Saint Patrick’s Day Belongs To The Global Irish, Past And Present

On this Saint Patrick’s Day, that most American of Irish festivals, I don’t think I can surpass the thoughts and musings of the itinerant author John Dolan, the War Nerd himself, writing for Pando in this seminal article from 2015. Describing the arrival of tens of thousands of traumatised Irish exiles in New York City in the mid-19th century, the Colorado-born writer notes that they:

…swarmed ashore from a home island that was more like Andersonville POW camp than anything from the Irish Spring commercials. It was a death camp, and it did a very good job. Ireland in 1845 was as densely populated as Java is now, with the same pattern of intense rural settlement and a population of nine million. By 1900 the population of Ireland was about three million. Nassau Senior, the leading British political economist at the time of the Famine, worried that it “…would not kill more than one million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do any good.” Moving right along, we have Lord Trevelyan, who called the Famine “…a judgment of God upon an indolent people,” which “we must not ameliorate overmuch”—do I have to dig up those other quotes, and get that pain in the left arm again? Read Amartya Senif you have a taste for this stuff. I can only do it in short bursts, holding my breath.

I don’t want to talk about it; no one did, then or now. Tennyson accepted an invitation to a vampire buddy’s Irish country house in the middle of the Famine, stipulating that he not hear one word about “Irish distress,” and insisting that the shades be pulled all the way down in the carriage he took from one Dracula castle to another. He managed not to see a single corpse.

It was a peculiar kind of genocide, quiet and still, no “violence.” It’s one thing to survive a death camp that has the decency to look and act like Hell; it’s another, and maybe worse experience to crawl out of a “free market” genocide like the Irish one, blamed alternately on botany, economics, and genetic inferiority. Nobody was shooting the Irish; the market had spoken, and it wanted them dead; or the superiority of the Saxon races had spoken, and doomed them; or the potato had betrayed them…

It was, it seemed, their own fault, a blameless crime.

Survivors of a genocide as crazy as that one were… damaged. And there were survivors, just as Nassau Senior feared there would be. Some of the doomed peasants were bundled onto the cheapest hulks that could float and dumped on the east coast of the US. They hit the docks in a state that would now be called extreme PTSD compounded by absolute destitution, and total inexperience with commercial, urban life.

It seemed, to the nervous Yankee elite of New York City, like an invasion of zombies, fast zombies of the 28 Days Later variety. Monsters. This loathing endured longer, and was voiced by more respectable figures, than you might suppose…

1882. An Irishman confronts Uncle Sam in a boarding house filled with immigrants from several countries who are attempting to sleep; the “Frenchman, Japanese, Negro, Russian, Italian,” and “German” sleep peacefully. The “Irishman” kicks up a row. He has thrown such bricks as “Irish independence” at Uncle Sam and the female figure of liberty standing on the left. He disturbs a “Chinese” man and an “Englishman,” who are in the berths next to him.

Here are some samples of what the Famine Irish got up to when they hit the streets of NYC:

55% of those arrested NYC in the 1850′s were Irish-born

35% of the prostitutes arrested in NYC in 1858 were Irish-born

70% of all admissions to Bellevue Hospital (NYC’s public hospital) in the 1850s were Irish

85% of foreign-born admissions to Bellevue Hospital (NYC’s public hospital) in the 1850s were Irish

63% of foreign-born admissions to the NYC Alms House (Poor House) 1849-1858 were Irish

56% of all prison NYC Prison commitments in 1858 were Irish-born

74% of foreign-born prison NYC Prison commitments in 1858 were Irish-born

70% of persons convicted of disorderly conduct NYC Courts of Special Sessions, 1859,  were Irish-born

74% of persons convicted of drunk and disorderly conduct NYC Courts of Special Sessions, 1859, were Irish-born

While it has become fashionable to downplay or satirise the contribution of people from Ireland to the development of the United States of America, the historical truth is greater than the myths and hyperbole obscuring it. As several historians have pointed out in recent times, roughly the same number of Irish people perished during the four years of the American Civil War as died during the four years of World War One. Yet the apologists for British rule over the island of Ireland have raised the commemoration of losses incurred while defending global imperialism above the causalities incurred while ending chattel slavery. The provocative symbol of empire, the blood-red poppy, is displayed with supremacist pride while those who would seek to remember a nobler cause are ignored or disdained.

The real meaning of Saint Patrick’s Day is not to be found on the streets of Dublin and Belfast or Cork and Derry. It is to be found with the Irish of Glasgow and London, New York and Boston, Sydney and Melbourne, and countless other places around the world.

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12 comments

  1. I am still torn about celebrating this day. Whenever a culture abandons the religion it is based on, it loses greatly. Similar to the Romans eventually disappearing after turning christian, so did the empire of the original Irish “pirates'” who took Saint Patrick hostage. Ireland was one of the few places the Romans did not venture into at the time, and for good reason. Then there is also a lot to behold in St. Patrick’s “compromise” (less though in the proto-Anglican Church Catholicism). I take the percentages quoted from the 1850’s with a great grain of salt, as this was the time the English were pushed into minority status by the Irish and even more so, the Germans, but still held the press and the government to a great extent. Of course, the statistics of the time would malign the hated farm-animals more than the brothers the Saxons originated from. But enough rhetoric and reflection, and off to a few pints (later on). “That most American of Irish festivals,” what a great description…love it.

