, and largely destitute, wave of immigrants from Ireland in that era.
The two groups had little initial interaction in America, as the 18th century Ulster immigrants were predominantly Protestant and had become settled largely in upland regions of the American interior, while the huge wave of 19th-century Catholic immigrant families settled primarily in the Northeast and Midwest port cities such as Boston, New York, or Chicago. However, beginning in the early 19th century, many Irish migrated individually to the interior for work on large-scale infrastructure projects such as canals and, later in the century, railroads.
Irish Settlement in the South
During the colonial period, the Scotch-Irish settled in the southern Appalachian backcountry and in the Carolina piedmont. They became the primary cultural group in these areas, and their descendants were in the vanguard of westward movement through Virginia into Tennessee and Kentucky, and thence into Arkansas, Missouri and Texas. By the 19th century, through intermarriage with settlers of English and German ancestry, the descendants of the Scotch-Irish lost their identification with Ireland. “This generation of pioneers was a generation of Americans, not of Englishmen or Germans or Scotch-Irish.”
The relatively small number of Irish Catholics concentrated in a few medium-sized cities, where they were highly visible, especially in Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans. They became local leaders in the Democratic party, generally favored preserving the Union in 1860, but became staunch Confederates after secession in 1861.
Irish Participation In the American Revolutionary War
Irish and Irish-American soldiers (especially Scotch Irish) constituted between 1/4 and 1/3 of the American Continental Army. That included nearly 1,500 officers of Irish ancestry, among them 22 generals and more than a dozen sea captains. Shortly after the conclusion of the peace between England and the U. S., Lord Mountjoy spoke in Parliament of the reasons why England lost: “America was lost through the Irish emigrants…I have been assured on the best authority that the Irish language was commonly spoke in the America ranks.”
When the British Army had evacuated Boston on March 17, 1776, George Washington was unable to resist the temptation to recognize the day’s significance in the eyes of so many of his soldiers. He named John Sullivan the officer of the day and made “St. Patrick” the password for those on guard duty. To this day, March 17 is a state holiday in MA, though few of the residents seem to be aware that it is in commemoration of “Evacuation Day.”
Some Notables on the Patriot’s side
John Stark, a hero of Bunker Hill, born in Londonderry, NH in 1728, after his parents came from Ireland. His successful repulse of Burgoyne’s attempted retreat at Saratoga was a major factor in bringing about the British surrender.
Cantankerous Gustavus Conyngham of Donegal captured 60 ships for the patriot cause although he was not given a commission in the U. S. Navy and resumed work as a private sea captain.
Stephen Moylan born in Cork became the Continental Army’s first muster-master and later served as Washington’s secretary. A wealthy merchant active in shipping, he had cast his lot with the rebels and spent considerable amounts of his own fortune outfitting privateers to harass British ships.
Henry Knox, born in Boston to immigrants from Northern Ireland was proprietor of the London Book Store in Boston and joined a local artillery company. In 1775 he brought 50 cannon from captured Fort Ticonderoga, thus saving them from British capture. He was promoted to brigadier-general after he directed Washington’s famous 1776 Christmas night trip across the Delaware River. Appointed the first secretary of war under the U. S. Constitution, Fort Knox, KY, Knox Co. ME, and Knoxville, TN all bear his name.
John Sullivan born in Summersworth Parish, Maine, led an attack on Fort William and Mary to secure munitions for the rebel cause. He played a key role in defeating an allied force of Iroquois and Loyalists along the NY frontier. He later served as governor of New Hampshire.
John Barry, the “Father of the American Navy,” was born on Co. Wexford, Ireland. By the early 1770s he was a prosperous captain in the transatlantic trade. He distinguished himself by becoming the first Continental Navy captain to seizure a British ship (the “Edward”) in 1775. Statutes in Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and Wexford, Ireland, commemorate the distinguished commodore’s career.
Richard Montgomery was born in Swords, Co. Dublin. His father, Thomas, was a baronet and member of the Irish Parliament. He joined the British Army in Canada in 1756, moved to NY in 1772 and married into the prominent Livingston family. He was second in command in the successful Montreal Expedition. He was appointed brigadier general by the Continental Congress in 1775, and was second in command in the successful Montréal Expedition. He joined forces with Benedict Arnold (not yet a traitor), and was killed leading an assault on Quebec City on the last day of December in 1775.
Sharpshooter Timothy Murphy of Pike Co. PA, was a member of Col. Daniel Morgan’s Rifle Corps, a fierce group of sharpshooters who were deadly accurate with their aim. His contributions are immortalized with a monument at Saratoga erected by the local chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
Col. James Moore was born in New Hanover Co. North Carolina. He was given command of the rebel action to defend Moore’s Creek Bridge against an army of over 1,600 Loyalists. That successful engagement, the first major battle of the South, was a crucial factor in determining the early course of the American Revolution.
Privateer Jeremiah O’Brien of Maine led a raiding party including his four brothers and seized the British warship “Margaretta” in Machias, Maine. That event took place five days before the Battle of Bunker Hill and is considered the first naval battle of the Revolution. O’Brien and his brother John were commissioned as privateers, ship captains authorized to seize enemy ships.
Master Spy, Hercules Mulligan was born in Co. Derry, Ireland. When the British took over New York City during the American Revolution, he remained in the city as a secret agent, posing as a loyalist. He gathered vital intelligence by eavesdropping on British soldiers during their frequent meetings in his clothing store. Thanks to this gentleman, Washington received early notification of his proposed kidnapping by British agents and the British plan to invade Pennsylvania. Although some Americans accused him of loyalism at war’s end, Washington publicly praised him as “a true friend of liberty.”
Not all Irish-Americans Supported the Revolution
Not everyone of Irish descent supported the patriot cause. Many fought as soldiers in several of the Irish regiments in the British Army. Others were everyday colonists who enlisted in the King’s army. Two Irish regiments, The Volunteers of Ireland and The Roman Catholic Volunteers were comprised of Irish deserters from the Continental Army.
In the summer of 1776, as the British prepared to invade New York, Sgt. Thomas Hickey plotted to assassinate General Washington. When the plot was exposed, he was arrested along with Private Michael Lynch. The latter was acquitted, but Hickey was convicted of mutiny and sedition and hanged on the Bowery Road before a crowd of thousands.
After the American Civil War, authorities in the U.S. who were resentful of Britain’s role in the war looked the other way as the Fenian Brotherhood plotted and even attempted an invasion of Canada. The Fenian Raids proved a failure but Irish American politicians, a growing power in the Democratic Party, demanded more independence for Ireland and made anti-British rhetoric—called “twisting the lion’s tail”—a staple of election campaign appeals to the Irish vote.
Éamon de Valera, a prominent figure in the Easter Rising and the Irish War of Independence, was himself born in New York City in 1882. His American citizenship spared him from execution for his role in the Easter Rising.
De Valera went on to be named President of Dáil Éireann, and in May 1919 he visited the United States in this role. The mission had three objectives: to ask for official recognition of the Irish Republic, to float a loan to finance the work of the Government (and by extension, the Irish Republican Army), and to secure the support of the American people for the republic. His visit lasted from June 1919 to December 1920 and had mixed success. One negative outcome was the splitting of the Irish-American organisations into pro- and anti-de Valera factions. De Valera managed to raise $5,500,000 from American supporters, an amount that far exceeded the hopes of the Dáil. Of this, $500,000 was devoted to the American presidential campaign in 1920 which helped him gain wider public support there. In 1921 it was said that $1,466,000 had already been spent, and it is unclear when the net balance arrived in Ireland. Recognition was not forthcoming in the international sphere. He also had difficulties with various Irish-American leaders, such as John Devoy and Judge Daniel F. Cohalan, who resented the dominant position he established, preferring to retain their control over Irish affairs in the United States.
World War I
The United States Navy had five U.S. Naval Air Stations in Ireland from 1918 to 1919. These stations were specifically in place to protect Ireland and neighbouring countries from belligerent submarine aggression. The names and locations of these bases were NAS Queenstown, NAS Wexford, NAS Whiddy Island, NAS Berehaven and NAS Lough Foyle.
U.S. recognition of Ireland
The Irish War of Independence ultimately ended with the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which confirmed the partition of Ireland into the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland, the latter of which opted to remain a part of the United Kingdom. The Irish Free State quickly fell into the Irish Civil War between Pro-Treaty Forces who supported independence via partition and Anti-Treaty Forces who opposed partition and wanted independence for the entire island of Ireland. Pro-Treaty Forces won the Irish Civil War in 1923, and the following year the United States recognized the Irish Free State and established diplomatic relations with it. The Irish Free State was succeeded by the new state of Ireland in 1937, and formally declared itself a republic in 1949.
World War II/The Emergency
Ireland was officially neutral during World War II, but declared an official state of emergency on 2 September 1939 and the Army was mobilized. As the Emergency progressed, more and newer equipment was purchased for the rapidly expanding force from the UK and the United States as well as some manufactured at home. For the duration of the Emergency, Ireland, while formally neutral, tacitly supported the Allies in several ways. The Irish Sea was mined. German military personnel were interned in the Curragh along with the belligerent powers’ servicemen, whereas Allied airmen and sailors who crashed in Ireland were very often repatriated, usually by secretly moving them across the border to Northern Ireland. G2, the Army’s intelligence section, played a vital role in the detection and arrest of German spies, such as Hermann Görtz.
During the Cold War, Irish military policy, while ostensibly neutral, was biased towards NATO. G2 monitored communists and agents of communist governments operating in Ireland, primarily through embassies in Dublin, sharing information with western allies. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Seán Lemass authorised the search of Cuban and Czechoslovak aircraft passing through Shannon and passed the information to the CIA.
U.S. foreign direct investment in Ireland has been particularly important to the growth and modernization of Irish industry since 1980, providing new technology, export capabilities, and employment opportunities. During the 1990s, Ireland experienced a period of rapid economic growth referred to as the Celtic Tiger. While Ireland’s historical economic ties to the UK had often been the subject of criticism, Peader Kirby argued that the new ties to the US economy were met with a “satisfied silence”. Nevertheless, voices on the political left have decried the “closer to Boston than Berlin” philosophy of the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrat government. Growing wealth was blamed for rising crime levels among youths, particularly alcohol-related violence resulting from increased spending power. However, it was also accompanied by rapidly increased life expectancy and very high quality of life ratings; the country ranked first in The Economist’s 2005 quality of life index.
The Troubles caused a strain in the Special Relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States. In February 1994, British Prime Minister John Major refused to answer US President Bill Clinton‘s telephone calls for days over his decision to grant Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams a visa to visit the United States. Adams was listed as a terrorist by London. The US State Department, the CIA, the US Justice Department and the FBI all opposed the move on the grounds that it made the United States look ‘soft on terrorism’ and ‘could do irreparable damage to the special relationship’. Under pressure from Congress, the president hoped the visit would encourage the IRA to renounce violence. While Adams offered nothing new, and violence escalated within weeks, the president later claimed vindication after the IRA ceasefire of August 1994. To the disappointment of the prime minister, Clinton lifted the ban on official contacts and received Adams at the White House on St. Patrick’s Day 1995, despite the fact the paramilitaries had not agreed to disarm.
The US also involved itself as an intermediary during the Northern Ireland peace process, including, in 1995, US Senator George Mitchell being appointed to lead an international body to provide an independent assessment of the decommissioning issue, and President Clinton speaking in favor of the “peace process” to a huge rally at Belfast’s City Hall where he called IRA Fighters “yesterday’s men”. Mitchell announced the reaching of the Good Friday Agreement on 10 April 1998 stating, “I am pleased to announce that the two governments and the political parties in Northern Ireland have reached agreement,” and it emerged later that President Clinton had made a number of telephone calls to party leaders to encourage them to reach this agreement.
War on Terror
Ireland’s air facilities were used by the United States military for the delivery of military personnel involved in the 2003 invasion of Iraq through Shannon Airport. The airport had previously been used for the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, as well as the First Gulf War. The government of Republic of Ireland has come under internal and external pressure to inspect airplanes at Shannon Airport to investigate whether or not they contain extraordinary rendition captives. Police at Shannon said that they had received political instruction not to approach, search or otherwise interfere with US aircraft suspected of being involved in extraordinary rendition flights. Irish Justice Minister Dermot Ahern sought permission from the US for random inspection of US flights, to provide political “cover” to him in case rendition flights were revealed to have used Shannon; he believed at least three flights had done so. Ireland has been censured by the European Parliament for its role in facilitating extraordinary rendition and taking insufficient or no measures to uphold its obligations under the UN CAT.
With Ireland’s membership in the European Union, the discussion of EU trade and economic policies, as well as other aspects of EU policy, is also a key element in the U.S.-Irish relationship. In recent years, Ireland has attempted to act as a diplomatic bridge between the United States and the European Union. During its 2004 Presidency of the Council of the European Union, Ireland worked to strengthen U.S.-EU ties that had been strained by the Iraq War, and former Irish Taoiseach John Bruton was named EU Ambassador to the United States. In May 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama visited Ireland.
In 2017, President Donald Trump sought to reform the tax code to repatriate American businesses abroad, and specifically referenced Ireland on several occasions, stating “Many, many companies, they’re going to Ireland.” Despite this, Irish politicians thought the U.S. tax overhaul posed little threat to U.S. investment in Ireland, with European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development Phil Hogan stating, “Ireland remains a logical and very attractive European base for American business.”
In April 2019, Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, visited the border of Ireland and Northern Ireland and said that if Brexit compromised the Good Friday Agreement then there was “no chance” of a US-UK trade deal.
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern meeting President Bill Clinton in the oval office in March 2000.
Subsidiaries of US multinationals have located in Ireland due to low taxation and an educated English-speaking population. Ireland is the world’s most profitable country for US corporations, according to analysis by US tax journal Tax Notes. In 2013, Ireland was named the “best country for business” by Forbes.
The United States is Ireland’s largest export partner and second-largest import partner (after the United Kingdom), accounting for 23.2% of exports and 14.1% of imports in 2010. It is also Ireland’s largest trading partner outside of the European Union. In 2010, trade between Ireland and the United States was worth around $36.25 billion. U.S. exports to Ireland were valued at $7.85 billion while Irish exports to the U.S. were worth some $28.4 billion, with Ireland having a trade surplus of $20.5 billion over the U.S. The range of U.S. products imported to Ireland includes electrical components, computers and peripherals, pharmaceuticals, electrical equipment, and livestock feed. Exports to the United States include alcoholic beverages, chemicals and related products, electronic data processing equipment, electrical machinery, textiles and clothing, and glassware.
The major U.S. investments in Ireland to date have included multibillion-dollar investments by Intel, Dell, Apple Inc, Microsoft, IBM, Wyeth, Quintiles, Google, EMC and Abbott Laboratories. Currently, there are more than 600 U.S. subsidiaries operating in Ireland, employing in excess of 100,000 people and spanning activities from manufacturing of high-tech electronics, computer products, medical supplies, and pharmaceuticals to retailing, banking and finance, and other services. Many U.S. businesses find Ireland an attractive location to manufacture for the EU market, since as a member of the EU it has tariff free access to the European Common Market. Government policies are generally formulated to facilitate trade and inward direct investment. The availability of an educated, well-trained, English-speaking work force and relatively moderate wage costs have been important factors. Ireland offers good long-term growth prospects for U.S. companies under an innovative financial incentive program, including capital grants and favorable tax treatment, such as a low corporation income tax rate for manufacturing firms and certain financial services firms. Irish firms are now beginning to provide a lot of employment in the U.S., for example indigenous Irish companies, particularly in the high tech sector have provided in excess of 80,000 jobs to date for American citizens.
