St. Patrick's Day and Irish Immigration

By Andy Urban, PhD candidate in History at the University of Minnesota. IHRC Affiliated Faculty

Although the media coverage leading up to this year’s St. Patrick’s Day has highlighted how Catholic leaders have tried to make sure that the holiday’s festive nature and secular activities do not interfere with start of the more somber occasion of Holy Week, those interested in immigration history might think about the significance of ethnic holidays in relationship to the larger story of migration and assimilation.

In a blog on the New York Times website that has elicited a lot of comments [http://egan.blogs.nytimes.com/?scp=1-b&sq=Egan&st=nyt], Timothy Egan provides a brief history of the city of Butte, Montana, which in the early-twentieth century had a larger per capita population of Irish immigrants than any other city in the United States. Egan argues that rather than dwelling on the “blarney and excess in celebration of all things Irish? that St. Patrick’s Day typically engenders, Americans would be better off remembering the Irish diaspora’s troubled history and the fact that in his Irish-American opinion, “misery is our currency.? For Egan, this means focusing on the various famines that drove the Irish to leave Ireland in the first place, and the often brutal conditions that greeted them in places like the mines of Butte.

Although I appreciate Egan’s point about infusing the holiday with “real? Irish and Irish American history, he misses the point that from its very beginnings, St. Patrick’s Day in the United States was about playing up the good and ignoring the bad. In the nineteenth century, Irish American leaders praised Protestant Scots-Irish who contributed ideological ammunition to the American Revolution alongside the Irish Catholic foot soldiers who died for the Union Army.

I think that St. Patrick’s Day would best be refitted as an ecumenical holiday celebrating all immigrants and their contributions, as an editorial from MIT’s newspaper argued a number of years back [http://www-tech.mit.edu/V118/N14/ring.14c.html]. Irish Americans could maintain their special connection to the holiday by presenting their forbearers as the first significant non-Anglo, non-Protestant, and non-coerced migrant group to come to the United States. In this regard, the Irish had to bear many of the burdens (although not all) that immigrants from around the world would later face.

If activism can be introduced into this new-fangled holiday: even better. Although in the past decade a greater number of Irish immigrants have left the United States to return to Ireland and take advantage of the country’s thriving economy than have come here, as an article in the San Francisco Chronicle notes, there are still approximately 50,000 undocumented Irish immigrants living in the United States [http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2006/03/15/IRISH.TMP]
. Activists in San Francisco have sought to use St. Patrick’s day as a forum and opportunity to discuss immigration reform and the fact that undocumented immigrants do not only come from Mexico and other Latin American countries, despite popular conceptions. I’ll drink a beer to that.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by herna130 published on March 17, 2008 3:51 PM.

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