The First Word: We Are All Immigrants

By Patricia Harty, Editor-in-Chief
February / March 2014
Patricia Harty, Editor-in-Chief
February / March 2014

And  so it begins. A new year, and already a happy one with the election of an Irish mayor in Boston.

And who better to embody the tough, tireless, tender trajectory of our Irish story, than Marty Walsh, son of immigrants and champion of the working class.

Marty’s campaign, aimed at a range of ethnic and social groups, echoes the political leadership of Boston’s first Irish mayor Hugh O’Brien. Also a master of coalition building, O’Brien’s election in 1885 was the start of an era that carried John Kennedy, the grandson of another Boston mayor, all the way to the White House in 1960.

O’Brien emigrated with his family when he was five years old. It was a time when things were difficult for the Irish and it seemed well-nigh impossible that they would ever rise above the religious bigotry and economic hardship that they experienced.

But they endured. And Irish working men and women went on to lay down roots and dream big dreams for their offspring.  O’Brien’s own rise was extraordinary. Apprenticed to a printer at 12, he was foreman of the plant at 15. He went on to become a successful businessman and start his own newspaper. As mayor he gave Boston her Emerald Necklace of parks, and while he championed the poor, his conservative and transparent stewardship won him the respect the Yankee elite.

Marty Walsh’s election embodies the leadership the clan has shown in the ensuing years; in politics, the labor movement,  and every facet of American life. And his election too, has lifted the hearts and hopes of Irish people everywhere.

Is it a sign of better times ahead for the Irish, here and at home? At the very least, it reminds us that we still have some political clout.

And we are going to need it.

Given the downturn in Ireland’s economy, the Irish are once again hitting the emigrant trail. Over 40,000 left for Australia in 2011 and 2012. But sadly, despite the bonds between our two countries, very few have made it to these shores. It’s not that they don’t want to. They can’t.

The 1965 immigration act, while it favored more people from Asia and Latin America, greatly restricted the Irish, closing down most avenues for legal immigration. As a result, Irish immigrants are fast becoming an invisible entity in America. Our once vibrant Irish societies and organizations (see “The Fifth Province,” page 40) are in danger of extinction. And while, to newer immigrant groups, we have come to personify the American success story, we have grown scarce on the ground ourselves.

Senator Ted Kennedy said of the 1965 act, “what we were trying to do was eliminate discrimination . . . but it worked in a very direct and significant way against the Irish.”

Ciaran Staunton, the head of Irish Lobby for Reform Movement, who was once part of the same laborer local as Marty Walsh, is trying to get the message out that immigration reform is not just a Hispanic issue. He says that most people are not aware that the 1965 bill in large part put an end to Irish immigration. “J.F.K.’s election in 1960 signaled the end of the ‘No Irish Need Apply Signs,’ but five years later, they took that sign and hung it on the Statue of Liberty,” he said.

“If Marty Walsh’s parents were to come here today they wouldn’t get in. We’re meeting with people whose grand- parents were immigrants and I tell them that under the regulations today, their grandparents wouldn’t get in,”  Staunton continued.

Thanks in main to IIRM’s lobbying, alone, and in coalition with other groups, the immigration reform bill passed the Senate last year. If the same legislation passes the House it will allow 10,500 visas a year for Ireland.

Speaker of the House John Boehner has said that he is hopeful that the House can act on immigration legislation early this year. Paul Ryan (R.WI) has given assurances to the I.I.R.M. that he would be favorable to the bill, but the majority of Republicans in the House remain to be convinced. And that’s where you come in. It is up to you to get involved. You have it in your power to make the difference by making your voices heard.

In 1885, when Mayor O’Brien was setting up his office, the statue of Liberty was just making her way into New York Harbor where  she would become the “Mother of Exiles,”  the greeter of immigrants. With your help, she will once again open her arms to the Irish.

Mortas Cine.


For more information on the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform visit http://irishlobbyusa.org.

Source for Hugh O’Brien:  Irish Boston: A Lively Look at Boston’s Colorful Irish Past by Michael Quinlin (Globe Pequot Press).

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