Irish immigration to the USA has played a large role in the culture of the United States. About 33.3 million Americans—10.5% of the total population—reported Irish ancestry in the 2013 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. Irish Americans have made many contributions to American culture and sport. Halloween is thought to have evolved from the ancient Celtic/Gaelic festival of Samhain, which was introduced in the American colonies by Irish settlers.
A number of the presidents of the United States have Irish origins. The extent of Irish heritage varies. For example, Chester A. Arthur‘s father and both of Andrew Jackson‘s parents were Irish-born, while George W. Bush has a rather distant Irish ancestry. Ronald Reagan‘s father was of Irish ancestry, while his mother also had some Irish ancestors. John F. Kennedy had Irish lineage on both sides. Within this group, only Kennedy was raised as a practicing Roman Catholic. Former President Barack Obama‘s Irish heritage originates from his Kansas-born mother, Ann Dunham, whose ancestry is Irish and English. President Joe Biden is also an Irish-American on both his parents sides and a practicing Roman Catholic like Kennedy.
Emigration, long a vital element in the U.S.–Irish relationship, declined significantly with Ireland’s economic boom in the 1990s. For the first time in its modern history, Ireland experienced high levels of inward migration, a phenomenon with political, economic, and social consequences. However, Irish citizens do continue the common practice of taking temporary residence overseas for work or study, mainly in the US, UK, Australia and elsewhere in Europe, before returning to establish careers in Ireland. The US J-1 visa program, for example, remains a popular means for Irish youths to work temporarily in the United States.
Acculturation and Assimilation
The Irish have been present in the United States for hundreds of years and, accordingly, have had more opportunity than many other ethnic groups to assimilate into the wider society. Each successive generation has become more integrated with the dominant culture. In the eighteenth century the Protestant Irish relatively easily became acculturated and socially accepted. However, it was far more difficult for the vast numbers of Catholic Irish who flooded into the United States in the post-famine decades to coalesce with the mainstream. Negative stereotypes imported from England characterizing the Irish as pugnacious, drunken, semi-savages were common and endured for at least the rest of the nineteenth century. Multitudes of cartoons depicting the Irish as small, ugly, simian creatures armed with liquor and a shillelagh pervaded the press; and such terms as “paddy-wagons,” “shenanigans,” and “shanty Irish” gained popularity. Despite the effects of these offensive images, compounded by poverty and ignorance, the Irish Catholic immigrants possessed important advantages. They arrived in great numbers, most were able to speak English, and their Western European culture was similar to American culture. These factors clearly allowed the Irish Catholics to blend in far more easily than some other ethnic groups. Even their Catholicism, once disdained by so many, came to be accepted in time. Though some prejudices still linger, Catholicism is now an important part of American culture.
Today it is no longer easy to define precisely what is meant by an Irish American ethnic identity. This is especially so for later generations. Intermarriage has played a major role in this blurring of ethnic lines. The process of assimilating has also been facilitated by the great migration in recent decades of the Irish from their ethnic enclaves in the cities to the suburbs and rural regions. Greater participation in the multicultural public school system with a corresponding decline in parochial school attendance has played a significant role as well; another major factor has been the great decrease of immigrants from Ireland due to immigration laws disfavoring Europeans. Today, with 38,760,000 Americans claiming Irish ancestry (according to the 1990 census), American society as a whole associates few connotations—positive or negative—with this group. Among these immigrants and their ancestors, however, there is still great pride and a certain prestige in being Irish.
Still, there exists in some circles the belief that the Irish are less cultured, less advanced intellectually, and more politically reactionary and even bigoted than some other ethnic groups. The results of numerous polls show, however, that Catholic Irish Americans are among the best educated and most liberal in the United States. Moreover, they are well represented in law, medicine, academia, and other prestigious professions, and they continue to be upwardly socially mobile. Traditionally prominent in the Democratic ranks of city and local politics, many, especially since the Kennedy presidency, have now attained high positions in the federal government. Countless more have become top civil servants. Irish acceptability has also grown in line with the greater respect afforded by many Americans to the advances made by the Republic of Ireland in the twentieth century.
DANCES AND SONGS
Ireland’s cultural heritage, with its diverse customs, traditions, folklore, mythology, music, and dance, is one of the richest and most distinctive in Europe. Rapid modernization and the extensive homogenization of western societies, however, has rendered much of this heritage obsolete or, at best, only vaguely perceived in contemporary Ireland. With their extensive assimilation into American culture there has been a decline in continuity and appreciation of the domestic cultural heritage among Irish Americans Irish step dancers prance along the parade route during a south Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 1997.as well. Nevertheless, there exist many elements in the Irish American culture that are truly unique and lend this group a distinct cultural character.
Irish music and song brought to America by generations of immigrants have played a seminal role in the development of America’s folk and country music. Elements of traditional Irish ballads introduced during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are easily discernible in many American folk songs. Irish fiddle music of this period is an important root of American country music. This earlier music became part of a rural tradition. Much of what was carried to America by the great waves of Irish immigration during the nineteenth century, on the other hand, became an important facet of America’s urban folk scene. With the folk music revival of the 1960s came a heightened appreciation of Irish music in both its American and indigenous forms. Today Irish music is extremely popular not only among Irish Americans but among many Americans in general. Many learn to play such Irish instruments as the pipes, tin whistle, flute, fiddle, concertina, harp, and the bodhrán. Many also attend Irish céilithe and dance traditional reels and jigs to hornpipes.
ST. PATRICK’S DAY
March 17 is the feast of St. Patrick, the most important holiday of the year for Irish Americans. St. Patrick, about whose life and chronology little definite is known, is the patron saint of Ireland. A Romano-Briton missionary, perhaps from Wales, St. Patrick is honored for spreading Christianity throughout Ireland in the fifth century. Though Irish Americans of all creeds are particularly prominent on St. Patrick’s Day, the holiday is now so ubiquitous that individuals of many other ethnic groups participate in the festivities. Many cities and towns hold St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, parties, and, above all, parades. One of the oldest observances in the United States took place in Boston in 1737 under the auspices of the Charitable Irish Society. It was organized by Protestant Irish. Boston, especially in the districts of South Boston, still holds great celebrations each year, though the holiday is now more closely identified with Catholic Irish. The largest and most famous parade is held in New York City, with the first parade in that city dating back to 1762. In the early years this parade was organized by the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick; in 1838 the Ancient Order of Hibernians became sponsor and still holds the sponsorship today. New York’s main cathedral is dedicated to St. Patrick. Most people celebrating St. Patrick’s Day strive to wear something green, Ireland’s national color. Green dye is often put in food and drink. The mayor of Chicago regularly has the Chicago River dyed green for the day. If people cannot find a shamrock to wear they carry representations of that plant. According to legend the shamrock, with its three leaves on the single stalk, was used by St. Patrick to explain the mystery of the Christian Trinity to the pagan Irish. In Ireland St. Patrick’s Day, though still celebrated with enthusiasm, tends to be somewhat more subdued than in the United States due to a greater appreciation of the religious significance of the feast.Irish Americans celebrate in New York City’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade.
Hardly any true folk costume is still worn in Ireland. The brat, a black hooded woolen cloak, is sometimes seen on old women in County Cork. During the nineteenth century the shawl was found by many women to be a cheaper substitute for the cloak and even today older rural women might be shawled. The heavy white báinín pullovers, traditionally worn in the west and northwest of Ireland by fishermen whose sweaters each bore a unique and identifiable cable pattern, is now frequently seen throughout the nation. Traditional homespun tweed trousers are still sometimes worn by Aran Islander men. In America the Irish rarely wear any traditional costume. The main exception is the kilt which is sometimes worn by members of céilí bands and traditional Irish dancers. This plaid skirt is actually Scottish, however, and was adopted in the early twentieth century during the Gaelic Revival.
For the most part Irish Americans eat generic American food as well as the cuisine of other ethnic groups. Many Irish Americans do cook some of the dishes that make up the distinctive Irish cuisine, which is frequently served in Irish restaurants and pubs throughout America. There is a good market for the many shops in America that sell such Irish favorites as rashers (bacon), bangers (sausages), black and white pudding, and soda bread. Potatoes have traditionally constituted the staple of the Irish diet. The Irish also consume such dairy products as butter, milk, and cheese in large quantities. Many eat oatmeal stirabout or porridge for breakfast. Irish stew is a favorite dish. Smoked Irish salmon, imported from Ireland, is a popular delicacy. Other traditional foods include: soda bread, made with flour, soda, buttermilk, and salt (sometimes with raisins); coddle, a dish originating in Dublin that is prepared with bacon, sausages, onions, and potatoes; and drisheens, made from sheep’s blood, milk, bread crumbs, and chopped mutton suet. Corned beef and cabbage, sometimes served with juniper berries, was a traditional meal in many parts of Ireland on Easter Sunday and is still consumed by many Irish Americans on this and other days. Boxty bread, a potato bread marked with a cross, is still eaten by some on Halloween or the eve of All Saint’s Day. Also on the table at Halloween are colcannon, a mixture of cabbage or kale and mashed potatoes with a lucky coin placed inside, and barmbrack, an unleavened cake made with raisins, sultanas, and currants. A ring is always placed inside the barmbrack. It is said that whoever receives the slice containing the ring will be married within the year. Tea, served at all times of the day or night, is probably the most popular Irish beverage. Irish coffee, made from whiskey and coffee, is truly an Irish American invention and is not drunk much in Ireland. Though Scotch and whiskey are synonymous to many in other countries, the Irish believe that their whiskey, uisce beatha (the water of life), is a finer drink. Irish stout, particularly the Guinness variety, is well-known throughout the world.
Sceitheann fíon fírinne (Wine reveals the truth); Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin (There’s no fireside like your own fireside); Más maith leat tú a cháineadh, pó s (Marry, if you wish to be criticized); Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí (Give praise to the young and they will flourish); An té a bhíos fial roinneann Dia leis (God shares with the generous); Is maith an scáthán súil charad (The eye of a friend is a good mirror); Is fada an bóthar nach mbíonn casadh ann (It’s a long road that has no turn); Giorraíonn beirt bóthar (Two people shorten the road).
The health of Irish Americans is influenced by the same factors affecting other ethnic groups in the western world: old age, pollution, stress, excessive use of tobacco and alcohol, overly rich diet, employment and other economic problems, discord in marriage and personal relationships, and so on. The chief cause of death is heart-related diseases, exacerbated by the Irish fondness for a rich diet traditionally high in fat and caloric content. Alcohol plays a strong role in Irish American social life, and alcohol-related illnesses are common—the rate of alcoholism is high. Irish Americans also have an above-average rate of mental health diseases, with organic psychosis and schizophrenia being particularly prevalent.
In the earlier days of emigration the Irish, like numerous other groups, brought their folk medical remedies to America. Most of these, especially those associated with herbs, are unknown to the majority of contemporary Irish Americans; however, a number of traditional medical beliefs survive. In order to maintain good health and prevent illness many Irish recommend wearing holy medals and scapulars, blessing the throat, never going to bed with wet hair, never sitting in a draft, taking laxatives regularly, wearing camphor about the neck in influenza season, taking tonics and extra vitamins, enjoying bountiful exercise and fresh air, and avoiding physicians except when quite ill. Some traditional treatments are still used, such as painting a sore throat with iodine or soothing it with lemon and honey, putting a poultice of sugar and bread or soap on a boil, drinking hot whiskeys with cloves and honey for coughs or colds, and rubbing Vicks on the chest or breathing in hot Balsam vapors, also for coughs and colds.
Just as other groups in America, the Irish worry about the ever rising cost of medical care. Many would like improved medical insurance plans, whether national or private. The thousands of undocumented Irish throughout the United States who are not medically insured are particularly apprehensive of the frequently high expense of medical treatment. Bernie Hurley uses roller blades to skate along the route for the 36th Annual Denver St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Colorado.
Irish is a Celtic language of Indo-European origin, related to the ancient language of the Gauls. Linguistic scholars usually consider at least four distinct stages in the development of Irish: Old Irish (c. 600-900); Middle Irish (c. 900-1400); Early Modern Irish (c.1400-1600); and Modern Irish (c.1600-present). There are three fairly distinct dialects, those of Ulster, Munster, and Connaught. Beginning in the nineteenth century, Irish—until then widely spoken throughout Ireland—began a rapid decline mainly due to the Anglicization policies of the British government. Since the founding of the Irish Free State in 1921, however, the authorities have made great efforts to promote the widespread usage of Irish. Under the Constitution of the Republic of Ireland, Irish is decreed as the official language, though special recognition is given to English. Irish is still extensively taught in most schools. The result is that competence in Irish—as well as general interest in the language—is higher today than at any time in the Republic’s history. Nevertheless, despite all efforts to render Irish a living national language, it is clear that it remains the daily language of communication for only about four percent of the population, most of whom live in small Gaeltacht (southwest, west, and northwest) areas. Only a tiny number of Northern Ireland’s population speak Irish.
The decline in the usage of Irish and the triumph of English as the first language for most Irish throughout the nineteenth century, though undoubtedly a great loss for nationalistic and cultural reasons, proved to be a boon to Irish immigrants to the United States. Almost alone among new immigrants, apart from those from the British Isles, most spoke the language of their adopted country. Today, there is a resurgence of interest in the Irish language among many Irish Americans. In cities such as New York, Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco, classes in learning Irish are extremely popular. A growing number of American colleges and universities now offer courses in Irish language.
GREETINGS AND OTHER COMMON EXPRESSIONS
Dia dhuit (“dee-ah guit”)—Hello; Conas atá tú? (“kunus ah-thaw thoo”)—How are you; Fáilte romhat ! (“fawilteh rowth”)—Welcome; Cad as duit? (“kawd oss dit”)—Where are you from; Gabh mo leithscéal (“gauw muh leshgale”)—Excuse me; Le do thoil (“leh duh hull”)—Please; Tá dhá thaobh ar an scéa (“thaw gaw hayv air un shgale”)—There’s something to be said on both sides; Más toil le Dia (“maws tule leh dee-ah”)—God willing; Tá sé ceart to leor (“thaw shay k-yarth guh lore”) It’s all right; Beidh lá eile ag an bPaorach ! (“beg law eleh egg un fairoch”)—Better luck next time; Buíochas le Dia (“bu-ee-kus leh dee-ah”)—Thank God; Is fusa a rá ná a dhéanamh (“iss fusa ah raw naw ah yeaanav”)—Easier said than done; Go raibh míle maith agat (“guh row meela moh ugut”)—Thank you very much; Slán agat go fóill (“slawn ugut guh fowil”)— Good-bye for the present.
Family and Community Dynamics
It is difficult to discuss the Irish American family in isolation from the broader society. Irish assimilation into the American culture has been occurring for a long time and has been quite comprehensive.
Traditionally the average age of marriage for the Irish was older than for numerous other groups. Many delayed getting married, wishing first to attain a sufficient economic level. Large numbers did not marry at all, deciding to remain celibate, some for religious reasons, others, it has been suggested, due to a certain embarrassment about sex. Today delayed marriages are less common and there is probably less sexual dysfunction both within and outside marriage. Furthermore, those Irish whose families have long been established in America tend to have a more accepting attitude towards divorce than do the more recently arrived Irish. Many young Irish Americans are more inclined than their elders to look favorably on divorce. The negative attitude of the Catholic church toward divorce still affects perceptions, however. Many Irish Americans, even those who obtain a civil divorce, seek to procure a church annulment of their marriages so that they may remarry within Catholicism. Though Irish Americans frequently intermarry with other groups there remains a strong leaning toward marrying within one’s own religion.
