A reflection by Elizabeth Mount
Many of you may be out wearing green and having green foods and drinks to celebrate this lovely day of remembrance of the culture of Ireland on the day of a Catholic saint remembered for “driving the snakes out of Ireland.” In our festivities and joy, I like to take some time to think about the Irish in America and Ireland’s own history as a complex mirror of many of the racial and ethnic prejudices and practices that have shaped American history and our current political landscape.
The Irish came to America in large part because of prejudicial policies enacted against the Irish people by the British from the initial conquering and especially after the English win at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Following this date, the English Protestants suppressed the mostly Catholic native population more completely. Food exports and land ownership practices that exacerbated the Potato Blight’s effect on the Irish people led to successive waves of Irish migration overseas to North America.
The Irish who came to our shores were not welcomed initially, and reading the book How the Irish Became White gives an interesting perspective on the changing nature of “whiteness” in American systems of racial privilege. As a result, many of the Irish immigrants became allies or integrated their communities and politics with Blacks and other racial minorities. In the Irish immigrants sent to fight in the Mexican-American War understood that fight as analogous to their own struggles and fought on the Mexican side in 1847 in the Batallón de San Patricio (St. Patrick’s Battalion), while Irish in the East lived alongside and intermarried into Black communities in the 1830s-1860s.
Unitarian and Universalist thinkers of the day were aware of these issues and “Ralph Waldo Emerson [a Unitarian, wrote] in response to nativists in 1845: “In this continent — asylum of all races — the energy of the Irish, Germans, Swedes, Poles and Cossacks, and all the European tribes — of the Africans, of the Polynesians – will construct a new race, a new religion, a new state, a new literature, which will be as vigorous as the new Europe which came out of the smelting-pot of the Dark Ages.” His Concord neighbor, Louisa May Alcott [and a Universalist], published a short story in 1863 featuring an interracial marriage as the happy ending.”
Learning about the history of racism and, more importantly, the history of what we would now understand as cross-racial organizing against oppression gives our struggles today context and inspires me to action. I hope it will inspire you as well to commit on this St. Paedrig’s Day to be involved in social justice struggles in whatever way speaks to you in the coming year. That would be a true celebration of our Irish heritage.