The Unspoken Ghosts of Irish-Americans
March 17th is the feast of St. Patrick, the most important holiday of the year for Irish Americans.
There were worse things in Early America than being a black slave. It’s probably surprising to learn that being an Irish slave was one of them. Early Irish settlers also filled the same service roles in American society, then, as claimed by illegal Hispanics today.
Ireland had no defense forces until about 1913 so its people were captured and enslaved by many nations. They endured more oppression than American blacks and suffered living conditions not unlike Jews of the Holocaust. But harboring grudges against ghosts of heritages past was not a mainstay for the Irish. They had more important things to do.
We know so little of the Irish’s torturous American history because of their impressive will to live beyond victimizations rather than living in them. America’s Irish are prime examples of sheer personal determination turning adversity into stepping stones to a better life. Their devout faith in God undoubtedly served them well, then and now.
As a small-town Protestant from the Midwest my knowledge of St. Patrick’s Day was limited to coloring shamrocks spun from school mimeograph machines; the once-a-year reprieve for pinching classmates if they hadn’t worn green; and images of leprechauns lounging alongside that illusive pot of gold at the end of a just as illusive rainbow. It wasn’t until an adult career landed me in New York City that I came to know the holiday and the roles Irish Americans continue to play in our country’s legacy of freedom.
New York City’s parade was my first St. Patrick’s Day parade and it doesn‘t get any better than that. Crowds were so encompassing that even Manhattan’s street traffic came to a halt for the bustling business of glittering green hats, flailing flags, drifting confetti, waving banners, and throngs of the highest-energy people I’ve ever seen come together in an endless string of pubs only then recognized bearing Irish surnames. If you couldn’t legitimately claim an Ireland County as your own by the time day was done you’d adopted one or they’d adopted you. That’s how the Irish roll.
I was a clean slate for learning the true character of Irish Americans from descendants who’d walked off their ships at Ellis Island so many years ago. Their impressively bold dispositions can scantly be found in other of America’s melting pot. The Irish stealthily, dauntlessly and eagerly acclimated to America, setting aside a past much worse than what others today find so ‘inescapable.’ We hear, even today, unending wails of grievous discontents that go back a hundred years or are as recent as the Irish settlers’ once were. The Irish have “been there, seen that, done that.” And what’s glaring from all of that is, who among us even knew?
Who was St. Patrick?
St. Patrick (387-461) was born in Scotland on the cusp of Christian evolution sweeping through the Roman Empire. Patrick’s parents were Roman and lived in Britain where they managed colonies. Ireland was still ruled by Druid pagans when Irish pirates captured Patrick as a young teenager. During his years in pagan captivity Patrick learned Ireland’s language, its people and its customs.
Isolated as a sheep herder Patrick turned to God, spending much of his time in prayer. At age 20 he escaped and returned to his family in Britain but Patrick felt God-called to go back to Ireland and convert its people to Christianity. He spent 40-years teaching and baptizing Ireland’s kings as well as its common folks.
From Catholic Online:
Patrick was a humble, pious, gentle man, whose love and total devotion to and trust in God should be a shining example to each of us. He feared nothing, not even death, so complete was his trust in God, and of the importance of his mission.
Slavery has been around since the beginning of time typically resulting from the spoils of war. By the 1500-1600’s England’s slave trade was a bloodthirsty industry in the New World under Queen Elizabeth I, daughter of King Henry VIII. The Irish were some of the first slaves traded, not the least of those traders being experienced Muslims. From “Irish Slave Trade – The Forgotten White Slaves” by John Martin:
Ireland quickly became the biggest source of human livestock for English merchants. The majority of the early slaves to the New World were actually white.
The African slave trade was just beginning during this same period. It is well recorded that African slaves, not tainted with the stain of the hated Catholic theology and more expensive to purchase, were often treated far better than their Irish counterparts.
[Jamaican English] settlers began to breed Irish women and girls with African men to produce slaves with a distinct complexion. These new “mulatto” slaves brought a higher price than Irish livestock and, likewise, enabled the settlers to save money rather than purchase new African slaves.
From Jim Cavanaugh in “Irish Slavery:”
Although the Africans and Irish were housed together and were the property of the planter owners, the Africans received much better treatment, food and housing.
The first Irish slaves were sold to a settlement on the Amazon River In South America in 1612. It would probably be more accurate to say that the first “recorded” sale of Irish slaves was in 1612.
Although African Negroes were better suited to work in the semi-tropical climates of the Caribbean, they had to be purchased, while the Irish were free for the catching, so to speak. It is not surprising that Ireland became the biggest source of livestock for the English slave trade.
More Irish were sold as slaves to the American colonies and plantations from 1651 to 1660 than the total existing “free” population of the Americas. There has been a lot of whitewashing of the Irish slave trade, partly by not mentioning it, and partly by labeling slaves as indentured servants.
Throughout the 1600-1700s the Irish settled in Early American colonies and by the 1860s they were among America’s greatest Civil War heroes, renowned for their bravery and leadership. Their competence, patriotic enthusiasm and ingrained confidence in overcoming obstacles helped to diminish some of the religious bigotry against them in a predominantly Protestant America. Of this Civil War Irish History writes:
“There is perhaps no other ethnic group so closely identified with the Civil War years and the immediate aftermath of the war as Irish Americans.”
But “despite their wartime heroics many Irish veterans came home to find the same ugly bias they faced before going off to fight for the Union.”
The Irish American Legacy
America‘s Irish are a resilient breed of forgiving spirits who constantly look for their next positive outcome rather than wallowing one iota in their pasts. They are a living example of “where there’s a will there’s a way.“ Given how triumphantly contagious and critical that mindset is to successes of any kind, the Irish have strengthened our country’s fiber beyond what can merely be recorded of them in history.
While some of America’s melting pot are still stuck spinning their wheels in the mud of old resentments, intent to find new ways to revive dead victimizations, the Irish clear those hurdles without any measure of stumbling. The article, “Irish Americans,” aptly coins an enthusiastic gratitude for American freedom that the Irish brought with them and continue to live out of today:
“The first time I saw the Statue of Liberty all the people were rushing to the side of the boat. ‘Look at her, look at her,’ and in all kinds of tongues. ‘There she is, there she is,’ like it was somebody who was greeting them.”
Thank you, Irish Americans, for interweaving your phenominal strength of character, for straightening the backbone of positive thinking, for your exemplary leadership, and for doing it all in the name of America’s freedom. You are an immovable boulder on our climb upward through American Exceptionalism. Happy St. Patrick’s Day.