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No Irish Need Apply

October 26, 2018
By Darren Fraser , Emmetsburg News

I am a fan of the Irish band The Pogues. Lead singer and lyricist Shane MacGowan's fondness for the jar eventually led to the band's implosion. The band made its mark with 1989's "If I Should Fall from Grace with God."

MacGowan penned many a memorable song on the record, including "Thousands are Sailing," which chronicled the plight of Irish immigrants in the 19th and early 20th century. MacGowan writes, "On a coffin ship I came here, And I never even got so far, That they could change my name."

As anyone of Irish descent knows-or should know-, beginning in 1845, Catholic Ireland disgorged two million refugees. Due principally because of the potato plight and the ensuing Great Hunger, these starving masses boarded coffin ships-converted freighters and cargo ships where, as MacGowan says, the passengers were lucky to survive the trip. Filth, disease, polluted drinking water took their toll. Those that died were weighted down with rocks and thrown overboard. Of the 85,000 souls who boarded coffin ships in 1847, one quarter did not survive.

The Irish arrived in America prior to the Potato Famine. Catholic Ireland was ruled by the British. Absentee landlords harvested barley, oats and wheat and shipped these to England while the Irish starved. Citizens were reduced to eating grass. Emaciated masses roamed the country side. Those that had the means to escape did. To America. Four and a half million Irish came to America between 1820 and 1930.

They were not welcomed. According to literature of the day, the Irish were subhuman. They stole American jobs. They were criminals and rapists. Their allegiance was to the pope in Rome, not to the president.

The Irish in America survived in large part because they organized and voted. They were used, manipulated and taken advantage of along the way, but in the end, it was the Irish, not the corrupt politicians, who carved out their place in this country.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, European immigrants flocked to America seeking a better life. They came here for opportunity, of course. But many were escaping political and religious persecution. For the desperate, America and its promise of freedom meant a new life.

America has been-and, hopefully, always will be-the world's sanctuary. A woman who was part of the Honduran convoy that was met with teargas at the Mexican-Guatemalan border told a reporter, in English, "I hope President Trump has a change of heart."

The Hondurans were not seeking asylum in Mexico; they were coming here. Just like the Irish all those years ago. Just like the Chinese. Just like the Germans, the Portuguese and the Spanish. Just like the boat people; just like the Mexicans crossing the rivers or risking everything they have on coyotes-today's coffin ships.

President Trump wants to erect a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. If this albatross ever takes flight, it may become Trump's legacy. As soon as an enterprising 'illegal' finds a way to go under or over the wall, it becomes moot. The wall is not the issue. Nor is our country's flawed immigration policy. The issue is are we still a proud nation of immigrants; or has fear transformed us into mob of cowered xenophobes?

The wall may be built; the immigrants will come. Families will be placed into camps; the immigrants will come. Presidents can inject fear into the debate, warning we will be overrun with disease and crime. In 1844, prior to becoming our 13th president, Millard Fillmore blamed his loss in the New York gubernatorial race on foreign Catholics-Irish. Republican John C. Fremont, who came in second to Millard's third, had to dispel rumors he was not only a Catholic but a cannibal as well.

My parents were immigrants. My mother was from Belfast, Northern Ireland. My father grew up on a farm on the Gaspe Peninsula in eastern Quebec. My mother emigrated to Montreal where she met my father who was studying at McGill University. They married. Following some peregrinations, they ended up in Southern California where they burdened you, readers, with me. Belfast, Montreal, Seal Beach, California. Just another migrant's tale.



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