In remote times in Ireland the Irish generally treated death in a boisterous and playful manner. It is possible that the storytelling, music playing, singing, dancing, feasting, and playing of wake diversions during the two or three days the dead person was laid out prior to burial owed something to pre-Christian funeral games. Such activity may also have stemmed in part from a welcoming of death by an exploited and destitute people. Today, however, wakes among Irish Americans are much more sedate and respectable and generally last only one night. The main purpose of a wake is for relatives, neighbors, and friends to visit in order to pay their respects to the dead person and to offer condolences to the family. Though food and drink are still invariably offered to visitors, the traditional over-indulgence of eating and drinking rarely occurs. In years past the dead body was laid out on a bed in the person’s own house. Today the wake often takes place in a funeral home with the body lying in a casket. Catholic dead often have rosary beads entwined in their crossed hands, and some are dressed in the brown habit or shroud of the Franciscan Third Order. Flowers and candles are usually placed about the casket. The laid-out corpse always has somebody standing beside it. This is mainly out of respect for the dead person. Many years ago, however, there was a practical reason for watching the body, namely to guard it from the predations of body-snatchers who would sell it to medical schools. The caoine or keening of women over the corpse is no longer heard in America. This custom has also, except for rare occasions, died out in Ireland. It is common for visitors to a wake to say a short silent prayer for the soul of the dead person.
THE ROLE OF WOMEN
The traditional Irish American mother remained at home to take care of the household. Female dominance of domestic life was common and the mother generally played a disproportionate role in raising the children. Not all Irish women were tied to the house, however. Many were also active in community oriented projects, such as charity activities, parochial work, and caring for the old and sick. In addition, many others displayed great independence and resolve last century when, fleeing the famine and terrible conditions in Ireland, they emigrated alone to the United States, a bold act for women of the period. This will and determination remains one of the most dominant character traits of contemporary Irish American females. Modern Irish American women are as likely, if not more so, to be as successful as their peers from other groups. Few today are content to devote their lives to traditional housework, with the great majority working in either part-time or full-time jobs. Great numbers have thrived in such professional spheres as academia, law, business, politics, and a variety of other occupations.
Irish American families have traditionally been large. Today many families still tend to produce an above-average number of children. This may be due in part to the continued adherence of many Irish to the teachings of the Catholic church on contraception. How Irish Americans rear their children depends to a great extent on the socio-economic background of the family. Generally, however, children are treated firmly but kindly. They are taught to be polite, obey their parents, and defer to authority. The mother often plays the dominant role in raising children and imparting values; the father is frequently a distant figure. In many families negative reinforcement, such as shaming, belittling, ridiculing, and embarrassing children, is as common as positive reinforcement. There has always been a tendency to imbue children with a strong sense of public respectability. It even has been argued that this desire to be thought respectable has deterred many Irish from taking chances and has impeded their success. Overt affection displayed by parents toward their children is not as prevalent as in some other ethnic groups.
In earlier generations, often more attention was paid to the education of sons than to that of daughters. It was generally thought that girls would become homemakers and that even if some did have a job such work would be considered secondary to their household duties. Today, however, though some Irish parents, particularly mothers, still “spoil” or indulge their sons, the education of daughters is a major concern.
Irish American families encourage achievement in school. In this they follow the traditional respect of the Irish for education. This dates back to when Irish monks helped preserve Latin and Greek learning in Europe, as well as the English language itself, by copying manuscripts during the fifth through eighth centuries when Ireland attained the name of “Island of Saints and Scholars.” In addition, Irish Americans well understand that academic success facilitates achievement in wider social and economic spheres. The result is that Irish Catholics are among the top groups in the United States for educational attainment. They are more likely than any other white gentile ethnic group to go to college and are also more likely than most other ethnic groups to pursue graduate academic and professional degrees. While many Irish attend public schools, colleges, and universities, numerous others go to Catholic educational institutions. During the nineteenth century, however, many Irish parochial schools placed a greater emphasis on preventing Irish children from seduction by what many felt to be the Protestant ethos of the public schools. There is strong evidence that attendance at today’s Catholic educational institutions, many of which have high standards, facilitates high levels of educational achievement and upward social mobility. Contrary to some beliefs, they are not deterrents to either academic or economic success. Among the most renowned Catholic universities attended by Irish Americans are Boston College and the University of Notre Dame.
Some early Catholic Irish immigrants converted to the pervasive Protestantism in America. However, the vast majority of subsequent Catholic immigrants, many holding their religion to be an intrinsic part of their Irish heritage as well as a safeguard against America’s Anglo establishment, held steadfastly to their faith and, in so doing, helped Roman Catholicism grow into one of America’s most powerful institutions. Since the late eighteenth century many aspects of American Catholicism have possessed a distinctly Irish character. A disproportionate number of Irish names may be found among America’s past and present Catholic clergy. Scores of Irish laymen have been at the forefront of American Catholic affairs. The Irish have been particularly energetic supporters of the more concrete manifestations of their church and have established throughout America great numbers of Catholic schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, community centers, and orphanages, as well as churches, cathedrals, convents, and seminaries.
Until the mid-twentieth century, the life of Catholic Irish Americans revolved around their parish. Many children went to parochial schools, and the clergy organized such activities as sports, dances, and community services. There was little local politics without the participation of the priests. The clergy knew all the families in the community and there was great pressure to conform to the norms of the tightly knit parish. The parish priest, generally the best-educated individual of the congregation, was usually the dominant community leader. At a time when there were far fewer social workers, guidance counselors, and psychologists, parishioners flocked to their priest in times of trouble. Today the typical parish is less closed mainly due to the falling off in religious practice over the last decades of the twentieth century and the increased mainstreaming of parishioners. Nevertheless, there still remains a strong identification of many Catholic Irish with their parish.
The American Catholic church has undergone great changes since the 1960s, due largely to the innovations introduced by the Second Vatican Council. Some Catholic Irish Americans, wishing to preserve their inherited church practices, have been dismayed by the transformation. Some, alienated by the modernization of the liturgy, have been offended by what they consider a diminution of the mystery and venerability of church ritual with respect to the introduction of the vernacular, new hymns, and guitar playing at services. Some have attempted to preserve the traditional liturgy by joining conservative breakaway sects, and others have adopted different branches of Christianity.
Most Irish Americans have embraced the recent developments, however. The traditional Irish obedience to ecclesiastical authority is no longer certain as Rome asserts an uncompromising stance on many issues. Many Irish Catholics are now far more inclined to question doctrines and take issue with teachings on such subjects as abortion, contraception, divorce, priestly celibacy, and female priests. Certain members of the clergy have shown discontent; priests, nuns, and brothers have been leaving their orders in large numbers and there has been a concurrent decline in Irish vocations to the religious life. The numbers of Irish receiving the sacraments and attending mass and other church services have substantially declined; and many have abandoned puritan attitudes toward lifestyle issues, especially sex. Nevertheless, most Irish American Catholics are still faithful to many teachings of their church, and continue to identify as Catholics despite some disagreements with Vatican teachings.
Employment and Economic Traditions
The great majority of Catholic Irish immigrants in the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century languished at the bottom of America’s economic ladder as unskilled laborers. Though some were farm workers, many more worked in such areas as mining, quarrying, bridge and canal building, and railway construction. So many Irish were killed working on the railroad that it was commonly speculated that “there was an Irishman buried under every tie.” Others were dockworkers, ironworkers, factory-hands, bartenders, carters, street cleaners, hod-carriers, and waiters. Irish women generally worked in menial occupations. Multitudes were employed as domestic servants in Anglo-Protestant households, while others worked as unskilled laborers in New England textile mills. Some Irish became quite successful but their numbers were few. The handful who attained white-collar status were frequently shopkeepers and small businessmen. There was an exceedingly meager number of Irish professionals. Those Irish who made the long trip to the western states tended to have somewhat more prestigious jobs than their compatriots in the East and North. This is due in part to the large numbers of Chinese in the West who did much of the manual laboring work. Many Irish participated in the California Gold Rush.
In the years after the Civil War the occupational lot of the Irish began to improve as more entered skilled trades. Many moved into managerial positions in the railroad, iron, construction, and other industries. Some went into business for themselves, especially in the building and contracting sectors. Numerous others became police officers, firefighters, streetcar conductors, clerks, and postoffice workers. The Irish held many leadership positions in the trade union movement. Entertainment and athletics were other fields in which they began to attain greater recognition. It was more difficult for Irish women to move into higher prestige jobs, as there were far fewer opportunities for women in general at this time. Still, many attained upward occupational mobility by becoming teachers, nurses, and secretaries. Many Irish American nuns held positions of responsibility in hospitals, schools, and other Catholic social institutions.
By the beginning of the twentieth century Catholic Irish Americans were clearly ascending the occupational ladder. Though most remained members of the working class, large numbers moved into the ranks of the lower middle classes. Throughout the century this improvement in socioeconomic status has continued. Today the Irish are well represented in academia, medicine, law, government service, politics, finance, banking, insurance, journalism, the entertainment industry, the Catholic clergy, and most other professions.
Politics and Government
The vast majority of Irish Catholic immigrants to the United States during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries arrived as Democrats, a political stance imbued by years of oppression at the hands of the British. Not surprisingly, most favored the democratic policies of Thomas Jefferson and their vote greatly assisted his election to the presidency in 1801. Their political inclinations were again manifest in 1829 in their support for the populist politics of Democrat Andrew Jackson, America’s seventh president and the nation’s first of Irish (Protestant) background. Understanding that they were clearly unable to match the Anglo-Protestant establishment in the world of business and economics, Irish Catholics, many of whom entered the United States with fundamental political experience gained through mass agitation movements at home, realized that politics would provide them with a potent vehicle for attaining influence and power. In the years after the Civil War the Irish metier for political activity became increasingly evident. To many today the Irish control of New York’s Tammany Hall, the center of the city’s Democratic Party, is a resolute symbol of their powerful and sometimes dubious involvement in American urban politics. Though graft, cronyism, and corruption were once an integral part of many of their political “machines” in New York and other cities, Irish politicians were frequently more successful than their Anglo-Protestant counterparts in reaching the people, feeding the poor, helping the more unfortunate obtain jobs, and organizing other practical social welfare activities. The Irish political “machine” generally had a strong democratic, reformist, and pragmatic agenda, which frequently extended to Jews, Italians, Germans, Poles, and other nationalities.
The phenomenon of Irish domination of the political life of numerous cities continued well into the twentieth century. Two extremely influential and powerful figures of the old “machine” style were James Michael Curley (1874-1958), mayor of Boston for four terms, and Richard J. Daley, mayor of Chicago from 1954 to 1976. Irish involvement in both state and national politics also gained prominence in the twentieth century. Alfred Emanuel Smith (1873-1944), the grandson of Irish immigrants, was the first Irish Catholic to receive the nomination of a major party (Democratic) in a presidential election; he was defeated by Herbert Hoover. An Irish Catholic reached the White House in 1960 with the election of the Democrat John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963. His brother, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, another prominent Democratic politician who served as attorney general in the Kennedy administration, was assassinated in 1968. A third brother, Edward, has been one of the most liberal and effective champions of social reform in the history of the Senate. Two other twentieth century Presidents, Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan (both Republicans) were of Irish Protestant background. Numerous other Irish American politicians have gained state and national attention in recent decades. Both Mike Mansfield and George J. Mitchell were Senate majority leaders. Thomas O’Neill and Thomas S. Foley both served as Speaker of the House of Representatives. Another influential politician and 1976 presidential candidate was Eugene J. McCarthy of Minnesota.
Despite the notable presence this century of such influential reactionaries as the demagogue Father Charles Coughlin and the communist-baiter Senator Joseph McCarthy, Catholic Irish Americans are among the most likely to advocate the right of free speech. They also tend to be more supportive of liberal issues than many other white ethnic groups. For example, they have traditionally promoted such causes as racial equality, welfare programs, environmental issues, and gun control. Irish Americans have been and still are among the most stalwart supporters of the Democratic Party. Beginning in the late twentieth century, however, there has been a movement by some toward the Republican Party.
The Irish, either as regulars or as volunteers, have served in all of America’s wars. They fought with distinction in the Revolutionary War, most siding with Washington. It is estimated that as many as 38 percent of Washington’s army was composed of Irish Americans, even though they made up only 10 percent of the population. Of the generals, 26 were Irish, 15 of whom were born in Ireland. In the Civil War most Irish sided with the Union and great numbers fought in the Yankee armies. “The Fighting 69th” was probably the most famous Irish regimental unit, though 38 other Union regiments had “Irish” in their names. The contribution of the Irish to the Confederate cause was also significant. As many as 40,000 Confederate soldiers were born in Ireland and numerous others were of Irish ancestry. Irish Americans continued to fight in America’s armies in subsequent wars and were particularly prominent, with many gaining decorations, in the two World Wars, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Their ready and distinguished participation in America’s military conflicts has helped the Irish to gain respectability in the eyes of generations of other Americans and to assimilate into mainstream American life.
The Irish have contributed greatly to the labor movement in America. Their struggle for American workers’ rights began as an outgrowth of their fight against oppression in Ireland. American capitalist injustice in industry was not too different in principle from persecution by English landlords at home. Even in the antebellum years the Irish were active in workers’ organizations, many of which were clandestine, but it was during the second half of the nineteenth century that their involvement in labor activities became especially prominent. Particularly well known are the activities of the Molly Maguires, anthracite coal miners of Pennsylvania who in the 1860s and 1870s violently resisted the mostly English, Scottish, and Welsh mine bosses. Found guilty of nine murders, ten Mollies were hanged in 1876. This did not deter Irish involvement in American labor activities, however. Terrence V. Powderly (1849-1924), the son of an Irish immigrant, was for years leader of the Knights of Labor, the first national labor organization, which was founded in 1869. He later became commissioner general of immigration. Peter James McGuire (1852-1906), a carpenter, was another leading union activist. A founder of the American Federation of Labor, he was its secretary and first vice-president. He is perhaps best known today as the “Father of Labor Day.” Irish women have also been prominent in America’s labor movement. The Cork-born Mary Harris (“Mother”) Jones (1830-1930), after losing all her possessions in the Chicago fire of 1871 began a 50-year involvement in organizing labor unions and in striving to improve workers’ conditions and wages throughout the United States. Today, a nationally circulated magazine devoted to liberal issues bears her name. Another famous Irish female in the labor movement was Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1890-1964) who co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920 and later became head of the United States Communist party. Kerry-born Michael Joseph Quill (1905-1966) founded the Transport Workers Union of America in 1934 and was its first president. In 1937 Joe Curran became the National Maritime Union’s first president. George Meany (1894-1979), grandson of an Irish immigrant, was president of the combined American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) from 1955 to 1979. Irish American participation in America’s unions and labor movement has been and continues to be of vital importance and benefit to the well-being of American society.
