The Irish Were Unwanted Immigrants, Too

An estimated 6 million Irish people have emigrated to the US since 1820. The peak of Irish emigration resulted from the Great Famine of 1845-1852.

And you know what? They were not met with open arms. And the suspicion and prejudice lasted a long time.

In the 1840s, ginned up by rumors that the Irish Catholics were demanding the St. James Bible used in the public schools be replaced with the Catholic bible, Catholic neighborhoods and churches were burned in Philadelphia:

In 1844, the Bible controversy intensified in the district of Kensington, a suburb to the northeast of Philadelphia City and home to many Irish immigrants, both Protestant and Catholic. In February, Hugh Clark (1796-1862), a Catholic school director there, suggested suspending Bible reading until the school board could devise a policy acceptable to Catholics and Protestants alike. Nativists saw this as a threat to their liberty and as a chance to mobilize voters, and they rallied by the thousands in Independence Square. On May 3, 1844 they rallied in Kensington itself but were chased away.

The first serious violence broke out three days later. On May 6, the nativists reassembled in Kensington, provoking another fight, during which a young nativist named George Shiffler (1825-44) was fatally shot. By day’s end, a second man—apparently a bystander—was dead, and several more nativists were wounded, two mortally. The next day, the First Brigade of the Pennsylvania Militia, commanded by Brigadier General George Cadwalader (1806-79), responded to the sheriff’s call for help. The troops faced little direct resistance, but they proved unable to stop people from starting new fires. On May 8, mobs gutted several private dwellings (including Hugh Clark’s house), a Catholic seminary, and two Catholic churches: St. Michael’s at Second Street and Master and St. Augustine’s at Fourth and Vine. Only a flood of new forces—including citizen posses, city police, militia companies arriving from other cities, and U.S. army and navy troops—ended the violence by May 10.

The city remained superficially calm for the next eight weeks, but both nativists and Catholics anticipated further violence. In Southwark—an independent district south of Philadelphia City and a seat of nativist strength—a Catholic priest’s brother began stockpiling weapons in the basement of the Church of St. Philip de Neri on Queen Street. On Friday, July 5, a crowd of thousands gathered to demand the weapons. When the crowd reassembled the following day, the sheriff requested militia troops, and Cadwalader led about two hundred into Southwark. Saturday ended without bloodshed, but the situation remained tense, with a small group of militia—some of them Irish Catholics themselves—guarding the church and a group of nativist prisoners inside it.

I bring this up because so many of the MAGA crowd (at least in my neck of the woods) are of Irish descent, yet have so little empathy for the plight of contemporary migrants. (My great grandfather was an Irish Protestant from Donegal who married my English Catholic great grandmother, Elizabeth Lamon. She told my mother and her sisters stories about having to sneak the babies out of the house to have them baptized.)

No wonder I’m conflicted!

The only people I know who aren’t immigrants are people like my friend M.B., who’s an Abenaki Indian. The rest of us had ancestors who came over on one boat or another, and most of them had a hard path. Maybe there’s a lesson in compassion there.

(The above video is a flash mob set in Galway, singing along with Mundy and Sharon Shannon to “Galway Girl,” which became a monster hit in Ireland years after being written and released by native Texan Steve Earle. See? Melting pots aren’t such a bad thing!)

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