20 Mar 2014

Not Just St. Patty’s Day

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On March 17th, Rockaway Care Center held an ice cream social in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. Every American knows about St. Patrick’s Day, but what do we really know about the Irish, and specifically, about Irish immigration to the United States?  We tend to think of some association with the Potato Famine, but who even knows when that was?

When we think Irish, we think heavy drinkers. We think rowdy. We think Catholic. And we think green-suited mischievous leprechauns holding the requisite four-leaf clover. But what is the actual history of Irish Americans?

Firstly, the majority of Irish immigrants to the United States did come during the Potato Famine years, a period of mass starvation and consequent Irish diaspora between 1845 and 1852.  Just about a decade before the American Civil War, societal identity questions were coming to a hilt – in parallel comes an influx of over a million Irish immigrants.

Creatures of tight community ties, the Irish preferred to move to big cities, namely Boston and New York. Penniless upon arrival, they were forced to accept menial jobs and thereby were associated with the lowest rungs of society. Unemployment among Irish immigrants was high since there were only so many low-level jobs to go around. Rental situations were abominable because landlords, unbarred by any regulation at the time, could charge rent for the most despicable crowding and unsanitary settings.  Living conditions deescalated to the point where the term “Irish slum” seemed redundant when describing their neighborhoods. It’s no wonder many turned to the bottle. And being community oriented, they turned to the bottle together. Hence the rowdy, alcoholic stereotype of the Irish.

The turning point for acceptance by American society came with the Civil War, when almost 200,000 Irish-born citizens fought. They gained confidence in themselves, and others saw them as equals. Fast forward to today, over a century and a half later, and the Irish are like most other American melting pot citizens who’ve been here for decades, if not centuries – you’d have to query them to find out their background. Many Irish retain a sincere fondness for their communities both in culture and religion. And the Irish influence on American culture actually dates back a century even before their large influx: Nine Irish men signed the Declaration of Independence and twenty were generals in Washington’s army.

In 1991, both US presidents designated March as Irish American Heritage Month in order to spread the word about Irish immigrants’ influence on US history and to dispel stereotypes.  There’s much to learn. Take the opportunity to find out who at Rockaway Care Center might have Irish ancestry, and get to know how they were influenced by their culture. In doing so, you’ll get to know a piece of American history you might not have known before.


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