The attention of many Irish Americans of different generations has been sharply focused on the political affairs of Ireland ever since the Catholic civil rights movement began in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s. This movement was a response to decades of institutionalized and private discrimination against Catholics in this region since the creation of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom in 1921. This discrimination by the Protestant majority was pervasive in such spheres as voting, housing, and employment. For the past three decades Northern Ireland has been convulsed by political upheaval, the frequently controversial tactics of an occupying force of British soldiers, Protestant and Catholic paramilitary activity, riots, killings, bombings, hunger strikes, internment without trial, and patent violations of human rights. The reactions of numerous Irish Americans have been forceful. In 1970 the Northern Ireland Aid Committee (NORAID) was formed to provide material help to Catholics in Northern Ireland. The Irish National Caucus, a Washington-based lobbying group, has been vociferous in its call for a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland and for a reunification of the whole nation. Many Irish American politicians have campaigned intensely to find a settlement to Northern Ireland’s problems. Among the most prominent have been Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, Senator Daniel P. Moynihan of New York, former Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O’Neill, and former Governor of New York Hugh Carey. These and other Irish American politicians and lobbying groups have consistently exerted pressure on successive administrations to use their influence with London, Belfast, and Dublin to help amend human rights abuses in Northern Ireland and to aid in the provision of social and economic justice in that region. After the Anglo-Irish Agreement was reached in England in November 1985 Congress, responding in part to pressure from Irish Americans, passed a multi-billion-dollar aid bill for Northern Ireland. The future of this region is by no means clear, despite the recent cease-fire by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), but it is expected that Irish Americans will continue influence the policy of the major players in this conflict.
Individual and Group Contributions
It would constitute a thoroughly invidious task to provide a comprehensive record of the vast number of Irish Americans who have attained prominence over the past few centuries. The following list is necessarily selective, and countless other individuals might also have been named.
There have been numerous Irish Americans who have achieved prominence in the arts. In the fine arts, for example, the following three achieved particular fame: Mathew Brady (1823-1896), Civil War photographer; James E. Kelly (1855-1933), sculptor; Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), painter. Others include: Mathew Carey (1760-1839), author, book publisher, and political economist; Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), one of the greatest figures in American literature; Ring Lardner (1885-1933), short story writer and sports journalist; Mary O’Hara Alsop (1885-1980), popular novelist who focused on animal life; Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953), one of America’s most eminent playwrights; F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), popular novelist and short story writer; James T. Farrell (1904-1979), author whose work, notably his Studs Lonigan trilogy, centered on working-class Irish American families on Chicago’s South Side; John O’Hara (1905-1970), novelist and short story writer; Mary McCarthy (1912-1989), novelist and critic; Mary Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964), novelist and short story writer of the American South; and William F. Buckley (1925– ), editor, critic, commentator, novelist.
BUSINESS AND FINANCE
Numerous Irish Americans have made their mark in the world of business and finance: William Russell (1812-1872), founder of the Pony Express; William Russell Grace (1832-1904), entrepreneur and first Roman Catholic mayor of New York; John Philip Holland (1840-1914), Clare-born father of the modern submarine; Anthony Nicholas Brady (1843-1913), wealthy industrialist whose interests extended from railroads to electric companies; Andrew Mellon (1855-1937), banker, art collector, and philanthropist; Samuel S. McClure (1857-1949), leading journalist and newspaper publisher; Henry Ford (1863-1947), auto manufacturer; James A. Farrell (1863-1943), head of United States Steel Corporation; and Howard Hughes (1905-1976), wealthy and eccentric industrialist, aerospace manufacturer, and movie maker.
John R. Gregg (1867-1948), inventor of the Gregg system of shorthand; and William Heard Kilpatrick (1871-1965), philosopher and leader in the Progressive Education movement, are among prominent Irish American educators.
A great number of Irish Americans have attained distinction in the entertainment industry: Victor Herbert (1859-1924), Dublin-born conductor and popular composer of operettas; Will Rogers (1879-1935), humorist and actor; John McCormack (1884-1945), popular Westmeath-born tenor; Buster Keaton (1895-1966), famous silent film comedian; Emmett Kelly (1898-1979), well-known circus clown; James Cagney (1899-1986), movie actor; film director John Ford (born Sean Aloysius O’Feeny; 1895-1973); Spencer Tracy (1900-1967), movie actor; Ed Sullivan (1901-1974), newspaper columnist and television personality; Bing Crosby (1901-1977), singer and movie and radio actor; Pat O’Brien (1900-1983), movie, radio, and television actor; John Huston (1906-1987), film director; John Wayne (1907-1979), movie actor; Errol Flynn (1909-1959), movie actor; Maureen O’Sullivan (1911– ), movie actor; Gene Kelly (1912– ), dancer, actor, singer; Tyrone Power (1913-1958), movie actor; Mickey Rooney (1920– ), movie actor; Maureen O’Hara (1920– ), movie actor; Carroll O’Connor (1924– ), television actor; Grace Kelly (1929-1982), movie actor and later Princess of Monaco; Jack Nicholson (1937– ), movie actor; and Mia Farrow (1945– ), movie actor.
Activists in the labor movement not mentioned already include: Leonora Barry (1849-1923), feminist and activist for women’s suffrage; Mary Kenney O’Sullivan (1864-1943), active labor organizer; and Daniel Tobin (1875-1955), president of the Teamsters Union and a leader of the American Federation of Labor.
The Irish Role in the American Labor Movement
Peter J. McGuire (1852 – 1906), “Father of Labor Day,” pictured as the Executive Secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and
Joiners of America, which he co-founded.
By Irish America Staff
As you celebrate Labor Day weekend, consider the contribution that the Irish have made, and continue to make to the American labor movement.
Peter “P.J.” McGuire the Father of Labor Day
It was Peter “P.J.” McGuire who first proposed a national holiday for workers.
Born to Irish immigrants on the Lower East Side, New York City, in 1852, Peter became the breadwinner for his family at 11 when his father was off fighting with the Union Army.
While working at odd jobs, McGuire attended the free night classes at Cooper Union, where he met Samuel Gompers and other young radicals. Apprenticed to a piano maker in 1867 at the age of 15, McGuire quickly became active in labor circles, including the New York branch of the International Workingmen’s Association.
In 1873, in the midst of a severe economic depression, Cooper Union formed a Committee of Public Safety to press the local authorities to provide economic assistance to the unemployed. Though only 21 years old, McGuire was elected to serve on the committee, and he quickly become its best-known public spokesperson and chief negotiator.
In May 1874 McGuire helped form the Social Democratic party (later the Socialist Labor party) and traveled across the U.S. urging workers to organize themselves. Moving to St. Louis, Mo., in 1877, organized St. Louis carpenters and won such impressive wage gains for them that it attracted the attention of carpenters everywhere. McGuire then issued a call for a national meeting of carpenters’ unions in Chicago. The 1881 meeting resulted in the formation of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC). That same year, McGuire establish the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU), the organizational forerunner of the American Federation of Labor.
McGuire moved the headquarters of the UBC to New York in 1882, where he became involved in the eight-hour-day movement. At an 1882 meeting of the New York Central Labor Union, he introduced a resolution calling for workers to lead a “festive parade through the streets of the city” on the first Monday of September.
More than 30,000 marchers participated in the event. In 1883, thousands again lined the parade route, and the New York group decided to urge other central labor bodies around the country to sponsor simultaneous celebrations the following year. Only a handful of cities joined the celebration in 1884, but in 1885 turnout again was broad and official support for the holiday followed. In 1887, Oregon became the first state to recognize the day. The U.S. Congress followed suit in 1894.
Mother Jones was one of America’s most effective union organizers. At a time when few women were activists, she was a fearless crusader for the rights of American workers and became the champion of child laborers. But most of all, she was the “miner’s angel” often risking arrest and her own safety in her support of the miners’ struggle for safer working conditions and better pay. It was the miners who dubbed her “Mother” Jones.
A tiny woman in a black dress with a lace collar, steel-rimmed spectacles and snowy hair pulled back in a bun, Jones could have been mistaken for someone’s genteel, soft-spoken grandmother, until she opened her mouth. Her speeches appealed to laborers’ sense of justice and self-respect and rallied them to action.
She herself was no stranger to sorrow and oppression. Born Mary Harris in Cork, Ireland in 1837 to a poor family, she knew what it was like to be treated as a second-class citizen. Her family had a history of activism: her grandfather was hanged as a traitor to the crown, and her father was forced to leave Ireland for defying British rule. Richard Harris and his family settled in Canada where he found work on the Canadian railroads. After finishing her secondary education, Mary trained to become a teacher and also learned dressmaking.
Alternating between dressmaking and teaching, Mary moved around a great deal before settling in Memphis, Tennessee, where she met and married George Jones, a union iron molder, in 1861. They had four children.
In 1867, a yellow fever epidemic swept through Memphis’ Irish section, killing George and their four children. Mary Jones returned to Chicago only to suffer more loss. In 1871, the Chicago Fire destroyed her home and her dressmaking business. Her father died in Toronto only two months later.
Working for the affluent as a dressmaker while living among the poor, Jones grew enraged at the disparities between the classes. She began to attend political and labor protest meetings, ultimately launching her own campaign for workers’ rights, first for Irish railroad workers and miners, then for all laborers. Over the next 25 years she criss-crossed the country, fueling workers’ hopes and inciting their strikes. In 1901, she was a commissioned organizer in West Virginia for the United Mine Workers. She walked miles of railroad, scaled cliffs and waded across streams to attend secret meetings. She was arrested in 1902 for her efforts and was declared “the most dangerous woman in America.”
The following year, she led a Children’s March from New Kensington, Pennsylvania to Oyster Bay, Long Island, the summer home of President Theodore Roosevelt. She wanted to show the President what happened to victims of child labor. Roosevelt refused to meet them.
In 1913, she returned to West Virginia to participate in the Paint Creek strike. She was arrested, court-martialed and sentenced to house arrest for three months. She also testified at several Congressional hearings on behalf of miners, Mexican political prisoners and industrial workers. Her last major strikes were among the steel workers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1919 and the coal miners of West Virginia, 1921.
In 1930, only months before her death, she remained as outspoken as ever, making her debut on newsreel cameras protesting the Prohibition Act. She died on November 30 and is buried in the Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois.
For almost a quarter of a century, spearheading a period of immense growth and change, Teddy Gleason headed up the International Longshoremen’s Association. In his book Dreamers of Dreams, Donal O’Donovan wrote: “Whatever the marks of a shrewd and talented negotiator, Teddy Gleason has them.” After Gleason’s death in 1992, ILA president John Bowers said: “We have lost a great leader and a great man. I’ve noted before that Teddy Gleason will go down in history as the president who was able to get the most for his members. His memory will long endure.”
Born November 8, 1900 in New York City to Thomas Gleason and Mary Quinn, immigrants from Nenagh, Co. Tipperary and Omagh, Co. Tyrone respectively, Thomas W. Gleason was quickly nicknamed Teddy to distinguish him from his father and grandfather.
By age 15 he was working alongside his father on the West Side piers in Manhattan, the start of a career that was to span 77 years. Gleason worked various jobs on the docks, all the while further cementing his close ties to the ILA. His union activity saw him cut off from his job during the Great Depression, and he was forced to take on two jobs to support his wife and young family.
With the arrival of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” and the increasing respect for unions, Gleason was able to pick up his career as a longshoreman and labor leader. He rose steadily in union ranks and became president of the ILA in 1963. The International Transport Workers’ Federation later elected him as vice president.
Gleason’s achievements in the ILA include securing a guaranteed annual income for workers hurt by increasing automation. He was also vice president on the executive council of the AFL-CIO and his expertise was often called on around the world to help out in labor disputes. His investigation into the movement of war-time cargo in Vietnam earned him a Medal of Merit in 1967 from the U.S. Veterans of Foreign Wars. He received countless other awards from such bodies as the United Seamen’s Service, the Catholic Youth Organization and The Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm. A true Irishman, however, he was most proud of being chosen as Grand Marshal of the New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 1984. Gleason said at the time: “It took me 80 years to get from 12th Avenue to 5th Avenue.”
Gleason was married to Emma Martin, and the couple had three sons, Thomas, Jr., John and Robert. He died on December 24, 1992 at the age of 92.
John J. Sweeney became president emeritus of the AFL-CIO at the federation’s constitutional convention in September 2009, stepping down after five terms as president of America’s largest labor union. Sweeney has long been active in Irish affairs, and is a member of several Irish organizations. In 1995, he accompanied President Clinton on his first visit to Ireland.
Sweeney’s election as president of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) in 1995 ushered in a new era in the labor movement. On the day of his electoral win, he led an impromptu march up Manhattan’s Fashion Avenue protesting wages and work conditions in the garment industry. Within weeks, he had established a multi-million-dollar fund to finance television and radio commercials, town rallies and telephone campaigns to hammer away at the evils of wage discrimination, job insecurity and union-busting corporations.
Born May 5, 1934 in New York’s Bronx to Irish immigrants from Leitrim, Sweeney studied economics at Iona College, and took a job at IBM after graduating. He had worked at a union job to pay his way through school and soon left IBM to take a lower-paying job with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, a move that would set the course for his life’s work.
As president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) from 1980 until taking his current position, Sweeney doubled union membership and recorded countless other successes. Since his election to the helm of the AFL-CIO, he created new management posts to create leadership positions for women and minorities, all part of his goal to abolish the long-held concept of the labor movement as the domain of white males. In 1996, he wrote a book titled America Needs a Raise: Fighting for Economic Security and Social Justice. He also co-authored Solutions for the New Work Force in 1989. He and his wife, Maureen Power, have a son John and daughter Patricia. He was Irish American of the Year in 2004.
Born to Galway native, Annie Gurley, and Tom Flynn whose roots lay in Mayo, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was the oldest of four children. Raised on a strict diet of her father’s socialist and Marxist principles, it’s hardly surprising that she turned out to be both an active labor organizer and later a Communist official.
Talking about her ancestors, Gurley Flynn said all of her great-grandfathers had been United Irishmen. Her great-grandfather Flynn was deeply involved with the “Races of Castlebar,” and led General Humbert’s French troops from Ballina to Castlebar. His son, one of 18 children, was Gurley Flynn’s grandfather. He left his native Ireland during the Famine era for Maine, from where he later took part in the Fenian invasion of Canada.
Gurley Flynn was born in Concord, New Hampshire on August 7, 1890, and later moved with her family to the South Bronx. A bright student, she showed promise as a public speaker, and on leaving school turned to socialism and labor agitation. One magazine editor dubbed her “an East Side Joan of Arc.”
A stalwart of the Industrial Workers of the World, Gurley Flynn traveled from Montana to Washington to Chicago, speaking on behalf of workers everywhere and earning herself a spell behind bars in Spokane for her troubles. She was behind two huge demonstrations, one in Massachusetts in 1912, the other in New Jersey the following year. Her first marriage and a later common-law relationship failed. Gurley Flynn had two children, one of whom died shortly after birth.
It was in the last three decades of her life that Gurley Flynn took up her second cause, that of Communism. Elected to the party’s national committee in 1938, she wrote a regular column for the Daily Worker. A second prison sentence was to follow in the 1950s when Gurley Flynn was convicted under the Smith Act which made it illegal to advocate forceful overthrow of the government. She served over two years at the Federal Penitentiary for Women in Alderson, Virginia. Never one to waste time, she used the jail term to write her autobiography, a record of her fast 36 years. A memoir of her time in prison, The Alderson Story, was also published after her release.
In 1961, Gurley Flynn became the first woman chairperson of the American Communist party. A planned second volume of her autobiography never came to fruition, due to her untimely death in Moscow on September 4, 1964. In a final fitting tribute, the woman who embraced Communism with all her heart was accorded a state funeral in Red Square.
