The Irish know about ‘receiving end of bigotry’


Edward T. Calnan

When I consider the notion of bigotry I am reminded of what my parents, who were immigrants from Ireland, experienced and what we, their children, experienced as first-generation Americans. As Irish citizens my parents grew up in a country as subjects of a colonial power that, over an 800-year period, subjected them and their ancestors to cruel injustices and brutal oppression in a program of ethnic cleansing that was as bad as the world had seen to that point. Through a series of punitive laws priests were killed for saying Mass; small farmers were evicted from their fertile holdings, which were then given to others; education was forbidden; and the Gaelic language was outlawed.

In the mid-1500s Oliver Cromwell appeared on the scene and he and his army swept across Ireland indiscriminately killing men, women and children. He captured more than 50,000 Irish, mostly women and children, herded them aboard sailing ships and transported them to the West Indies. There they were sold to plantation owners in Barbados and other islands for slave labor in the sugarcane fields. The Irish were among the first slaves in the Western Hemisphere.

In the early part of the 20th century the Irish once again tried to throw off the yoke of oppression. And this time, through a series of events, they were successful. The first event was a long labor strike by the Transport and General Workers Union in Dublin in 1913. Next came the armed Easter Uprising in Dublin 1916. Finally, in 1919, Ireland’s War of Independence was launched. My father fought in this war when he was in his late teens. In mid-1921 a truce was called by England and, for the first time in 800 years, Ireland became self-ruling and on the way to establishing a republic.

Great numbers of the Irish arrived in this country in the mid-1800s to escape poverty and widespread hunger in Ireland. They were opposed by anti-Irish nativist gangs that formed a secretive entity called The American Party, also known as the “Know Nothings” and their bigoted rhetoric led to violent attacks on the newcomers. This was the period when “No Irish Need Apply” signs were hung in windows of businesses. Caricatures of the Irish as ape-like barbarians prone to lawlessness, laziness and drunkenness abounded. So after all this, I would say the Irish know a thing or two about how it feels to be on the receiving end of bigotry.

My parents met in the mid-1920s upon their arrival in this country. They settled in the Brickyard section of Lynn. Before long the family grew to include eight children. The Brickyard could be described in those days as a multi-cultural, multi-racial place. There were many nationalities living there. Besides Irish there were Italians, Greeks, French, Polish, Lithuanians, West Indians, Armenians, Scots and Chinese, among others. Whites were prominent but Blacks and Asians were part of the mosaic as well. The one thing we had in common was a recognition that most of us were poor.

Stereotypical terms such as harps, thick micks, paddies, greenhorns, lace curtain Irish, kitchen canaries and other names were prevalent in describing the Irish in the neighborhood. The police wagon was called the Paddy Wagon and the term is still used by some people and is as objectionable to Irish people now as it was many years ago. To be sure, the stereotypes existed for each of the nationalities in the neighborhood and the Irish were as guilty as any others in exploiting the differences of the groups. I’m just glad that through education and time spent in getting to know others as individuals, we’ve collectively determined that we have more in common with each other than we have differences.

For many Irish people St. Patrick’s Day is a holy day. It’s also a day that is celebrated by people the world over whether they’re Irish or not. Besides honoring our patron saint, it is a way to celebrate the waning of winter and the promise of a warmer spring. It’s a very social day, people aren’t expecting presents and they can just have a good time. Greeting-card companies, however, hold on to some of the themes of those bygone days and cartoon-like images that display the Irish in many of the old and hurtful ways can be found in any store selling St. Patrick’s Day cards.

Some years ago the national office of the Ancient Order of Hibernians urged their local divisions to be vigilant and to protest directly to local merchants. One of my local heroes in this regard was Joe Kidney, division 10 president who took it upon himself each year around St. Patrick’s Day to visit local merchants and talk to them about it. Joe delivered his message in a polite but firm way as he described how the most egregious cards offended Irish people. Most of these business people were fair and bought into Joe’s argument, removing the cards in question. Joe did his part along with others across the country to blunt the effects of bigotry in a small, but meaningful way.

Many lessons can be learned from the Irish immigration experience as well as the experience of other nationalities that encountered bigotry during their journeys to assimilate and to become an integral part of American society. Everyone here now is an immigrant in the historical sense. We need to be more sensitive to that reality. The present-day newcomers to our country should be given the chance we had without being disparaged because of their accents, beliefs and customs. We need to get to know people better to dispel feelings of suspicion and create a welcoming atmosphere. We will all be stronger for it.

Edward T. Calnan is a former city councilor and director of community development in Lynn.

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