They were the poorest of the poor, starving, whole families running for their lives, crossing an ocean, trying to escape a catastrophe that eventually killed more than a million souls. Two million made it out alive to waiting ships, but then many died on the journey to a find a safe harbor.
Overall, they were reviled when they landed as not quite human, described by one observer as “brutal, base … creatures that crawl and eat dirt and poison every community they infest.”
History doesn’t repeat itself, Mark Twain allegedly said, but it rhymes. We can understand that truth comparing the history of the mid-19th century Irish famine with mass immigration today as millions flee poverty and oppression.
Donald Trump opened his campaign for the presidency by calling Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers. His first presidential act was an attempt to ban people from our shores because they didn’t have the correct religion (rhyming with anti-Catholic mobs descending on impoverished Irish communities in New York and Philadelphia in ethnic cleansing operations).
The president has compared some nations to open latrines. If Mr. Trump ever investigated the situation in Ireland during the famine we’re sure he would include Erin in his obscene defamation.
He appointed Jeff Sessions attorney general, an anti-immigrant zealot and one of the finest minds to have never left the Confederate States of America.
Mr. Trump has said he wants “merit-based” immigration to select only highly-skilled individuals. That would have stopped the Irish — and every other nationality, for that matter — from coming, since most of the people arrived with skills limited to subsistence farming.
On this St. Patrick’s Day, it’s more than disheartening to list names such as Bannon, Kelly, Ryan, McConnell, Mulvaney, Pence and McCarthy, all powerful public officials, who will proudly wear green and support the president in his callous, inhumane immigration policy.
These men are an example of what an Irish-American Chicago alderman told the Irish Times recently: “Being Irish-American has become a benefit to the Irish. In the past being Irish-American was something you had to overcome . . . You don’t have to stay in shape if you’re not going to fight anybody.”
Or to put it another way, there’s the old expression once heard in Irish neighborhoods: “Once the Irish get the wrinkles out of their bellies, they forget where they came from.” Translation — a smooth, full belly produces amnesia.
This St. Patrick’s Day there’s much to celebrate about the long march of an impoverished, oppressed people to prosperity and freedom.
One local editor remembers when he was a little boy being awakened by his father in the middle of a November night and having his first thimble-sip of champagne to celebrate something he didn’t quite comprehend — the first Irish-Catholic elected president. Soon he did understand, and has never forgotten what it meant to his father.
Raise a glass today and have fun. Remember where you came from, and those who are on their way.