Bronx native George Meany followed his father into the plumbing trade, but he saw the work only as a means to an end. His real ambition was to become involved in the labor movement, a goal he achieved with spectacular results. By the time he died, at age 85 and only weeks after he retired, Meany had held the top positions of both the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and its eventual incarnation on merging with the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the AFL-CIO. His name is synonymous with the labor movement in the U.S., and especially in his beloved New York City.
Born August 16, 1894, Meany was one of ten children, and the grandson of Irish immigrants from Counties Longford and Westmeath. His father Michael Meany was president of Local Two of the plumbers’ union, but was adamantly opposed to having his sons follow in his footsteps. His antipathy was lost on George who became an apprentice in his teens, and soon followed on to membership of Local Two. After his father died, and his older brother enlisted in the army, Meany became the family breadwinner, a fact which delayed his wedding to Eugenie McMahon by a couple of years.
By 1952, Meany was president of the AFL, and subsequently he led the AFL-CIO. He was widely admired as a plain-speaking, scrupulously honest man, with a remarkable memory and a tough, forceful personality. He is also remembered for his tireless rooting out of corruption.
The years which preceded his election as president of the AFL involved lobbying for the New York State Federation of Labor, of which he served as president for a term in 1934. In his position as president of the AFL-CIO he was accustomed to dealing with the U.S. presidents of the time, including Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Carter. He retired in November of 1979, and died less than two months later.
It was to become one of the most powerful unions in America but when the Transport Workers Union (TWU) was established in New York City in 1934 its prospects looked bleak. Conditions were terrible for the workers, who often had to work a seven-day week in dreadful conditions. Few gave it any hope of succeeding.
But the bosses reckoned with the willpower of its nucleus of founders who comprised a core group of eight or nine IRA veterans from the Irish Civil War including 29-year-old Kerry native Michael Joseph Quill. The following year, Quill was elected president of the new union.
Quill and his family in Ireland were well known in their local village for their staunch support of republicanism, and tales of young Mike’s daring exploits in foiling the Black and Tans were legendary. Several members of the family joined anti-treaty forces in the Irish civil war, and were forced to leave their native land when the war ended.
Born September 18, 1905, Quill left for America when he was just 19. He worked at various odd jobs — doorman, elevator operator, sandhog — before gaining employment with the New York subway system as a ticket clerk. Although the transport body was deeply resistant to organized labor, Quill and his fellow Irishmen persisted and succeeded in forming the TWU.
On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the TWU, Quill remarked that he considered its greatest successes to be “the restoration of the rights of citizenship and dignity to the individual worker…I mean freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom to speak one’ s mind.” Throughout his long association with the TWU, and organized labor in general, Quill remained an active and outspoken advocate of workers’ rights. His work helped secure better working hours and conditions for the union’s laborers. He also served as a member of the New York City Council at various times during his life.
In 1959, Quill’s wife of 22 years, Mary Theresa “Mollie” O’Neill, died of cancer. He married Shirley Uzin in 1961 and almost 20 years after his death her biography of him, Mike Quill: Himself, was released.
In 1965, Quill led a massive strike against New York’s bus and subway lines. His efforts brought the city to a standstill for 12 days and resulted in him being sent to prison. While behind bars, he suffered a heart attack, not his first, and he died less than a year later. Friends and admirers from Monsignor Charles Owen Rice to the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., lined up to pay tribute to his memory.
King described him as a pioneer of the modern trade movement and a pioneer in race relations. Said King: “He was a fighter for decent things all his life — Irish independence, labor organization and racial equality…When the totality of a man’s life is consumed with enriching the lives of others, this is a man the ages will remember — this is a man who has passed on but who has not died.”
Terry O’Sullivan became the tenth General President of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA) on January 1, 2000, and is dedicated to growing his union’s membership and market share. O’Sullivan’s mantra is “organize or die.” Under his leadership, the union also has significantly expanded its efforts in, and commitment to, member activism, capital strategies, grassroots politics, labor-management cooperation, journeyworker upgrade training, apprenticeship, and leadership education. Recognizing that labor and management share many of the same concerns and interests, he has built alliances with a wide range of owners, contractors, and business groups.
In 2011, O’Sullivan led delegates at the union’s 24th International Convention to pass a resolution that significantly increased LiUNA members’ investment in political action. The resolution has raised more than $10 million per election cycle to ensure that elected officials hear the voices of LiUNA members in the halls of Congress, and “Feel the Power” of LiUNA at the ballot box. The union’s PAC has raised its profile, and is now one of the top PACs in the country, working to help elect politicians who support issues of importance to the proud men and women of LiUNA.
In 2006, O’Sullivan led delegates at the 23rd International Convention to pass one of the most important resolutions in the union’s history, devoting to LiUNA’s organizing efforts 25 cents for every hour worked by a Laborer. This has enabled the union to invest more than $80 million per year in its organizing efforts – more than almost any other union in North America.
A fiery orator who is never afraid to speak his mind, Terry O’Sullivan can rally and inspire a crowd of Laborers one moment, then meet with top corporate leaders the next. He is equally at home on a construction site as he is in a board room.
Terry O’Sullivan and LiUNA have taken leading roles in pushing for comprehensive immigration reform, long-term highway funding, fair contracting, pension reform, fair postal reform, and many other issues of importance to LiUNA members and their families. O’Sullivan is an outspoken and unapologetic advocate for a diverse, realistic, all-of-the-above energy policy that meets North America’s energy needs safely and responsibly. He is a staunch and ardent supporter of the critically important, but long-delayed, Keystone XL Pipeline.
A long-time, vocal supporter of Sinn Féin and its work to secure a peaceful, just, and united Ireland, Terry O’Sullivan serves as President of New York Friends of Ireland and Chairman of DC Friends of Ireland.
A proud native of San Francisco, California, Terry O’Sullivan joined LiUNA in 1974, and is a long-time member of LiUNA Local Union 1353 in Charleston, West Virginia. (LiUNA). He was inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame in March 2017.
Sean McGarvey: The Builder
Sean McGarvey started his career with the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) in 1981 in Philadelphia. He subsequently worked his way up through various IUPAT leadership positions. In 2005, Sean was elected Secretary-Treasurer of NABTU, and in 2012, he was unanimously elected to NABTU’s office of president. Sean is a respected union construction voice among labor, government, corporate, and private sector leaders. His strategic focus gives the livelihoods and career opportunities of current and future rank and file members and their families primacy, and has strengthened NABTU’s impact and value to owners, contractors and whole communities.
A graduate and proponent of construction registered apprenticeship, Sean has led the development of Apprenticeship Readiness Programs, which focus on recruiting communities of color, women and veterans into the building trades. Alongside his governing board of presidents, he established Capital Strategies, a program to advance high-road standards in procurement practices and grow partnerships with top Wall Street and Bay Street investment firms supporting job-creating enterprises in commercial, industrial, and residential construction and public-private infrastructure. His bipartisan approach to policy and politics have navigated the building trades through some of the toughest fights to protect and advance labor, training, and industry standards, lower barriers to entry for new energy infrastructure and promote investment in rebuilding public infrastructure.
Sean serves on a number of national and international workforce boards, including the National Workforce Policy Advisory Board, Gates Foundation Post-Secondary Value Commission, and U.S. Council on Competitiveness. He chairs energy industry labor committees for American Petroleum Institute, American Chemical Council, Southern Company Power and Gas, Nuclear Power LMCC, Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB), among others. He chairs the boards of Helmets to Hardhats, CPWR’s Center for Construction Research and Training, the National Coordinating Committee for Multi-Employer Plans (NCCMP) and Diabetes Research Institute. Sean has a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and is a graduate of Harvard University’s Trade Union Program. Married to his lovely wife, Shari, Sean has two daughters, two step-daughters, and two grandchildren named Lucas and Leah.
McGarvey is fourth-generation Irish American — on his mother’s side his great-grandmother is from County Derry and his great-grandfather is from County Tyrone. He was inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame in March 2020.
Mary Kay Henry is the International President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which unites 2 million workers in healthcare, public and property services. She is the first woman to serve in this position, having been elected in 2010 by a unanimous decision. She has devoted her life to helping North America’s workers form unions and strengthen their voice at work about the quality of the goods and services they provide, and the quality of care they are able to deliver.
The daughter of a salesman and a teacher, Henry, whose ancestors hail from Tipperary, is the eldest daughter of 10. Henry grew up in a suburb of Detroit at a time when working people had a strong union voice that they used to build the middle class. Her childhood experiences in Detroit and her deep faith as a Roman Catholic instilled in her a deep commitment to opening the doors to opportunity for everyone and not just the few at the top.
Since joining SEIU’s staff in 1979, Henry has stood side by side with nursing home workers in Fresno, Calif., who fought for time to treat seniors with the dignity and respect they deserve, and suburban janitors in the Twin Cities, who wanted full-time work to support their families on a living wage. She has also worked with California state employees who sought to cut out waste and inefficiency from government, and registered nurses in Seattle, who wanted a partnership with management to improve the cost and quality of care throughout the state.
Under her leadership, more than a million healthcare workers nationwide, including registered nurses, technicians, doctors, and hospital and clinic workers are now united in SEIU Healthcare.
Henry’s commitment to confront income inequality and social injustice is embodied in the historic “Fight for 15” movement and in SEIU’s continued dedication to holding politicians accountable to working families, and achieving justice for immigrants and communities across our country. (SEIU)
Joe Jamison and Bill Lenahan were members of the Irish American Labor Coalition when they were asked to join the 1994 IRA peace talks by Bruce Morrison, serving as director and assistant director respectively. (Jamison now serves as president.) An ALF-CIO affiliated group that deals specifically with human rights and labor issues in Northern Ireland, the IALC, helmed by Jamison and Lenahan, was instrumental in bringing about the backdoor negotiations that led to the August 31, 1994 IRA ceasefire.
At the time, Jamison, whose background is both Irish Catholic and Protestant, likened Loyalists to “Irish Afrikaners,” telling the Irish Voice, “They simply have to behave differently than the way they are behaving. They will be politically isolated and they will be in the dog house of international opinion. in conditions of a ceasefire, the world will see that it isn’t Irish Republicanism that’s the problem, it’s the Loyalists.”
Lenahan, who comes from a large Long Island Irish family joined the IALC in 1991 with a background in community organizing. Jamison, born and raised in New York City, was one of the principle co-founders of the IALC, then called the Irish American Labor Committee for Human Rights in Northern Ireland, built through a combination of Jamison’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement in the north, and labor leaders from the U.S., including Tom Donoghue, then president of the AFL-CIO, and John Sweeney, then of the Service Employee’s Union.
“The impetus was the hunger strikes in the North of Ireland in the early 80’s which created a great emotional upsurge here in Irish America, including among trade unionists and trade union officials,” he said. “The Irish have always been well represented in the labor movement and a few key people got together to form a committee.”
Throughout the 80s and early 1990s, the IALC led vocal campaigns challenging the use of plastic bullets in the North, advocating for fair housing and employment practices, and putting their full weight behind the MacBride principles. Soon, the IALC offices in New York became known as a place where Irish trade unionists and activists can arrange meetings and set up contacts through the IALC with other groups in the U.S.
But it was during the 1992 election that the Coalition’s political clout was sealed. They convinced the Irish American community that conditions in the North would improve if Clinton was elected, and convinced Clinton to pledge in his campaign the guarantee of a visitor’s visa to Gerry Adams if elected. Clinton was, and made good on his promise, and that visit paved the way for Jamison and Lenahan’s inclusion in the ultimately successful 1994 ceasefire talks. ♦
Several Irish Americans who have won renown in the military field have been mentioned. Others include: Lydia Barrington Darragh (1729-1789), Dublin-born heroine of the Revolutionary War and spy for George Washington; John Barry (1745-1803), Wexford-born “Father of the American Navy”; Margaret Corbin (1751-1800), heroine of the Revolutionary War; General Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964), leader of the Allied forces in the Pacific during World War II; William J. Donovan (1883-1959), World War I hero and later founder of the Office of Strategic Services; and Audie Murphy (1924-1971), the United States’s most decorated soldier of World War II who later became a movie actor.
POLITICS AND LAW
The fields of politics and law have had more than their share of eminent Irish Americans; the following few may be added to those named earlier: Sir Thomas Dongan (1634-1715), Irish-born governor of New York in 1682; Sir William Johnson (1715-1774), army officer and superintendent of Indian Affairs; Pierce Butler (1744-1822), Carlow-born American political leader who signed the U.S. Constitution; Nellie Tayloe Ross (1876-1977), first female governor (of Wyoming 1925-1927) and first female director of the Mint (1933-1953); Sandra Day O’Connor (1930– ), the first female Supreme Court Justice; William G. Brennan (1906– ), Supreme Court Justice.
Famous Irish American religious leaders include: Archbishop John Joseph Hughes (1797-1864), first Roman Catholic archbishop of New York; John McCloskey (1810-1885), first American cardinal of the Roman Catholic church; James Gibbons (1834-1921), Francis Joseph Spellman (1889-1967), Richard J. Cushing (1895-1970), and Terence Cooke (1921-1983), all Roman Catholic cardinals; Archbishop Fulton John Sheen (1895-1979), charismatic Roman Catholic church leader; Father Andrew Greeley (1928– ), priest, sociologist, and novelist. Two famous humanitarians are Father Edward Joseph Flanagan (1886-1948), Roman Catholic priest who worked with homeless boys and who founded Boys Town in Nebraska; and Thomas A. Dooley (1927-1961), medical doctor who performed great humanitarian work in southeast Asia.
Irish Americans have been eminent in sports as well, including: John L. Sullivan (1858-1918), James John “Gentleman Jim” Corbett (1866-1933), Jack Dempsey (1895-1983), and Gene Tunney (1898-1978), all heavyweight boxing champions; Babe Ruth (1895-1948), baseball player; Ben Hogan (1912– ), golfer; Maureen “Little Mo” Connolly (1934-1969), tennis star who won the U.S. women’s singles championship three times; and Jimmy Connors (1952– ), another famous tennis player.
U.S. relations with Ireland have long been based on common ancestral ties and shared values. In addition to regular dialogue on political and economic issues, the U.S. and Irish governments benefit from a robust slate of exchanges in areas such as commerce, culture, education, and scientific research. With Ireland’s membership in the European Union (EU), discussions of EU trade and economic policies, as well as other aspects of broader EU policy, constitute key elements in the U.S.-Ireland relationship.
Many Irish citizens take temporary residence overseas for work or study, mainly in the United States, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom (U.K.), and elsewhere in Europe. The Summer Work Travel category of the U.S. Department of State’s Exchange Visitor Program allows Irish youth to participate in a cultural and educational enrichment program that includes temporary and seasonal work and the opportunity to travel in the United States. Exchange visitors are required to return home after their program ends.
In Northern Ireland, “Nationalist” and “Republican” groups seek a united Ireland that includes Northern Ireland, while “Unionists” and “Loyalists” want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. The United States seeks to support the peace process and devolved political institutions in Northern Ireland by encouraging the implementation of the U.S.-brokered 1998 Belfast Agreement (also known as the Good Friday Agreement).
U.S. Assistance to Ireland
The International Fund for Ireland (IFI), established by the British and Irish governments in 1986, provides funding for projects to sustain the peace process and to generate cross-community engagement and economic opportunity in Northern Ireland (the United Kingdom) and the border counties of Ireland. The U.S. government has contributed more than $544 million to the IFI since its establishment.
