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The Irish-American Story: From immigration to discrimination to assimilation to celebration

The first day of Irish Heritage Month seems like a good time to recognize the remarkable story of Irish-Americans – from the humblest of beginnings upon their arrival on America’s shores, to the vitriolic discrimination they faced and overcame, to their rapid assimilation in a new country, to a celebration of their lofty and innumerable contributions even as they maintain a deep pride in their heritage and ethnicity.

What an incredible story it is!

I’ve had the opportunity to research and write about the Irish experience in two of my books, A City So Grand (2010), which details their arrival in Boston in great numbers between 1847-1860; and in my most recent book, Voyage of Mercy (2020), which chronicles the brutality of the Irish famine of 1846-47 and the unprecedented and beneficent humanitarian response from American citizens to the suffering of the Irish people.

I’ve also been blessed to have married into a large Irish family, of which I’ve been a part for more than forty years. My wife, Kate, her twelve siblings, her legion of cousins, her dear late parents and their siblings, all trace their ancestry with pride back to the Old Sod. 

So I feel like I know as much about the Irish-American experience as any Italian-American guy can — their story is not so different from the saga of my own people.

To use Boston as an example, thousands of Irish, who had witnessed such devastation in their own country – who saw it transformed from a nation of bucolic splendor to a blight-infested isle of death – arrived in their adopted city to find not succor but prejudice, not welcome but suspicion and contempt. Boston’s close Yankee society, its deep anti-Catholicism, its often condescending intellectualism, its insistence that “Irish need not apply” – all of these were completely foreign to, and conspired against, the bedraggled Irish who stepped weakly off the coffin ships and sought refuge among her narrow streets. It rocked the Irish and left them disillusioned and dispirited.

But not broken – far from it.

Boston’s Irish had survived the destruction wrought by the famine, survived the deadly Atlantic passage, and they would survive – and soon thrive! – in Boston by virtue of their resilience, faith, family bonds, hard work, and perseverance that kept them going through the darkest of times. They overcame poverty and discrimination, took any work they could find – cleaning stables, unloading ships, digging trenches, laying foundations, working as domestic help – to earn money, save money, buy homes, and become citizens. They fought bravely for the Union in the Civil War, returned, built communities, voted, and ran for office.

By 1880, more than 70,000 Irish lived in the city. By 1882, Boston elected its first Irish-born representative to Congress; and the first Irish born mayor took office in 1885. By this time, Boston had undergone a stunning conversion in an amazingly short time – about 30 years; it was clearly becoming an Irish and a Catholic city. The Irish domination of the city – in politics, in public service, in the cultural influence of music, pubs, and literature – continued for well over a century. President John F. Kennedy, a descendant of post-famine immigrants, was only exaggerating a little when he made his highly celebrated 1961 visit to Ireland, the first ever by a sitting president. He said: “Nearly everyone in Boston is from Galway.”

It’s easy today to think the success of the Irish, or any group that begins its journey in abject poverty, was somehow preordained. But of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The Irish were among the first European immigrants to arrive in the United States on such a broad scale – and the odds were stacked against them in almost too many ways to count. Their rapid assimilation and their meteoric upward mobility, were far from foregone conclusions.

So this month, whether you’re Irish or not, celebrate the spirit of the Irish and the Irish-American story. Both were forged amid terrible hardship, strengthened by an irrepressible character to overcome them, and burnished by loyalty, resilience, perseverance, and love of family and friends.

Characteristics we should all tip our hat to – and all emulate.