Emigration has never exactly been a walk on the beach. First of all there’s the long “should I stay or should I go” question; quite often a niggling career or love disappointment influences the final decision – sometimes rashly taken in a pub with too many pints aboard.
Next comes the countdown that culminates in the bittersweet American wake and then the pain of farewell at Dublin or Shannon airports.
Even in my day of leaving in the 1970’s there was a sudden severance of ties with loved ones, unless you were a regular letter writer – which most of us weren’t. Of course, separation still hurts nowadays even with email, Facebook, Skype, and any other manner of digital communication.
But imagine what it was like for those dislocated by An Gorta Mór back in the 1840’s. The problem is – most of us cannot put ourselves in the shoes of those desperate people. At best we identify with the hapless immigrant of “The Streets of New York.”
But that song was set some generations later when the Irish had gained a foothold in the cities of the American East Coast. The Famine Irish arrived in teeming, deprived multitudes and were universally despised.
Most of their money had been spent for berths on overcrowded coffin ships where they were expected to feed themselves over the long and brutal voyage. Many were already worn down by fever and disease not to mention endemic seasickness.
Those who passed the often stringent medical examination were instantly overwhelmed by the bustle of dockland Manhattan; they were easy targets for the “guides” and thieves who preyed on them. Pete Hamill once noted that the average rural Irish immigrant saw more people in the first hour in New York than in a lifetime in Ireland.
To add to the sense of dislocation, many were native Gaelic speakers with only a smattering of English.
How did they fit in – how did they even begin to find work in this alien environment? Daniel O’Connell had prepared them. His Repeal (of the Union) Association had recruited and organized them in every parish and townsland in Ireland.
The Famine Irish used these networks of contacts from home when they arrived in New York City. Thus we find Sligo and Galway houses in Lower Manhattan’s notorious Five Points slum. With neighbors and relatives close at hand there was the chance of finding “the shtart” (the first job) - even if it was only shoveling manure from the streets.
Gaelic, unfortunately, was quickly abandoned in a drive to gain better employment; but O’Connell’s training proved invaluable as the Famine Irish learned to manipulate the political system and move up the social ladder, despite the sectarianism and discrimination they experienced from Nativist and Know-Nothing Americans.
We tend to hear only of the success stories but let’s spare a thought for those who were psychologically unsuited to the extreme stress of this new urban life. Many cracked, retreating to the shebeens; others left for the Californian Gold Rush and never returned.
Let’s also remember the many Irish women who had to take to the streets to provide for themselves and their children. It’s an uncomfortable, even jarring, thought now but an economic fact of life for many at that time.
Speaking of Daniel O’Connell and the gift of ward organizing that he bequeathed Irish-Americans – it would behoove us to honor him this year by using our clout to influence the immigration policies of the two major political parties.
Irish immigration has been stymied since 1965 by the Hart-Celler Act. In a tight primary season and perhaps an even closer general election, we can exert pressure on candidates from both parties.
It’s way past time to open the door - even slightly - and allow a new generation of Irish to join us. The old neighborhoods could use them and Irish-America could profit from some youthful native Irish invigoration.