Today is St. Patrick's Day. One of my great-great grandparents was Irish, so I feel a bit justified in celebrating. Trouble is, my ancestors are Scotch-Irish--those nasty orange Protestants who made such a ruckus in Ireland that they weren't welcome.
As a child, I also was caught between ethnicities and religions--anyone not wearing green got an automatic pinch on St. Patrick's Day. There was never time to explain that the orange I was wearing also was Irish. I gave lots of history lessons to friends who thought I was making it all up.
Irish immigration--green, Catholic Irish--in the 1800s parallels some immigration patterns today. Irish immigrants, fleeing the unspeakable poverty of the Potato Famine, were not welcome in the United States. Almost 3.5 million Irishmen entered the United States between 1820 and 1880 and were despised, spat on, and taken advantage of. In 1847, Boston was swamped with 37,000 Irish immigrants. New York had more Irish-born citizens than Dublin. Most of the newcomers crowded into shantytowns with conditions so unsanitary that perhaps 80% of Irish infants born in New York City died.
Desperation led to drunken brawling. Boston saw a 400% increase in aggravated assault. The Chicago Post wrote, "The Irish fill our prisons, our poor houses... Scratch a convict or a pauper, and the chances are that you tickle the skin of an Irish Catholic. Putting them on a boat and sending them home would end crime in this country." Irish were stereotyped in cartoons as drunken brawlers, aliens whose Catholic religion meant they would never give the United States their true allegiance. Anti-Irish sentiment was so fashionable that a political party was founded to stop them from becoming naturalized citizens.
Want ads commonly said, "NO IRISH NEED APPLY." But the United States was growing and needed men to do hard, dangerous work constructing railroads, bridges and canals. One saying among those building the railroad was that "an Irishman was buried under every tie." Single women worked for wealthy families as cooks, chamber maids and nannies. None of these jobs were desirable, and many Americans agreed with the saying, "Let Negroes be servants, and if not Negroes, let Irishmen fill their place..."
The 1848 St. Patrick's Day Parade was not the first, but it was the largest ever. The tradition continues and this parade is now the world's oldest civilian parade and the largest in the United States. Everyone is Irish for a day, wearing green, eating corned beef and sprouting shamrocks.
The acceptance the Irish eventually won likely had as much to do with immigration of people from other countries (Slavs, Italian) as the 'Americanization' of the Irish. Typically the most recent immigrant is the most despised.
Not hard to see the parallels with our current situation. In fact, newspaper accounts of what unsavory people the Irish were thought to be sound just like current derogatory statements about people coming from south of the border. Hard to believe that descendants of these Irish immigrants include respected and popular leaders Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, Dorothy Day, Henry Ford, Helen Hayes, Grace Kelly, Sandra Day O'Connor, Georgia O'Keefe and Ed Sullivan (and thousands more!). But also important to note, according to a current Irish-American immigration website, is that under our current immigration system, neither Reagan nor Kennedy's Irish ancestors could immigrate legally now.
Today, as on most St. Patrick's Days, I'll make Irish soda bread. I began my tradition as a young adult and make the sweet bread version with raisins. Now I know this was never made in Ireland, where peasants used coarse brown flours for their soda bread. Perhaps it is appropriate that the bread I make is a U.S. recipe, rather than one from Ireland. But this year as I eat the bread, I'll be wondering what we will miss if we close our country's doors to our current waves of immigrants. My ancestors got in before there were immigration laws or a quota system. Wonder whose ancestors can't get documents today?
Irish Soda Bread
(About 20 servings)
4 c. all-purpose flour
1 tbsp. baking powder
2 tsp salt
1 tsp soda
¼ c. butter
¼ c. white sugar
1 ½ c. raisins (if dry, cover with boiling water; soak for 10 minutes; drain)
1 ¾ c. buttermilk
Whisk the flour, baking powder, salt and soda together in a large bowl. Cut in the butter until the mixture is a fine crumb consistency. Mix in sugar and raisins. Beat the egg into the buttermilk and add, stirring thoroughly. If needed, add a bit more flour to make a soft dough. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead a few minutes until smooth. Divide the dough into two round balls, trying to leave no raisins on the outer edge where they tend to burn. Set on a large, greased, baking sheet. Cut a deep cross in each with a sharp knife. Bake in a pre-heated 350-degree oven for 40-50 minutes (covering with foil toward the end if getting too brown). Loaves are finished when a knock on the bottom sounds hollow. To eat, slather your slices with butter as the Irish do.