About half of my ancestors immigrated to this country as a result of the aftermath of Irish famine, an event in which people were found dead on the side of the road walking hopelessly in search of food with grass stained mouths. They were that hungry. They left Ireland without legal permission and entered the United States without papers (as did every 19th century Irish immigrant. Funny how we didn’t have border patrol then.) They didn’t wait for years for visas; they just boarded ships as soon as they could. They had suffered centuries of brutal British colonialism-  yes, they were the prototype for everything England would do to every other place it claimed as its own. But they entered the United States as immigrants and not slaves, and so they had it made. Bearing the right type of bodies, they exchanged colonization for unenslaved whiteness.

The great orator, abolitionist, and statesman, Frederick Douglass, visited Ireland in the 1840s. He was greeted as a hero: rare among “European” people, the Irish generally sided with enslaved African Americans on the question of freedom. But when they stepped foot on these shores, that all changed. They rioted against black people, kicking them out of Northern factories, shops, and cities. As long as Irish immigrants controlled Northeastern docks and blocks, black people would be shoe-shines or they would be nothing at all. Irish-Americans enforced antiblackness with unsurpassed enthusiasm.

Frederick Douglass described this remarkable transformation thusly:

Passage to the United States seems to produce the same effect upon the exile of Erin as the eating of the forbidden fruit did upon Adam and Eve. In the morning, they were pure, loving, and innocent; in the evening guilty.

Know this: if you have even a single Irish Catholic ancestor who came here in the 19th century, you would not exist if Trump or Obama had been president when they tried to immigrate here. And neither would I.

There is truly nothing more disgraceful than an Irish (Catholic) American who turns their back on immigrants, refugees, or otherwise oppressed people.

I don’t want the power and dominance my Irish-American ancestors killed for; I want the independence and justice my Irish ancestors died for. Don’t you?

7 thoughts

  1. Yes, too few people know about this episode in our history. There was a documentary made about it about eight years ago, but I am having a hard time remembering its name.

  2. We heirs of the Irish are so enmeshed and conflicted. I first came to realize these connections when I read Linda Gordon’s book “The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction” many years ago (I cannot recommend it highly enough for complicating how the categories of race and immigration developed: http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674005358).

    But then two years ago, i had a very strange epiphany. On my first trip to Ireland (Nov 2017), I went to Limerick, and whilst there, discovered that Limerick was the hometown of my namesake immigrant ancestors. This launched my jet-lagged self into an online research project into my genealogy, in the wee hours of the Irish night. As I searched and clicked, I came upon a number of sources about the Chicago race riots of 1919–which was apparently the worst race riot of that year, known as the Red Summer, and one of the worst race riots in Illinois history (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago_race_riot_of_1919).

    And there, at the center of it, stood my great-grandfather, Chicago policeman, John O’Brien. The story I had heard for decades growing up, from my grandmother, was that her father had been “shot by a Black man.” That’s all I had ever heard. From the way she told it, I had assumed he died. Until that night in Nov. 2017, when I started Googling.

    The stories are varied. In all accounts, he got shot–in the arm. He didn’t die. But by one account, it looks like he fired the first shots in this debacle, and in doing so, shot three Black men (http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/4975). Grandma clearly left out the details.

    So here I sit, connected to this man. How do we process such things? Two years later, I don’t yet have an answer, but I figure God is doing some work here…..

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