Thursday, November 29, 2001

Say the word “immigrant,” and Chinese, Mexicans, Koreans or Filipinos come to mind.
But Ireland, a 32,000-square-mile country the size of South Carolina, has sent 7 million of its citizens here over a 400-year period. The majority began arriving 150 years ago, and Irish still are arriving today, historians Patricia and Kerby Miller say in their new book, “Journey of Hope.”
The 5,000 to 10,000 Irish emigrants each year join 40 million Americans of Irish descent. The Millers’ book, an “interactive” volume stuffed with copies of handwritten letters, Mass cards, maps and photos, shows memories from perilous trips across the Atlantic in the mid-19th century and the first difficult decades of transition.
Mr. Miller, a history professor at the University of Missouri and the author of several books on Irish immigration, said the typical poor Catholic Irish immigrant had it much harder back then than poor Catholic Mexican immigrants today.
“At least most of the Irish could speak English,” Mr. Miller says. “But anti-Catholic prejudice was much stronger than it is today. Hispanics coming to America now don’t see the same kind of intense religious prejudice. The Irish were portrayed as very different, alien even, in terms of their physical characteristics. They were perceived as much inferior to Yankees.”
The great potato famine, the result of a fungus that destroyed the Emerald Isle’s main source of food, lasted from 1845 to 1852. Two million people emigrated and another million died. By 1861, Ireland’s population had fallen from 8.2 million to 5.8 million.
Between 1861 and 1926, another 4 million Irish had crossed the sea, shrinking their homeland’s population to 4.2 million. Although the emigrants took many of their customs with them, one that did not transfer well was their Irish language, one of four Celtic tongues along with Scots-Gaelic, Welsh and Breton. By 1901, in fact, only 14 percent of Irish citizens spoke their native language.
The new arrivals took jobs in the copper mines of Butte, Mont., and in New Orleans, where they helped construct the city’s canal system, and performed tasks often deemed too risky for slaves. By 1880, they made up 37 percent of San Francisco’s population, according to the United Irish Cultural Center of San Francisco.
The vast majority, weary after a confining and sometimes fatal five- or six-week trip across the Atlantic, settled in Eastern port cities such as New York and Boston. Most had been held below the deck in steerage, where there was no sanitation, nor enough food, water or medicine.
Many arrived via chain migration, where one member of the family would sail to the States, work for a year and send enough money home for the next family member to arrive. Each generation of immigrants paid for the passages of the next. It has been estimated that in the 19th and 20th centuries, Irish sent back $300 million to finance the passages of their loved ones.
The new arrivals found America’s hot summers and cold winters to be far different from Ireland’s gentle climate. Plagues of grasshoppers, thunderstorms, skirmishes with Indians and blizzards terrified them. Most immigrants were unskilled and had little but their brute strength to offer, which was why Irish workers built the Erie Canal across upstate New York from 1817 to 1825, as well as the eastern part of the Transcontinental Railroad from 1862 to 1869. But thousands died of malaria, yellow fever, heatstroke or exposure while doing the backbreaking and poorly paid work.
By 1900, the Millers wrote, most Irish-Americans had left the slums and moved to better neighborhoods. They also had a practice of hiring and employing their own and thus formed powerful labor unions and found jobs through kinship networks.
By 1900, 30,000 Irish immigrants a year still were landing on U.S. shores and by 1920, Catholicism, thanks in part to the Irish, had become America’s largest and wealthiest denomination. St. Patrick’s Day parades had become major events in several cities. Songs like “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” created a new and appealing image for the nationality, and in 1960, John F. Kennedy, an Irish American, was elected president.
“The Irish kept coming even when things improved quite dramatically in their own country,” says Eileen Reilly, associate director of the Glucksman Ireland House at New York University. “You had more emigration in the 1950s than during certain decades in the 19th century. You’d hear that four out of five Irish children born in the 1930s had emigrated in the 1950s.”
Those who visited their homeland would rush back to the States, Mr. Miller says.
“They had this sentimentalized, romanticized image of this place as their parents’ or grandparents’ home but when they saw the poverty, they were appalled,” he says. “‘Thank God,’ they said, that Grandmother Bridget got out of here.”
Ireland continues to pique American interest, thanks to books such as “Angela’s Ashes,” which has been made into a film, and cultural imports such as the Riverdance troupe and U2, the rock band.
“The interest in things Irish has been going on for the past eight years,” Miss Reilly said. “There’s a very deep, sustained interest in Irish studies, and people are following closely the political situation over there. [President] Clinton’s very committed efforts during the peace process also helped.”
As the high rate of Irish-American deaths on September 11 show, the fates of the two countries are intertwined. One Web site, www.IrishTribute .com, estimated one-sixth of the dead were in some way Irish or of Irish descent and the date “may well go down as the bloodiest day in the history of the Irish people.”
About a dozen Irish citizens perished that day, but hundreds of police, firefighters and employees in the World Trade Center with Irish names died. A national day of mourning was declared in Ireland.
On March 17, New York Gov. George E. Pataki, whose maternal grandmother came from County Louth, will present an Irish memorial in Battery Park City to commemorate the great potato famine. The centerpiece will be a ruined fieldstone cottage with stones from each of Ireland’s 32 counties. It will be surrounded by abandoned fields of overgrown potato furrows with rock soil to evoke the desolate Irish landscape. The memorial will include an overlook toward the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, often the desperate immigrants’ first sight of America.
Instruction on the mass starvation in Ireland has been a part of New York state school curriculum since 1996. About 800,000 residents of New York City and 2.8 million residents of New York state trace their ancestries to Ireland, according to census figures.
Patricia Miller, who was born on a farm in County Derry, immigrated here in 1978 when she got married. She lamented that her homeland was becoming too much like America.
“They are in such a rush to become more like Americans,” she says. “There’s a lot of rampant consumption going on there. It’s unfortunate they are so willing to forget the past, that they never found out what’s truly important.”

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