Bilateral Economic Relations
Economic and trade ties are an important facet of overall U.S.- Irish relations. The United States is a major goods exporter to Ireland, ranking second only to the United Kingdom. U.S. goods exports to Ireland include pharmaceutical products, electrical components and equipment, computers and peripherals, aircraft, and optical/medical instruments. The United States is Ireland’s top export destination; about 27 percent of all Irish goods exports go to the United States. Irish goods exports to the United States include pharmaceutical products, organic chemicals, optical/medical instruments, and beverages. U.S.-Irish trade in services is growing as well. U.S. services exports to Ireland include intellectual property licenses, research and development, and management consulting services. Major Irish services exports to the United States include insurance and information services.
Two-way investment between the United States and Ireland remains strong. Ireland’s membership in the EU attracts U.S. companies that use Ireland as a base to sell into Europe and other markets. There are approximately 700 U.S.-owned firms operating in Ireland that employ about 155,000 people in jobs that span from the manufacturing of high-tech electronics, computer products, medical supplies, and pharmaceuticals to retailing, banking, finance, and other services. Many high-tech firms, such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, base their European operations in Ireland. Since 2015, Ireland also has become an important research and development center for U.S. firms in Europe. Irish firms are significant investors in the United States across a wide range of sectors. More than 500 Irish companies operate in the United States, having invested more than $225 billion and employing some 110,000 workers as of 2019. In 2017, the Embassy opened a Select USA office to encourage and assist Irish companies seeking to invest and create jobs in the United States.
Several cities suffered draft riots in which enrollment officers and free African Americans were targeted for violence. The largest such incident began on June 11, 1863, in New York City when more than 100 people were murdered by an angry mob. After burning down a draft office and attacking police officers and well-dressed whites, this mob of white workers, including many Irish Americans, focused its energy on killing African American bystanders.
Anti-Irish sentiment, also called Hibernophobia, may refer to or include oppression, persecution, discrimination, or hatred of Irish people as an ethnic group or a nation, whether it is directed against the island of Ireland in general or whether it is directed against Irish emigrants and their descendants in the Irish diaspora.
It is traditionally rooted in the Middle Ages, the Early Modern Age and the Age of Enlightenment and it is also evidenced in Irish immigration to Great Britain, North America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Anti-Irish sentiment can include social, racial and cultural discrimination in Ireland itself, such as sectarianism or cultural, religious and political conflicts such as the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
The first record of Anti-Irish sentiment comes from the Greek geographer, Strabo, in his work Geographica: “Besides some small islands round about Britain, there is also a large island, Ierne, which stretches parallel to Britain on the north, its breadth being greater than its length. Concerning this island I have nothing certain to tell, except that its inhabitants are more savage than the Britons, since they are man-eaters as well as heavy eaters, and since, further, they count it an honorable thing, when their fathers die, to devour them, and openly to have intercourse, not only with the other women, but also with their mothers and sisters; but I am saying this only with the understanding that I have no trustworthy witnesses for it; and yet, as for the matter of man-eating, that is said to be a custom of the Scythians also, and, in cases of necessity forced by sieges, the Celti, the Iberians, and several other peoples are said to have practiced it.”
The most famous example of Anti-Irish sentiment comes from 1190 with the Norman chronicler Giraldus Cambrensis, also known as Gerald of Wales. To justify the Norman invasion of Ireland, he wrote disparagingly of the Irish. “Gerald was seeking promotion by Henry II within the English church. His history was therefore written to create a certain effect—of supporting Henry II’s claims to Ireland.”
Over the centuries, hostility increased towards the Irish, who steadfastly remained Roman Catholic in spite of coercive force by Edward VI and subsequent rulers to convert them to Protestantism. The religious majority of the Irish nation was ruled by a religious minority, leading to perennial social conflict. During the Great Famine in the middle of the 19th century, some evangelical Protestants sought to convert the starving Catholics as part of their relief efforts.
Negative English attitudes towards the Gaelic Irish and their culture date as far back as the reign of Henry II of England. In 1155, Pope Adrian IV issued the papal bull called Laudabiliter, that gave Henry permission to conquer Ireland as a means of strengthening the Papacy’s control over the Irish Church. Pope Adrian called the Irish a “rude and barbarous” nation. Thus, the Norman invasion of Ireland began in 1169 with the backing of the Papacy. Pope Alexander III, who was Pope at the time of the invasion, ratified the Laudabiliter and gave Henry dominion over Ireland. He likewise called the Irish a “barbarous nation” with “filthy practices”.
Gerald of Wales accompanied King Henry’s son, John, on his 1185 trip to Ireland. As a result of this he wrote Topographia Hibernica (“Topography of Ireland”) and Expugnatio Hibernia (“Conquest of Ireland”), both of which remained in circulation for centuries afterwards. Ireland, in his view, was rich; but the Irish were backward and lazy:
They use their fields mostly for pasture. Little is cultivated and even less is sown. The problem here is not the quality of the soil but rather the lack of industry on the part of those who should cultivate it. This laziness means that the different types of minerals with which hidden veins of the earth are full are neither mined nor exploited in any way. They do not devote themselves to the manufacture of flax or wool, nor to the practice of any mechanical or mercantile act. Dedicated only to leisure and laziness, this is a truly barbarous people. They depend on animals for their livelihood and they live like animals.
Gerald was not atypical, and similar views may be found in the writings of William of Malmesbury and William of Newburgh. When it comes to Irish marital and sexual customs Gerald is even more biting: “This is a filthy people, wallowing in vice. They indulge in incest, for example in marrying – or rather debauching – the wives of their dead brothers”. Even earlier than this Archbishop Anselm accused the Irish of wife swapping, “exchanging their wives as freely as other men exchange their horses”.
One will find these views echoed centuries later in the words of Sir Henry Sidney, twice Lord Deputy of Ireland during the reign of Elizabeth I, and in those of Edmund Tremayne, his secretary. In Tremayne’s view the Irish “commit whoredom, hold no wedlock, ravish, steal and commit all abomination without scruple of conscience”. In A View of the Present State of Ireland, circulated in 1596 but not published until 1633, the English official and renowned poet Edmund Spenser wrote “They are all papists by profession but in the same so blindingly and brutishly informed that you would rather think them atheists or infidels”. In a “Brief Note on Ireland,” Spenser argued that “Great force must be the instrument but famine must be the means, for till Ireland be famished it cannot be subdued. . . There can be no conformity of government where is no conformity of religion. . . There can be no sound agreement between two equal contraries viz: the English and Irish”.
This “civilizing mission” embraced any manner of cruel and barbaric methods to accomplish its end goal. For instance, in 1305, Piers Bermingham received a financial bonus and accolades in verse after beheading thirty members of the O’Conor clan and sending them to Dublin. In 1317, one Irish chronicler opined that it was just as easy for an Englishman to kill an Irishman or English woman to kill an Irish woman as he/she would a dog. The Irish were thought of as the most barbarous people in Europe, and such ideas were modified to compare the Scottish Highlands or Gàidhealtachd where traditionally Scottish Gaelic is spoken to medieval Ireland.
London version of NINA song, Feb. 18621862 song that used the “No Irish Need Apply” slogan. It was copied from a similar London song. Example of “No Irish need apply” ads by a business for male workers found in The New York Times, 1854.
In the Early Modern period following the advent of Protestantism in Great Britain, the Irish people suffered both social and political oppression for refusing to renounce Catholicism. This discrimination sometimes manifested itself in areas with large Puritan or Presbyterian populations such as the northeastern parts of Ireland, the Central Belt of Scotland, and parts of Canada. Thinly veiled nationalism under the guise of religious conflict has occurred in both the UK and Ireland.
Anti-Irish sentiment is found in works by several 18th-century writers such as Voltaire, who depicted the Catholic Irish as savage and backward, and defended British rule in the country.
Irish racism in Victorian Britain and 19th century United States included the stereotyping of the Irish as violent and alcoholic. Some English illustrators depicted a prehistoric “ape-like image” of Irish faces to bolster evolutionary racist claims that the Irish people were an “inferior race” as compared to Anglo-Saxons.
Similar to other immigrant populations, they were sometimes accused of cronyism and subjected to misrepresentations of their religious and cultural beliefs. Irish Catholics were particularly singled out for attack by Protestants. Anti-Catholicism, whether real or imagined, played to the Catholic respect for martyrdom, and was partly based on a fear of a reborn Inquisition whose methods clashed with the “Age of Enlightenment“. Irish Catholics were not involved in formulating church dogma, but it became a stick to beat them with. Mostly they stayed with their church as it fostered a sense of community in an otherwise harsh commercial world.
In Liverpool, England, where many Irish immigrants settled following the Great Famine, anti-Irish prejudice was widespread. The sheer numbers of people coming across the Irish sea and settling in the poorer districts of the city led to physical attacks and it became common practice for those with Irish accents or even Irish names to be barred from jobs, public houses and employment opportunities.
In 1836, young Benjamin Disraeli wrote:
[The Irish] hate our order, our civilization, our enterprising industry, our pure religion. This wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain and superstitious race have no sympathy with the English character. Their ideal of human felicity is an alternation of clannish broils and coarse idolatry. Their history describes an unbroken circle of bigotry and blood.
In 1882, five people were murdered in the Maamtrasna, on the border between County Mayo and County Galway in Ireland. Covering the incident, London-based magazine The Spectator wrote the following:
The Tragedy at Maamtrasna, investigated this week in Dublin, almost unique as it is in the annals of the United Kingdom, brings out in strong relief two facts which Englishmen are too apt to forget. One is the existence in particular districts of Ireland of a class of peasants who are scarcely civilized beings, and approach far nearer to savages than any other white men; and the other is their extraordinary and exceptional gloominess of temper. In remote places of Ireland, especially in Connaught, on a few of the islands, and in one or two mountain districts, dwell cultivators who are in knowledge, in habits, and in the discipline of life no higher than Maories or other Polynesians.— The Tragedy at Maamtrasna, The Spectator
Nineteenth-century Protestant American “Nativist” discrimination against Irish Catholics reached a peak in the mid-1850s when the Know-Nothing Movement tried to oust Catholics from public office. Much of the opposition came from Irish Protestants, as in the 1831 riots in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
During the 1830s in the U.S., riots for control of job sites broke out in rural areas among rival labor teams from different parts of Ireland, and between Irish and local American work teams competing for construction jobs.
Irish Catholics were isolated and marginalized by Protestant society, but the Irish gained control of the Catholic Church from English, French and Germans. Intermarriage between Catholics and Protestants was strongly discouraged by both Protestant ministers and Catholic priests. Catholics, led by the Irish, built a network of parochial schools and colleges, as well as orphanages and hospitals, typically using nuns as an inexpensive work force. They thereby avoided public institutions mostly controlled by Protestants.
The Irish used their base in Tammany Hall (the Democratic Party machine in New York City) to play a role in the New York State legislature. Young Theodore Roosevelt was their chief Republican opponent, and he wrote in his diary that: There are some twenty five Irish Democrats in the house…. They are a stupid, sodden and vicious lot, most of them being equally deficient in brains and virtue. Three or four however…seem to be pretty good men, and among the best members of the house are two Republican farmers named O’neil and Sheehy, the grandsons of Irish immigrants. But the average catholic Irishman of first-generation as represented in this Assembly, is a low, venal, corrupt and unintelligent brute.
“No Irish need apply”
After 1860, many Irish sang songs about signs and notices reading Help wanted – no Irish need apply or similar. The 1862 song “No Irish Need Apply”, written and performed by Mrs F. R. Phillips, was inspired by such signs in London. Later Irish Americans adapted the lyrics and the songs to reflect the discrimination they felt in America.
Historians have debated the issue of anti-Irish job discrimination in the United States. Some insist that the “No Irish need apply” (or “NINA”) signs were common, but others, such as Richard J. Jensen, argue that anti-Irish job discrimination was not a significant factor in the United States, and these signs and print advertisements were posted by the limited number of early 19th-century English immigrants to the United States who shared the prejudices of their homeland. In July 2015 the same journal that published Jensen’s 2002 paper published a rebuttal by Rebecca A. Fried, an 8th-grade student at Sidwell Friends School. She listed multiple instances of the restriction used in advertisements for many different types of positions, including “clerks at stores and hotels, bartenders, farm workers, house painters, hog butchers, coachmen, bookkeepers, blackers, workers at lumber yards, upholsterers, bakers, gilders, tailors, and papier mache workers, among others.” While the greatest number of NINA instances occurred in the 1840s, Fried found instances for its continued use throughout the subsequent century, with the most recent dating to 1909 in Butte, Montana.
Alongside “No Irish Need Apply” signs, in the post-World War II years, signs saying “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs” or similar anti-Irish sentiment are reported to begin to appear in the United Kingdom.
Ku Klux Klan cartoon (1926) depicting Saint Patrick being driven out of America, along with snakes marked “Rome in Politics”, “Knights of Columbus“, “superstition” and other evils associated with Irish Americans.
Irish soldiers in World War I were treated more harshly in courts-martial because British officers had “a racist bias against Irish soldiers,” according to a 2004 report by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs.
The writer H.P. Lovecraft held very anti-Irish views. In 1921, concerning the possibility of an independent Irish state, he said the following: “If the Irish had the ‘right’ to independence they would possess it. If they ever gain it, they will possess it – until they lose it again. England has the right to rule because she does… It is not chance, but racial superiority, which has made the Briton supreme. Why have not the Irish conquered and colonized the earth if they be so deserving of regard? They are brainless canaille.”
In 1934, J. B. Priestley published the travelogue English Journey, in which he wrote “A great many speeches have been made and books written on the subject of what England has done to Ireland… I should be interested to hear a speech and read a book or two on the subject of what Ireland has done to England… if we do have an Irish Republic as our neighbor, and it is found possible to return her exiled citizens, what a grand clearance there will be in all the western ports, from the Clyde to Cardiff, what a fine exit of ignorance and dirt and drunkenness and disease.”
In 2002, English journalist Julie Burchill narrowly escaped prosecution for incitement to racial hatred, following a column in The Guardian where she described Ireland as being synonymous with “child molestation, Nazi-sympathizing, and the oppression of women.” Burchill had expressed anti-Irish sentiment several times throughout her career, announcing in the London journal Time Out that “I hate the Irish, I think they’re appalling”.
In 2012, The Irish Times carried a report on anti-Irish prejudice in Britain. It claimed that far-right British nationalist groups continued to use “anti-IRA” marches as “an excuse to attack and intimidate Irish immigrants”. Shortly before the 2012 Summer Olympics, British athlete Daley Thompson was shown an image of a runner with a misspelt tattoo, and said that the person responsible for the misspelling must have been Irish. The BBC issued an apology.
In March 2012 in Perth, Australia, one classified ad placed by a bricklayer stated “No Irish” should apply for the job.
On 8 August 2012, an article appeared in Australian newspapers titled “Punch Drunk: Ireland intoxicated as Taylor swings towards boxing gold”. The article claimed that Katie Taylor was not “what you’d expect in a fighting Irishwoman, nor is she surrounded by people who’d prefer a punch to a potato”. The journalist who wrote it apologized for “indulging racial stereotypes”. The following day, Australian commentator Russell Barwick asserted that athletes from Ireland should compete for the British Olympic team, likening it to “an Hawaiian surfer not surfing for the USA”. When fellow presenter Mark Chapman explained that the Republic of Ireland was an independent state, Barwick remarked: “It’s nothing but an Irish joke”.
