Celebrating Irish-American Heritage Month

Filed in American Culture by on March 15, 2017 0 Comments

Since 1991, Americans have marked each March as Irish-American Heritage Month. This month gives Irish-Americans an opportunity both to celebrate the contributions they have made to the United States, and to reflect on the struggles faced by generations of Irish immigrants who made the long journey from Ireland to the new shores of the United States.

Since the earliest days of this country, Irish immigrants have contributed to the United States—from Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, to John F. Kennedy, the first President of entirely Irish-American descent. Throughout our history, Irish-Americans have also faced bigotry, hatred, and hardship, and struggled for over a century to be accepted into the fabric of American life.

While Irish-Americans have been present in the United States since its founding, the first great wave of Irish immigration occurred in response to the Great Famine of 1845.Millions of starving Irish refugees fled to the United States to escape the devastation caused by the famine and by their oppressive government.

These immigrants settled into American cities and into enclaves across the United States, where they quickly were met with a wave of rising anti-immigrant sentiment. The most well-known group of these was the Know Nothings, a group of anti-immigrant semi-secret societies formed in response to the new wave of immigration from Catholic countries. Their name comes from when a member was asked about their activities, he reportedly responded that he “knew nothing.” These nationalist organizations clothed themselves in patriotic garb, with groups such as the Order of the Star Spangled Banner and the Order of United Americans eventually becoming a full-blown political party called the America Party.

Like many modern anti-immigrant organizations, the Know Nothings accused the newcomer Irish immigrants of being lazy, un-American, and ruled by a religion that was incompatible with American civil life. This sentiment occasionally culminated in outright violence, like the Bloody Monday massacre of 1855, where 22 Irish and German immigrants trying to exercise their right to vote were killed on Election Day.

In spite of this adversity, Irish immigrants continued to work in low-wage jobs that many native-born Americans didn’t want to do. The thriving Irish community in New York City helped build many of the things that we consider synonymous with New York even today, including the Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building. Indeed, more than half of the laborers that built that Erie Canal were Irish immigrants.

By the early twenty century, the Irish community had fought past an era when signs saying “No Irish Need Apply” were commonplace, and had their first national political star in Al Smith. Al Smith, elected governor of New York in 1918, was narrowly defeated in his attempt to run for the Democratic nominee for president in 1924, after he sharply denounced the Ku Klux Klan and staunchly defended the right to drink alcohol against the forces of temperance. Four years later in 1928, he became the first Catholic ever nominated for President, but went on to be defeated by Herbert Hoover. During his campaign, he was often attacked on the basis of his religion; a theme that would later emerge during John F. Kennedy’s run for president in 1960.

Now that we celebrate Irish-American Heritage Month, we can look back at all the Irish-Americans who have made America great. Irish-Americans suffered through adversity and hardship while continuing to give back to their communities, and on this month we honor the struggles they faced and their accomplishments throughout American history.