St. Patrick and immigration

Mar. 16, 2014 @ 04:55 PM

Millions of Americans with no trace of Irish blood are celebrating and reveling in Irish culture today – or perhaps they have done so over the weekend, a more convenient time to celebrate than a Monday.

Today is St. Patrick’s Day, a much-cherished holiday whether those observing it know much more than it’s the feast day – and believed to be the date of death – of the British-born -Irish saint who is credited with introducing Christianity to Ireland.

St. Patrick’s Day has been seen as a welcome brief respite from the self-denial of Lent and as the sign that spring can’t be far away. With the weather forecast here calling for the prospect of “wintry mix” today and Tuesday, we need a sign this endless winter is nearly over.

But today also should be a reminder this country – founded by immigrants – has long been conflicted over other countries’ citizens flocking to our shores. It is, of course, a debate that resonates to this day as we are ponder how to deal with millions of Latin Americans in this country, many without legal documentation to be here.

The first St. Patrick’s Day parade is believed to have been in New York City in 1762 when Irish soldiers with the British army “marched through New York City … to reconnect with their Irish roots,” according to National Geographic’s website.

The holiday became “a way to honor the saint but also to confirm ethnic identity and to create bonds of solidarity,” wrote Timothy Meagher, an expert on Irish-American history at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

And in 18th and 19th century America – and well into the 20th – Irish who settled here needed solidarity. 

“Ill will toward Irish immigrants because of their poor living conditions, and their willingness to work for low wages was often exacerbated by religious conflict,” notes a Library of Congress web page. “Centuries of tension between Protestants and Catholics found their way into United States cities and verbal attacks often led to mob violence. For example, Protestants burned down St. Mary’s Catholic Church in New York City in 1831, while in 1844, riots in Philadelphia left 13 dead.”

As Irish immigration surged, prejudice was evident in infamous “NINA” signs – no Irish need apply” often posted alongside “no dogs allowed” signs.

There are more than a few echoes of those signs in the anti-immigration rhetoric in the United States today.  While the U. S. Senate has passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill, it is stalled in the even more ideologically divided House of Representatives.

Here in North Carolina, the Associated Press reported this weekend a new study has even some sponsors of stringent immigration laws acknowledging they may be redundant. That’s a long way from embracing our immigrant neighbors, but at least it may slow some of the severest legislation.

As we broadly celebrate the Irish this country once broadly reviled, perhaps it is not too much to hope that in another generation, we may celebrate Cinco de Mayo with the same universal enthusiasm.