On 25 June 2013, In an Orange Order HQ in Everton, an Irish flag was burned. This was seen by members of Liverpool’s large Irish community as a hate crime.
In December 2014 British broadcaster Channel 4 caused an “outrage” and “fury” in Ireland and the UK when it planned a comedy series about the Irish Famine. The sitcom named Hungry, was announced by writer Hugh Travers, who said “we’re kind of thinking of it as Shameless in famine Ireland.” The response in Ireland was quick and negative: “Jewish people would never endorse making a comedy of the mass extermination of their ancestors at the hands of the Nazis, Cambodians would never support people laughing at what happened to their people at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and the people of Somalia, Ethiopia or Sudan would never accept the plight of their people, through generational famine, being the source of humor in Britain,” Dublin councilor David McGuinness said. “I am not surprised that it is a British television outlet funding this venture.” The writer defended the concept saying, “Comedy equals tragedy plus time.” Channel 4 issued a press release stating that “This in the development process and is not currently planned to air… It’s not unusual for sitcoms to exist against backdrops that are full of adversity and hardship”. Protesters from the Irish community planned to picket the offices of Channel 4 and campaigners called the proposed show ‘institutionalized anti-Irish racism’.
In January 2019 Azelia Banks made disparaging comments on Instagram about Irish people after a row with a flight attendant on an Aer Lingus flight to Dublin. She said, “You lot are a bunch of prideful inbred leprechauns… The rest of the world’s white folk don’t want to associate with you lot at all and it’s because you are barbarians.” And, she added later, “I’m happiest knowing the Irish are quarantined on an isle so they can continue to inbreed and keep their defective genes away from humanity.” The following day, she said she would dedicate her Dublin show to “beautiful Irish women.”
In February 2020 the website BeautifulPeople.com claimed that Irish men were “undisputedly the most ugly people in the world” – Greg Hodge, managing director of beautifulpeople.com, in a statement said: ‘There are many examples of very handsome Irish men in Hollywood, However this is the exception and not the norm. Irish men are the undisputed ugliest in the world. They really are in a league of their own.’
In March 2021, the Equality and Human Rights Commission said it had investigated Britannia Hotels-owned holiday park operator Pontins after a whistleblower revealed Pontins had a blacklist of common Irish surnames to prevent Gypsies and Irish Travelers from booking at its parks. Prime Minister Boris Johnson mentioned that the discrimination was “completely unacceptable”.
Irish Traveler discrimination
Irish Travelers are an ethnic and cultural minority group whose members experience overt discrimination throughout Ireland, despite the fact that they have been present in Ireland for centuries. and the United Kingdom, similar in nature to antiziganism (prejudice against Romani people) in the United Kingdom and Europe. Anti-Traveler racism is similar to the form of racism which was experienced by the Irish during the diaspora of the 19th century, with media attack campaigns in the United Kingdom and Ireland using both national/local newspapers and radio. Irish Travelers in the Irish media have stated they are living in Ireland under an apartheid regime. In 2013, Irish journalist Jennifer O’Connell, writing in The Irish Times, wrote that “Our casual racism against Travelers is one of Ireland’s last great shames”. While there is a willingness to acknowledge that there is widespread prejudice towards Travelers in Irish society, and a recognition of discrimination against Travelers, there is still strong resistance among the Irish public to calling the treatment of Travelers racist.
Extensive abuses of social systems like the housing scheme, welfare schemes, and resource teachers for Travelers in primary schools perpetuate the social conflict between Travelers and “the settled community”, examples including the burning down of houses allocated to the Travelers by the state due to Traveler feuds. These feuds between large Traveler families often culminate in mass brawls where dozens of Travelers cause damage to themselves as well as public and private property. In 2013 a Traveler home in Ballyshannon, Co Donegal was destroyed by fire days before members of a Traveler family were due to move in. Local Councilor Pearse Doherty said the house was specifically targeted because it was to house a Traveller family and was destroyed due to a ‘hatred of Travelers’. Another local Councilor Sean McEniff of Bundoran caused controversy and a complaint under the ‘Incitement to Hatred Act’ when he stated that, due to the house’s initial purchase, Travelers “should live in isolation from the settled community.” and “I would not like these people (the family) living beside me”.
The British television series Big Fat Gypsy Weddings has been accused of bullying and an instigation of racial hatred against Irish Travelers in England. The series has faced a number of controversies, including allegations of racism in its advertising and instigating a rise in the rate of racially motivated bullying.
Irish Race Relations
There’s an unfortunate Irish stereotype out there that says that all Irish people are just a wee touch racist, and like most stereotypes there’s a little bit of truth in it. I’d dispute any sinister undertones but I’d admit a slight national ignorance of racial sensitivities, particularly outside the M50. Not quite racism but rather ignorance meeting curiosity.
I went the first, 15ish years of my life without ever actually meeting a black person, and I suspect the same is probably true for most kids growing up in rural Ireland. The broadening of my cultural horizons was left largely to TV. Sister Sister, Kenan & Kel, and the Fresh Prince were watched with near religious dedication, leading me to rationally conclude that America was populated with witty black teens and the very occasional white loser (or honky if you prefer). I’ve yet to read anything compelling enough to make me revisit this standpoint.
So it is that I, and Irish people in general, move through life somewhat less culturally exposed than the rest of the world. At the same time, every arsehole I’ve ever met was white.
I’d always heard that race was a big talking point in America and true enough it’s hard not to notice the many hues of humanity on this side of the Atlantic. So it was that I was in San Diego less than 2 weeks before the issue was breached, albeit in the form of a question so blunt you could beat a man to death with it. Sitting in the passenger seat of my boss’ car as he gave me a lift home, he turned to me and just put it out there.
“Do you have black people in Ireland?”
Now perhaps that’s perfectly everyday small talk here in America, but to be honest, I’d have preferred a question on Irish weather rather than Irish homogeneity. I replied honestly, mentioning that, “there are black people in Ireland but they’re in the minority. The Irish immigrant population is largely Eastern European and so ethnically Ireland is a very white country.” A perfectly reasonable response I think you’d agree. Next question?
“So are you a racist?”
Ethnicity is particularly interesting to an Irishman abroad. I’m not saying that Irish women are unattractive, that’d be as wrong as it would be stupid, but there’s definitely something to be said for skin tones beyond the traditional offerings of whitewashed stone and tangerine tan. Not to mention that while America may have an obesity problem, there’s a healthy supply of statistical outliers walking around the beaches of San Diego. Unfortunately for everyone this makes it pretty hard not to have a bit of a stare, also known as a wee lech. You see someone exotic and think, “wow, she is stunning, I wonder how she achieved that skin tone, maybe I should go up and ask.” For the record it’s not a good idea to ask.
It’s hard to be sure what’s offensive in America because back home there’s really no one to offend except sensitive white people, and by Irish standards, that’s me. Now, abroad, I have to monitor myself rather than just my Da. I’m conscious of the expectation that I’m a racist Irishman so I struggle with making sure I look at people on the street for the exact right amount of time. You have to look long enough, but not too long. What exactly is the politest amount of time to make eye contact with someone?
Actually that’s a whole different issue here in America since it seems the accepted amount of time you’re supposed to hold someone’s eye contact is FOREVER. Americans neither blink nor look away while they’re talking to you. A stranger on the bus asks you for directions, you glance over to them to offer your ignorance, before you know it you’re trapped in an intense, and slightly sexual, staring competition.
How Irish Immigrants Overcame Discrimination in America
The month of March isn’t just home to St. Patrick’s Day but also to Irish American Heritage Month, which acknowledges the discrimination the Irish faced in America and their contributions to society. In honor of the annual event, the U.S. Census Bureau releases a variety of facts and figures about Irish Americans and the White House issues a proclamation about the Irish experience in the United States.
In March 2012, President Barack Obama ushered in Irish American Heritage Month by discussing the “indomitable spirit” of the Irish. He referred to the Irish as a group “whose strength helped build countless miles of canals and railroads; whose brogues echoed in mills, police stations, and fire halls across our country; and whose blood spilled to defend a nation and a way of life they helped define.
Defying Famine, Poverty, and Discrimination
“Defying famine, poverty, and discrimination, these sons and daughters of Erin demonstrated extraordinary strength and unshakable faith as they gave their all to help build an America worthy of the journey they and so many others have taken.”
History of Discrimination
Notice that the president used the word “discrimination” to discuss the Irish American experience. In the 21st century, Irish Americans are widely considered to be “white” and reap the benefits of white privilege. However, this was not always the case in previous centuries.
As Jessie Daniels explained in a piece on the Racism Review website called “St. Patrick’s Day, Irish-Americans and the Changing Boundaries of Whiteness,” the Irish faced marginalization as newcomers to the United States in the 19th century. This was largely because of how the English treated them. She explains:
“The Irish had suffered profound injustice in the U.K. at the hands of the British, widely seen as ‘white negroes.’ The potato famine that created starvation conditions that cost the lives of millions of Irish and forced the out-migration of millions of surviving ones, was less a natural disaster and more a complex set of social conditions created by British landowners (much like Hurricane Katrina). Forced to flee from their native Ireland and the oppressive British landowners, many Irish came to the U.S.”
Immigrating to the U.S. Didn’t End the Hardships
But immigrating to the U.S. didn’t end the hardships the Irish experienced across the pond. Americans stereotyped the Irish as lazy, unintelligent, carefree criminals and alcoholics. Daniels points out that the term “paddy wagon” comes from the derogatory “paddy,” a nickname for “Patrick” widely used to describe Irish men. Given this, the term “paddy wagon” basically equates being Irish to criminality.
Competing for Low-Wage Employment
Once the U.S. ceased to enslave its African American population, the Irish competed with them for low-wage employment. The two groups did not join together in solidarity, however. Instead, the Irish worked to enjoy the same privileges as white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, a feat they accomplished partly at the expense of Black people, according to Noel Ignatiev, author of How the Irish Became White (1995).
Subjugating Black Americans to Move up the Socioeconomic Ladder
While the Irish abroad opposed enslavement, for example, Irish Americans supported the peculiar institution because subjugating Black Americans allowed them to move up the U.S. socioeconomic ladder. After enslavement ended, the Irish refused to work alongside Black people and terrorized them to eliminate them as competition on multiple occasions. Due to these tactics, the Irish eventually enjoyed the same privileges as other whites while Black people remained second-class citizens in America.
Richard Jenson, a former University of Chicago history professor, wrote an essay about these issues in the Journal of Social History called “‘No Irish Need Apply’: A Myth of Victimization.” He states:
“We know from the experience of African Americans and Chinese that the most powerful form of job discrimination came from workers who vowed to boycott or shut down any employer who hired the excluded class. Employers who were personally willing to hire Chinese or Blacks were forced to submit to the threats. There were no reports of mobs attacking Irish employment. On the other hand, the Irish repeatedly attacked employers who hired African Americans or Chinese.”
Advantages Used to Get Ahead
White Americans often express incredulity that their ancestors managed to succeed in the United States while people of color continue to struggle. If their penniless, immigrant grandfather could make it in the U.S. why can’t Black Americans, Latinos, or Native Americans? Examining the experiences of European immigrants in the U.S. reveals that some of the advantages they used to get ahead—white skin and intimidation of minority laborers—were off-limits to people of color.
Race relations have been problematic in the United States throughout it’s history. It seems that every new group had to deal with antagonistic treatment by the dominant population. Even though everybody was at some point was an immigrant, the mistreatment of the new immigrants never seemed to lessen. Apparently the previous immigrants who are now in the majority have short term memories. They have forgotten how it felt to be treated like interlopers. The only inhabitants in this country who were not immigrants are our native born Indians. They were treated harshly, because they were seen as standing in the way of progress. However as time has progressed our treatment of new immigrants has softened some. It has been stated that our country is systemically racists. This is not true. But we expect people to earn their keep. There are no free rides. Though since the turn of the 1900s, social programs have become more prevalent, and our elderly are taken care of under Social Security. Poor populations can receive aid, under the welfare act and receive medical care under the medicaid program. Once the new immigrants get their green cards and when they become citizens they are eligible for this assistance. The Irish people were treated harshly in the 1850s and into the early 1900s, however they persevered. Today they are treated no differently than any other group. The Irish helped build this country. They helped build our railroads and fought in our wars. They came to America looking for a chance to make a new life for themselves. It wasn’t easy, but they succeeded.
en.wikipedia.org, ” Ireland-United States relations”, By wikipedia editors; state.gov, ” U.S. Relations With Ireland”; loc.gov, ” Irish-Catholic Immigration to America”; thoughtco.com, “How Irish Immigrants Overcame Discrimination in America: Alienating other minority groups helped the Irish advance,” By Nadra Kareem Nittle; history.howstuffworks.com, “When Irish Immigrants Weren’t Considered ‘White'”, By Laurie L. Dove; owlcation.com, “Blood of the Irish: What DNA Tells Us About the Ancestry of People in Ireland”, By Maries McKeown; archives.com, “The Scots-Irish in the Southern United States: An Overview”, By Katharine Garstka; everyculture.com, ” Irish Americans”, By Brendan A. Rapple; theglitteringeye.com, “The influence of immigrants on American political thought”, By Dave Schuler; aohflorida.org, “Irish Role in American Independence”; dfa.ie, “Irish-Scottish Relations, past, present and future, Edinburgh’s Festival of Ireland, 23 March 2017”; thoughtco.com, “The Great Irish Famine Was a Turning Point for Ireland and America”, By Robert McNamara; irish-genealogy-toolkit.com, “Irish immigration to America:
1846 to the early 20th century”; en.wikipedia.org, “Anti-Irish sentiment” By Wikipeida editors; dangerussell.wordpress.com, “Irish Race Relations”;
Blood of the Irish: What DNA Tells Us About the Ancestry of People in Ireland
Blood of the Irish
The blood in Irish veins is Celtic, right? Well, not exactly. Although the history that used to be taught at school said the Irish were a Celtic people who had migrated from central Europe, the latest studies of Irish DNA tell us a very different story.
Research done into the DNA of the Irish has shown that our old understanding of where the population of Ireland originated may have been misguided. The modern Irish population share many genetic similarities with Scottish and Welsh populations, and to a lesser extent the English. At the same time, DNA testing of remains of ancient Irish people suggests that some of the earliest human arrivals on the island originally came from much further afield.
This article is based on the research available in early 2018 – however new discoveries are being published regularly so if you want to keep up-to-date on this topic make sure you check online scientific journals such as Nature.
Early Origins of Irish DNA
The earliest settlers came to Ireland during the Stone Age, around 10,000 years ago. There are still remnants of their presence scattered across the island. Mountsandel in Coleraine in the North of Ireland is the oldest known site of settlement in Ireland—remains of woven huts, stone tools and food such as berries and hazelnuts were discovered at the site in 1972.
Where Did the Early Irish Come From?
For a long time the myth of Irish history has been that the Irish are Celts. Many people still refer to Irish, Scottish, and Welsh as Celtic culture. The assumption has been that they were Celts who migrated from central Europe around 500BCE.
Keltoi was the name given by the Ancient Greeks to a ‘barbaric’ (in their eyes) people who lived to the north of them in central Europe. While early Irish art shows some similarities of style to central European art of the Keltoi, historians have also recognized many significant differences between the two cultures.