    1. There’s a fascinating but sad historical statistic indicating that the vast majority of prostitutes in the “Wild West” were either German or Irish. The women of both nationalities became almost synonymous with sex workers. People tend to gloss over the hard and terrible realities of forced emigration. Which many Syrian women and girls are facing today.

      1. People, especially in the long-pampered so-called “Western World,” rarely have any form of concept of hardship, unless they have spent some time at war or in philanthropic endeavours in the areas of the origin of forced emigration, or other destitute realms. Even then, their experience is greatly dampened by their wealth and so far above the misery experienced by the locals, that often they still miss the mark. I don’t trust many of these “historic” statistics. They too were mostly drawn up by Brits or their relations at the time. Maligning us and our morality was then as it is now sort of a sport for them. Although granted, by Irish and Germans comprising the majority of the population moving West, that they would also represent the most sex-workers would be statistically expected. Some historic statistics also appear to indicate that most Americans have the offspring of sex-work in their heritage, if the tenure of their familial ties stretches back to that time. Calling them sons of w….s is also a Brit-favourite. The overarching influence of the English at the time can be appreciated when one considers that they do not speak German in America, despite that being their greatest proportion of ancestry.

  2. Great read,a bit off topic here but did you see bbc question time last night,it was from somewhere in sussex and one of the panelists was a snp mp,the anti scottish hostility from the rest of the panel and 95% of the audience reminded me of the 70s and 80s on the same show when the subject of ireland would come up. Little england imperielism at its best

    1. I had the misfortune to see some of Question Time and the hostility to Scotland was something to behold. We have taken Ireland’s place as hate figures. Hopefully we will soon follow Ireland to independence. (All 32 Counties).

      A poignant article, the English/British could teach the Serbs a thing or two when it comes to ethnic cleansing. I’m pretty sure that England’s population has never decreased, although strangely it makes a lot of them angry!

      As someone who believes Ireland and Scotland are extensions of each other, I wish you all a Happy St Patrick’s Day, however you celebrate it.

  3. Surely, by bringing “Christianity” to Ireland, St. Patrick effectively started the the downfall of Ireland?
    I’m really not convinced by the fairy-tale story of St. Patrick and I don’t believe that celebrating him does anything constructive for the people of Ireland. In order for Ireland to be colonised physically, it first had to be colonised psychically and the loss of its indigenous belief systems was how this was done. The name Patrick comes from the Roman aristocratic house of the Patrician, and funnily enough the 17th March was the pagan Roman holiday for Bacchus – god of wine, drinking and merriment. Alcohol has been a great weapon in colonialism.
    We’d do well to bring the “snakes” back to Ireland…

    1. Oh, I’m on the side of the natives in this. I’d rather that Patrick had stayed in Britain and repaid his sins for whatever youthful indiscretion he got up to among the British. The one that drove him back to our shores when publicly named.

  4. As an aside, I admit that I usually cringe at pieces like (guess who?) Rosita Boland’s recent piece about how Irish-Americans are totally out of touch with Ireland and rely on stereotypes. As an Irish-American myself, I often take these characterizations personally and to heart; and I know many Irish-Americans (and least in the circles I try to run in, like the Irish-speaking community, for instance) for whom this is not the case.

    However, every year I’m reminded of the deep dark truth – this past Friday in New York City was no exception. Busloads of people in from the suburbs, wearing their giant red beards and felt green hats, taking advantage of their societal pass to get inebriated in public. Stereotypes go leor and I’d give my left hand if a single one of them knew anything about Gaeilge or the basics of Irish history. It was bad. I can’t help but agree with Rosita about American cluelessness on this matter – although I suppose all you’d have to do is look at the St. Paddy’s Day speeches by most top American politicians as evidence of that. IMHO Ireland could really use a brand overhaul in the States – so that, to paraphrase O Cadhain, Ireland might be known for who she really is.

    Suil agam go raibh La Fheile Phadraig mhaith agaibh

    1. I agree with that. The brand Irish is driven by negative stereotypes we have embraced – to our detriment. You can see the same in African-American communities. Some have adopted the ghetto culture largely created and hyped via popular culture, Hollywood, television, etc. and made a version of it that has worsened their circumstances and image. Like the gangbangers who fire their handguns side-wise because of some stupid Hollywood movie which falsely portrayed the gang members firing their weapons in a similar manner on the film for “artistic” effect. Real life apes art, and then art apes real life.

    2. Could not agree more with the both of you. The American celebrations are ridiculously insane. And now its beginning to look more like that here with every passing year. Just as ASF pointed out, a whole lot of aping going on.

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