This month, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I’m going to write about Irish things, or more accurately, Irish-American things since the holiday is really an American one. Regardless of the celebration’s origins as an Irish Catholic day of prayer, it is now a day when Americans come out to celebrate being Irish or at least pretending to have the capacity to drink mythic quantities of green beer. And the Irish, well, they come out to watch the Americans. Even in Ireland.
I spent a semester in Ireland in the mid-80s and my classmates and I were astonished to see ads all over Dublin advertising a contest – win a trip to New York for St. Patrick’s Day. We wondered why on Earth people would want to go to New York for St. Patrick’s Day when they were already in the capital of Ireland.
“Why would ye want to stay here?” a young man called from across the street. (Apparently we were wondering pretty loudly.) In any case, when the great day finally arrived, my host family was quite anxious to come out for the parade in Dublin. Pretty much every entry in the parade was American. And many American tourists were out with green hair, looking like aliens and drinking mythic quantities of green beer. The Irish came to watch them. I kind of lost my taste for green beer after that.
I don’t know the lucky Dubliners who won the trip to New York that year, but I do know that they traveled in better style than the Irish ancestors of the New Yorkers who were throwing the party. The biggest years for Irish immigration to New York were 1846-51, the potato famine years, and even for the wealthy, the journey across the ocean was dangerous and disagreeable. For the poor—and those were the ones coming in those years—the voyage could be desperately cruel. Ships had always sailed during the spring and summer months, but in the years of starvation, vessels would leave even in the worst of weather, and without even basic provisions. I think it’s pretty difficult for modern Americans to imagine the overcrowding, cold, filth and illness the emigrants endured. But you’ll get a pretty good idea if you realize that many the emigrants paid to travel in the holds of former slave ships.
In future articles, we’ll explore the journey in more detail, as well as what the Irish found waiting for them when they arrived in the “land of opportunity.” By 1851, so many Irish had emigrated to New York that the population of the city was 26% Irish.
Happy March, everyone!
Most of the statistics in this article come from Edward Laxton’s The Famine Ships: The Irish Exodus to America (Holt,1998)