Recent research into Irish DNA at the beginning of the twenty-first century suggests that the early inhabitants of Ireland were not directly descended from the Keltoi of central Europe. Genome sequencing performed on remains of early settlers in Ireland by researchers at Trinity University in Dublin and Queens University has revealed at least two waves of migration to the island in past millennia. Analysis of the remains of a 5,200 year-old Irish farmer suggested that the population of Ireland at that time was closely genetically related to the modern-day populations of southern Europe, especially Spain and Sardinia. Her ancestors, however, originally migrated from the Middle East, the cradle of agriculture.
Meanwhile, the research team also examined the remains of three 4,000 year-old men from the Bronze Age and revealed that another wave of migration to Ireland had taken place, this time from the edges of Eastern Europe. One third of their ancestry came from the Steppe region of Russia and Ukraine, so their ancestors must have gradually spread west across Europe. These remains, found on Rathlin Island also shared a close genetic affinity with the Scottish, Welsh, and modern Irish, unlike the earlier farmer. This suggests that many people living in Ireland today have genetic links to people who were living on the island at least 4,000 years ago.
Do Irish Origin Myths Match the Scientific Evidence?
One of the oldest texts composed in Ireland is the Leabhar Gabhla, the Book of Invasions. It tells a semi-mythical history of the waves of people who settled in Ireland in earliest times. It says the first settlers to arrive in Ireland were a small dark people called the Fir Bolg, followed by a magical super-race called the Tuatha de Danaan (the people of the goddess Dana).
Most interestingly, the book says that the group which then came to Ireland and fully established itself as rulers of the island were the Milesians—the sons of Mil, a soldier from Spain. Modern DNA research into male Y chromosomes has found that the the R1b haplogroup reaches very high concentrations in Western Ireland and the Basque country in northern Spain. While the picture for matrilineal descent (mother to daughter) is more complex, it seems that the northern Spanish and the Irish might have common male ancestors at some point in history.
There are also interesting cultural similarities along the western seaboard of Europe, stretching from Spain up to Ireland – as has been written about by the archeologist Barry Cunliffe. Although it might seem surprising, it is worth remembering that in ancient times the sea was one of the fastest and easiest ways to travel. When the land was covered in thick forest, coastal settlements were common and people travelled around the seaboard of Europe quite freely.
Another interesting finding about Irish DNA is that many men in North West Ireland (and their descendants around the world, including about 2% of men in New York today) are descended from a single man who lived in Ireland around 1600-1700 years ago. This coincides with the time of the famous Irish king Niall of the Nine Hostages, who legend says brought St Patrick to Ireland as a slave. The O’Neill family, who claim to descend from Niall, have certainly been a powerful family through the ages in Ireland.
Meanwhile, the latest research in 2018 suggests that the Irish are most closely related to people in North West France (Brittany where a Celtic language has traditionally been spoken) and in Western Norway. Interestingly, where earlier studies didn’t find much impact of Viking DNA among the modern Irish, a recent study suggests there may have been more influence than perviously thought. You can read more details here: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-17124-4
What we can take from all of this is that, although the Irish today feel part of a single group united by cultural and national identity, this culture and identity is ultimately founded on waves of migration connecting the island to the wider world of European peoples and beyond.
Who Are the Closest Genetic Relatives of the Irish?
Today, people living the north of Spain in the region known as the Basque Country share many DNA traits with the Irish. However, the Irish also share their DNA to a large extent with the people of Britain, especially the Scottish and Welsh.
DNA testing of the male Y chromosome has shown that Irish males have the highest incidence of the R1b haplogroup in Europe. While other parts of Europe have integrated continuous waves of new settlers from the east, Ireland’s remote geographical position has meant that the Irish gene-pool has been less susceptible to change. The same genes have been passed down from parents to children for thousands of years. The other region with very high levels of this male chromosome is the Basque region.
This is mirrored in genetic studies which have compared DNA analysis with Irish surnames. Many surnames in Irish are Gaelic surnames, suggesting that the holder of the surname is a descendant of people who lived in Ireland long before the English conquests of the Middle Ages. Men with Gaelic surnames, showed the highest incidences of Haplogroup 1 (or Rb1) gene. This means that those Irish whose ancestors pre-date English conquest of the island are descendants (in the male line) of people who probably migrated west across Europe, as far as Ireland in the north and Spain in the south.
Some scholars even argue that the Iberian peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal) was once heavily populated by Celtiberians who spoke at now-extinct Celtic language. They believe some of these people moved northwards along the Atlantic coast bringing Celtic language and culture to Ireland and Britain, as well as France. Although the evidence in not conclusive, the findings on the similarities between Irish and Iberian DNA provides some support for this theory.
However, more recent studies confirm that when a complex picture is taken of Irish DNA, including both male and female lines of descent, the closest similarities are between the Irish and people living in Western Britain. In particular, people in the north of Ireland are close genetic relatives of those living in Western Scotland, probably due to a long history of migration between the two regions.
When Irish Immigrants Weren’t Considered ‘White’
By: Laurie L. Dove
An 1874 engraving published in The Illustrated London New shows Irish emigrants preparing to leave the Queenstown port in Cork for the United States.
In the 19th-century United States, racism was rampant. Chinese immigrants were openly mocked, often in unfavorable newspaper caricatures. Germans were stereotyped as loitering in beer halls. African-Americans were portrayed in demeaning advertisements. And Irish people — who were not considered “white” by the existing majority at the time — were mistreated, too.
More than 1.5 million people left Ireland for the United States between 1845 and 1855, the survivors of a potato famine that had wiped out more than 1 million people in their homeland. They arrived poor, hungry and sick, and then crowded into cramped tenements in Boston, New York and other Northeastern cities to start anew under difficult conditions.
The struggles of Irish immigrants were compounded by the poor treatment they received from the white, primarily Anglo-Saxon and Protestant establishment. America’s existing unskilled workers worried they would be replaced by immigrants willing to work for less than the going rate. And business owners worried that Irish immigrants and African-Americans would band together to demand increased wages.
As a result, locals didn’t take kindly to an influx of Irish immigrants competing for resources perceived as limited. In Boston alone, 37,000 Irish immigrants arrived in 1847 — growing the city’s population by more than 30 percent, straining employment, rations, housing and relations between populations.
Not only were Irish immigrants viewed as interlopers by many white Americans (an irony, considering the historical treatment of Native Americans), but these immigrants were Catholics in a primarily Protestant land. It was a religious difference that widened the divide, as did the fact that many Irish immigrants didn’t speak English. As strange as may it may sound today, Irish immigrants were not considered “white” and were sometimes referred to “negroes turned inside out.”
This undated political cartoon from the mid-1800s titled “Uncle Sam’s Lodging House” illustrates the perception of Irish immigrants as more problematic to the United States than those from other countries. The cartoon’s original caption read: Uncle Sam…
There’s proof of this discrimination in cartoons and advertisements that were published during the mid- to late-1800s. Irish often were portrayed as racially different from the wider population of Caucasians and those of Anglo-Saxon heritage, writes historian Noel Ignatiev in his 1995 book “How the Irish Became White.” Irish immigrants, both male and female, were drawn with brutish, ape-like features. Even pseudoscience got in on the act. “Comparative Physiognomy,” a book by James Redfield published in 1852, made comparisons between the facial structure of Irish people and dogs. Redfield went on to claim that, because of their appearance, the Irish had an animalistic character that made them cruel and cowardly.
“Among the Irish, the commonality take to dirt-digging more naturally than to anything else,” Redfield wrote. “They are dirty in their persons, and admit pigs in their mud-cabins which they themselves occupy. They are good servants if you deal harshly with them, as a master does with his dog; but the moment you are disposed to be familiar with them they are all over you, jumping against you and laying their dirty paws upon your clean clothes, as if you were no better than they.”
This newspaper illustration depicts the New York draft riots of 1863, when working-class New Yorkers protested conscription into the Union Army to fight in the ongoing Civil War. Irish immigrants are portrayed in the drawing with dehumanizing, brutish,…
This type of xenophobia — the fear of people or things perceived to be different — was bolstered by the formation of the Know-Nothing Party, a U.S. political party that originated in 1849 and grew during the following decade. Members of the party opposed the Catholic religion in general and Irish Catholics in particular. They feared Irish Catholics would take over the U.S. and potentially raise up the pope as the country’s ruler, replacing secular law with religious dictates.
Although Irish immigrants faced oppression in the United States, they also participated in it. African-Americans and Irish were considered by many Northern whites to be on equal footing, but many Irish immigrants quickly embraced “white” identities and became part of the social construct that oppressed African-Americans as an avenue to better employment, interweaving issues of classism and racism.
“Once the Irish secured themselves in those jobs, they made sure blacks were kept out,” writes historian Art McDonald. “They realized that as long as they continued to work alongside blacks, they would be considered no different. Later, as Irish became prominent in the labor movement, African Americans were excluded from participation … And so, we have the tragic story of how one oppressed ‘race,’ Irish Catholics, learned how to collaborate in the oppression of another ‘race,’ Africans in America, in order to secure their place in the white republic.”
Race relations in the United States have long been complicated, and suffering and discrimination is not a zero-sum; for instance, see the discredited but persistent myth of Irish slavery that still makes the rounds on the internet. Today, it may be difficult to imagine a time when fair-skinned people of Irish descent weren’t considered white. However, definitions of race have changed over time — and may be just as rooted in class, labor, economics and fear as they are in skin pigmentation.
The influence of immigrants on American political thought
Dave Schuler June 4, 2006
With all of the posting on immigrants and immigration over the last few months I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more thoughtful consideration of the political legacy of the historic waves of immigration into this country. Leaping into the gap in this post I plan to touch briefly on two of these waves: the famine Irish and the Scandinavians.
THE FAMINE IRISH
There had been Irish immigration into the American colonies from at least the 17th century and, later, into the United States. These immigrants, frequently called the “Scots Irish”, were mostly from counties Antrim and Derry, were ethnic Scots who had been settled in Ireland, and were Presbyterians. Several of our Founding Fathers claimed descent from these immigrants. President Andrew Jackson was the son of Scots Irish immigrants. The Jacksonian tradition in American politics is closely associated with the qualities of these immigrants: individualism, liberty, honor, military virtue.
In 1845 a fungus struck the potato, the primary food source of the Irish peasantry, and during the subsequent five year famine, An Gorta Mor, The Great Hunger, more than a half million Irish left Ireland for the United States. By 1850 according to U. S. immigration records the Irish made up 43% of the immigrant population in the United States.
These Irishmen were ethnically, religiously, and politically different from the Scots Irish who had preceded them. They were overwhelmingly ethnically Irish, agrarian, Catholic, and collectivist. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote of these Irish immigrants:
“Instead of letting politics transform them, the Irish transformed politics, establishing a political system […] like the social system of an Irish village writ large.”
Most strongly associated with these Irish immigrants was New York’s Tammany Hall, virtually synonymous with political organization, the patronage system, and political corruption. They were also very important in the union movement of the middle of the 19th century.
Politics (and union organization) was significantly more rough and tumble in those days than today but the new breed of Irish immigrants were not above pursuing their purposes through violence. Consider, for example, the case of the Molly Maguires, a violent labor organization of the 1860’s and 1870’s in Pennsylvania. Kevin Kenny wrote this of the Molly Maguires:
The actions of the “Molly Maguires” in Pennsylvania, it became clear, would make little sense unless they were placed in an Irish as well as an American context. In Ireland, the socio-economic structure of rural society in general, and of specific regions like the north-western and north-central counties, needed close attention, as did the long history of agrarian violence embodied by such shadowy groups as the “Ribbonmen,” the “Whiteboys”—and, indeed, the “Molly Maguires,” who first emerged in north-central Ireland in the 1840s and 1850s. Making sense of the American phase of the violence, in turn, required a proper understanding of patterns of immigration, labor, and religious devotion, along with the politics of anti-immigrant nativism and the origins and impact of the Civil War. The “Molly Maguires” in Pennsylvania were a rare transatlantic example of a form of violent protest deeply rooted in the Irish countryside. Bringing the Irish and American strands of their story together in a single narrative resulted in the form of history that I later began to call “transatlantic”.
Although the first Scandinavian immigrants came to the American colonies in 1638 (use of the log cabin in the colonies and the United States is attributed to them), mass immigration of Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes to the United States really took place in the second half of the 19th century, particularly in the 1860’s, 70’s, and 80’s. Lincoln’s Homestead Act of 1862 and the stabilization that followed the Civil War ensured that much of the Scandinavian immigration to this country was to the upper Midwest: Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota.
The Scandinavian tradition of collective action also led many immigrants to take active roles in American social reform movements. From the 1840s on, Scandinavian immigrants were well represented in the movement for the abolition of slavery, and with the onset of the Civil War volunteered in great numbers to fight, overwhelmingly for the Union.
Many Union companies consisted entirely of Scandinavians, and one company, from the tiny Bishop Hill community in Illinois, was made up solely of Swedes. At the turn of the century, the writer and Danish immigrant Jacob Riis led a journalistic crusade to expose the horrific living conditions endured by the inhabitants of America’s urban slums, which included many new immigrants. Riis’ book How the Other Half Lives, a classic of muckracking literature, brought about a great wave of protest and led to major housing reform in the U.S.
Many Scandinavians also took an active role in the burgeoning U.S. labor movement. Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish miners and loggers participated in strikes throughout the Great Lakes states and the mountain West, sometimes as members of the radical Industrial Workers of the World union, also known as the Wobblies. The Swedish immigrant Joe Hill, born Joel Hägglund, was a prominent IWW member and wrote many of the union’s rallying songs. After Hill was executed for murder in 1914, under what his sympathizers claimed were false pretenses, he became the subject of folk songs himself.
The Grange Movement of the 19th century, originally a movement in which farmers organized for political and economic advantage gained its greatest strength in just those areas of the country in which the Scandinavian immigrants settled. The Grange was fundamental to reforms like railway regulation, Education Extension, and Rural Free Delivery.
The Grange Movement is thought to have been the foundation for the Progressive Movement in American politics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Contributions of the Progressive Movement to the American political scene include the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, women’s suffrage, the popular election of senators, the income tax, and prohibition. Like the Grange, the Progressive Movement had its greatest influence in the upper Midwest. Notable figures in progressivism include Robert La Follette of Wisconsin and Henry Wallace (Iowa). Recent examples of notable progressive politicians include Minnesotans Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and Paul Wellman.
The relationship between 19th century progressivism and the Scandinavian immigrants is something of a “chicken or the egg” question but it’s without question that the Scandinavian immigrants had strong egalitarian beliefs when they arrived here. Additionally, the prohibition movement was strong in Norway and Sweden in the 19th century and remains so to this day.
THE NEW IMMIGRANTS
It should be obvious that immigrants arrive here with political beliefs and that these beliefs are informed by those of their country of origin. In my opinion this is neither good nor bad: it is merely a fact. The famine Irish brought with them collectivist values that manifested in this country as the remarked-on Irish “genius for politics”, the pursuit of union organization. and, sadly the willingness to use violence to achieve political ends. The Scandinavian immigrants brought with them a somewhat different collectivist set of beliefs which included labor unionism but also included egalitarian ideals. Not to mention a willingness to interfere in the hard-drinking habits of the previous Americans.
Most of our new immigrants are from Mexico and they will be no different in this respect than their predecessors: they have arrived with political ideas and beliefs they’ve brought from their homeland. I know nothing whatever of Mexican politics and will leave the commentary on that for other more knowledgeable people. But, as Mexican-Americans gain more political influence here, I suspect we’ll be learning a lot more soon.
Race Relations and Slavery Postings