The First Word: Sharing the American Dream

By Patricia Harty, Editor-in-Chief
December / January 2009

This issue is a feast of Irish-Americana. There’s something to suit every taste and even the pickiest reader. Some history, some humor, some of who we are today.

There’s the inspirational songbird Kelli O’Hara, whose Irish ancestors settled in Oklahoma during the Land Rushes, and Bill Maher who was born in New York to an Irish father and a Jewish mother. There’s even a salute to the Year of the Potato. No doubt, what Bill Maher has to say will find agreement with some and give others apoplexy. But hey, there’s nothing like a little diversity of opinion to stir the soup.

And today’s Irish are nothing if not diverse. The old stereotype of the Irish, confined to neighborhoods, church-going citizens in public service jobs, does not apply.

Nowadays, A Portrait of Irish America is more likely to include a photo of Eileen Collins, the space shuttle commander, as it is an Irish laborer.

We have spread out across the U.S. and have found success in every segment of American society. Yet we still carry the traits and characteristics of hardscrabble ancestors. Handed down from generation to generation, is a love of politics, education, the church, and yes, a good argument.

Maher has inherited the mantle of the  late great contrarian George Carlin who said, “As long as I have sound ideas, a sound underpinning of argument and analysis, then there’s nothing I can’t or shouldn’t talk about.”

In this issue Bill Maher sits down with Kelly Carlin-McCall, George’s daughter, to discuss among other things, God (he has a new movie out, Religulous), the state of America, and his Irish father. He’s not “proud” to be Irish, but he’s not “ashamed” either.  Like George Carlin, he thinks that it’s ridiculous to be proud of something that you had no control over, but at the same time he’s glad to have inherited his father’s humor which he says has helped him in his choice of career.

Humor is the great leveler. It’s a great communication skill. It’s an Irish specialty, honed on the horns of adversity as a way of coping. And God knows, we Irish have had enough grievances to make us very funny indeed. “Humor” was also a way to keep us down. The stupid Paddy jokes, as told by the English, the offish cartoons in Harper’s magazine, which the publishers now ruefully admit were “some of the worst humor ever to reach print.”

But who’s laughing now?

As writer Pete Hamill says, “The Irish won all the late rounds.”

We are top of the heap. But the slurs haven’t gone away. They have just been redirected – today they are aimed at the newest immigrants, in particular the Latinos, and it’s ugly.

“I’ve heard things like, ‘We don’t want to send our kids back to school because we’re afraid people don’t like Mexicans,’” said Mayor Thomas O’Neill of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. O’Neill was speaking in the aftermath of the recent brutal beating that resulted in the death of Luis Ramirez, an undocumented immigrant. Four teenage members of the high school football team have been charged in his death. One of whom, sad to say, is Colin Walsh – Irish, at least in name.

Would Colin have raised his boot had he been more aware of his own history?

Shenandoah is coal country where the “papes,” the Irish Catholic famine immigrants, labored  and lived under ethnic slurs that followed them out to the coal fields. They were given the worst jobs, bringing the coal to the surface where children as young as seven worked on the slag heaps.  Back then (it’s not that long ago – just two lifespans) not only were the Irish miners discriminated against, they were unprotected by the law. A congressional act of February 27, 1865 authorized the formation of private police forces, the armed Coal and Iron Police who were brutal in suppressing any labor organization.

Not far from where Ramirez was killed, on December 9, 1875, Charles O’Donnell, a miner who was thought to be involved in the labor movement, his daughter and young son were murdered by an armed vigilante group. No one was arrested for the crime.

Knowing our history gives us a deeper understanding of who we are, and it should be the key to understanding the struggle of others. We triumphed through hard work, education, the church, politics, and military service. Most immigrants are only looking for the same opportunities.

The Irish-American story is an inspiration to those struggling today. Now that we have a platform, we can bring a voice of reason to the debate. Here’s one fact that is often hidden: the economic contribution of the undocumented. According to a New York Times story, Social Security receives up to seven billion a year from undocumented immigrants – money they can never reclaim.

The American dream is not ours alone. We cannot separate ourselves from our past or pull the ladder up after us.

Mortas Cine.

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