Catherine Durkin Robinson: Irish-Americans were once despised immigrants

In my home, framed paintings, degrees, and pictures hang on the walls in every room. But two important frames hold historical documents — primarily to remind my children that we, our people, didn’t always enjoy acceptance, inclusion and opportunity here in this country.

One is a Thomas Nast cartoon from the 1800s depicting the Irishman as both ape and disease — one that was ruining America. The other is a sign that hung in Boston businesses in the early 1900s. It says, “Help Wanted. No Irish Need Apply.”

My ancestors, immigrants from Ireland, faced religious ignorant nativists to fight for a better life for themselves and their descendants. For me and my kids, essentially. We owe them a commitment to never forget that sacrifice.

And we owe present-day immigrants the dignity we were denied.

Let’s go back a few years.

St. Patrick, the man we celebrate today, was a slave for a time. He broke free from bondage and never bitterly formed a terrorist organization or right-wing blog. Imagine that? Instead, he devoted his life to ending slavery.

He wasn’t completely successful. Between 1641 and 1652, the British killed more than half a million Irish and forced another 300,000 into servitude while taking over the country.

In the 1800s, the Irish endured The Great Famine, which killed hundreds of thousands because the potato, a main source of food, suffered a fungus. Meanwhile, the British exported most of the edible food to Great Britain — leaving the Irish to starve.

At the same time, Ireland lost most of its greatest source of strength – its people – to America. Many of the millions who didn’t flee perished, hungry children and their parents with mouths stained green from the grass they tried to eat while dying.

And yet, Irish nationalism grew during this awful time, and as anti-Irish laws continued, the Irish people got stronger — and more defiant.

Immigrants here were tough, too. They came to America seeking freedom, but instead lived in harsh conditions similar to those faced back home. This is something almost all immigrants can relate to.

My ancestors were derided for sending money back home to Ireland — helping to support parents and relatives who couldn’t make the trip seemed un-American to some. They were regularly portrayed in The New York Times as drunks who caused trouble and didn’t deserve any civil rights.

Organizations like Tammany Hall and The Ancient Order of Hibernians encouraged Irish-Americans to stick together and find work wherever they could, maintaining pride and dignity above all.

Irish immigrants used church, pubs, civic organizations, political involvement, intelligence, honor and humor to rise above their sad conditions, encouraging their children to study and work hard so that future generations wouldn’t have the same struggles.

That is also what we celebrate today.

That’s where we come back to those frames on my wall and the lesson they teach for anyone who cares to learn.

Whenever Irish-American pundits and politicians insult current immigrants, using centuries-old arguments that were used against us, I cringe.

Living in segregated neighborhoods, speaking a native tongue other than English, sending money back home, clinging to religion, having lots of babies, waving the home country’s flag, parading through neighborhoods with loud ethnic pride, taking menial jobs, and becoming politically active in a way that made the establishment nervous — that’s what we did. We were hated and feared.

It’s a recent development that the Irish are now in a place where we feel comfortable suppressing others, suggesting anti-immigrant policies and laws, cheering for an armed border or fence to keep people out, and all the while making it ever more difficult for present-day immigrants to become authentic Americans.

Let’s learn from the past and stop discriminating against our newest arrivals. We’re better than that. Or should be.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

Catherine Durkin Robinson is a political advocate and organizer, living in Tampa. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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