Practically everyone must know that the great migration of the Irish to America took place after the terrible potato famine of the mid-nineteenth century. However, even before that disaster the Irish had been the subject of persecution ever since the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century after King Henry VIII seized control of the English church.
The Irish were longtime enemies of the English and when Henry, who considered himself King of Ireland as well as England, attacked their thousand-year-old faith the enmity only grew worse. Henry’s daughter Elizabeth tried unsuccessfully to subdue the Irish Catholics throughout her reign. After the Puritan revolution in England in the mid-seventeenth century, Oliver Cromwell brutally suppressed Irish resistance. By the end of the century William and Mary, after driving Mary’s Catholic father James from the English throne delivered another devastating blow to the Irish at the battle of the Boyne.
The almost perpetual Irish resistance led the English and their Protestant friends in Ireland to pass penal laws that had the effect of depriving most Irish Catholics of all their rights including the right to their own confiscated properties. Many Irish left their homeland for good in the century before the great famine. They were sometimes called the “wild geese” and many of them made a name for themselves in Europe. In the nineteenth century the ruling family in Serbia was the Obrenovich family, heirs no doubt of some Irish O’Brien. Years ago Ed Obradovich played linebacker for the Chicago Bears. His family must have come from central Europe but there must have been a Brady ancestor. I recall meeting a Polish American priest whose name, Okonski, must have derived from O’Conner.
When the Irish came to America, they didn’t starve because of the availability of jobs and land. Nevertheless, despite separation of Church and State in America, the Irish were still objects of prejudice and discrimination primarily because of their Catholicism. An American historian once argued that the most long lasting and abiding prejudice in America was directed not against Jews or Blacks but against Catholics. That assertion may be disputed by some but the KKK was so called because its hatred was directed against Koons, Kikes, and Katholics.
Just because a national or ethnic groups have been victimized by prejudice and discrimination does not mean that they themselves cannot practice such behavior when given the opportunity. Growing up in New York City in the 40s and 50s I vividly recall that only Irish need apply for membership in the City’s Transit Workers Union. I have never forgotten the resentment of my mother in law when her Italian parents were told by an Irish priest that they did not belong in predominately Irish St. John’s church and that they should attend the Italian church in town.
Still, the success of the Irish in America means that we all are in their debt. I would just like to give a few personal examples. I was born and raised in the Woodside section of Queens, a neighborhood after WW2 made up largely of the descendants of Irish and Italian immigrants. My best friend was my cousin Pete whose father’s ancestry was Irish and German. Pete’s father, my Uncle Pete, was a New York City policeman who always seemed all Irish to me, and so did my cousin even though his mother was Italian. My next best friend was Dermot (Dermie) Woods whose family was very Irish. Both of Dermie’s older brothers had served in the Navy during the war.
St. Mary Help of Christians, my elementary school, matched the ethnic make up of Woodside. There were some Italian kids in my class but the majority was Irish. I still remember Richie Moylan, John Regan, Tom Fay, Charley Dunphy, and top student Pat Ryan who would go on to become a Jesuit priest and get a doctorate from Harvard in Islamic studies. Of course, most of the nuns were of Irish ancestry. They were of the order of St. Dominic and their formidable black and white habits helped them keep almost perfect order in classes sometimes numbering over 50 students. Only years later did I come to find out that many of them were barely out of their teens and still attending college.
It seemed natural for me to follow cousin Pete to Power Memorial high school in Manhattan. Power was a Catholic school for boys run by the Irish Christian Brothers whose most famous graduate would be Lou Alcindor, who would later call himself Kareem Abdul Jabbar. I still remember some of the Irish brothers with great affection and respect. There was Brother Hehir, my first home room teacher, a saintly innocent man who was the butt of innumerable pranks and jokes by us “dirty little stinkers.” No one fooled around with wise old Brother Gleason however. He was the Latin teacher with a passionate love of ancient Rome. Many years later did I discover that it was the Irish who had saved Western Civilization during the Dark Ages when monks in the mold of Brother Gleason preserved and later revived the lore and wisdom of antiquity. Finally, I remember Brother Conefrey who ran our honors class and exposed us modern barbarians to the wonders of English literature.
For some reason that still remains unclear to me I went to college at Fordham University, a famed Jesuit school in the Bronx. The Jesuits had been founded in the sixteenth century by Ignatius of Loyola, a young soldier from the Basque country in what is now northeastern Spain, but the Jesuit fathers at Fordham seemed to be largely of Irish ancestry. Nevertheless, in 1957 they taught and revered an old curriculum based on a model devised during the Renaissance. We studied Western philosophy, theology, history (eight credits in medieval history were required), rhetoric, literature, and language under scholars named O’ Sullivan, O’Callaghan, Mc Nally, Walsh and Clark.
Three cheers for the Irish on this St. Patrick’s Day.