REFUGEE CRISIS: Over 150 years ago, the Irish were refugees forced into exile by a humanitarian and political crisis. Nearly 2 Million Irish crossed the Atlantic Ocean seeking a better life in America. The potato famine had devastated Ireland, along with the tyrannical rule of the British crown.
GREAT BRITIAN FIRST: British lawmakers were reluctant to offer government aid. Charles E. Trevelyan, the British civil servant in charge of relief efforts, said, “The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated.”
THE BRITS WERE NOT SENDING THEIR BEST PEOPLE: Unlike the industrious Protestant Scotch-Irish immigrants from the colonial era, they disliked that these people were poor, unskilled, and even worse, they were Catholic! The ancestors of Anglo-Saxon Protestants had already made their exodus across the ocean to escape Catholic influences and now they were coming to America! They couldn’t tolerate it.
CONSPIRACY THEORIES: “Conspiracy Theories in American History: An Encyclopedia” states some Protestants at that time feared the pope and his army would land in the U.S., overthrow the government and establish a new Vatican. They believed the Irish would impose the Catholic canon as the law of the land.
“TAKE THEIR COUNTRY BACK”: The Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, formed in New York by native-born Protestant men, wanted a return to the America they once knew. A land of “Temperance, Liberty, and Protestantism. They formed the American Party, who wore their anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant views like a badge of honor. Their nickname was the “Know-Nothings” because they claimed to know nothing when questioned about their politics. They believed America should be solely Protestant. Once they were in power in Massachusetts, the Know-Nothings required the reading of the King James Bible in public schools, disbanded Irish militia units, and deported around 300 poor Irish back to Liverpool.
VOTER SUPRESSION: The Know-Nothings barred naturalized citizens from voting unless they spent 21 years in the U.S. In Kentucky, their members guarded polling stations on an election day. The bitter rivalry of Know-Nothings against Democrats from Irish and German neighborhoods led to riots, street fights, destruction of property by fire, and the death of twenty-two people. August 6, 1855 became known as Bloody Monday.
NO LONGER DISCRIMINATED AGAINST: Eventually, the Irish gained respectability. They were no longer discriminated against because along came a new group of immigrants to despise from China and South and Eastern Europe. They must have forgotten their own experience because Workingmen’s party leader Denis Kearney said in a speech to American laborers, “Whatever happens, the Chinese must go.”
A TOAST TO OUR IRISH ROOTS: A Gaelic Blessing: May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face. The rains fall soft upon your fields, and until me meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.
Research for this story from History.com/This Day in History
Photo credit: St. Patricks Day, Lucky charm by alexraths/depositphotos.com