St. Patrick’s Day and the Irish paradox

"In an antique shop window" by Pattie

St. Patrick’s Day is tomorrow. Normally, when I think about being Irish, I think about what my first and last names mean in Gaelic and how I aspire to the standards that those words mean, then perhaps to my tattoos. I have a raven and a Celtic spiral on my upper left arm, a Celtic quaternary knot band and St. Brendan cross on my upper right arm. These remind me of who and whose I am.

This year, though, I find myself contemplating what I call the Irish paradox. Of the stereotypes that adhere to the Irish, one of the few that I like, which I will indulge here, is that of the storyteller. If you will kindly bear with me then I will tell you a few of the stories that I think of when I think of being Irish.

Not far from me, in Malvern, Pennsylvania, is a place called Duffy’s Cut. A cut is a place where earth is moved to make way for a passage, a railroad in this case, and this one was named for Philip Duffy, an Irishman hired to lay the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad through the area. Duffy’s Cut is now known as the grave of 57 Irish, mostly men, railroad workers who had immigrated to the United States from Counties Donegal, Tyrone, and Derry less than two months before they died in 1832. A fear of cholera was the “good reason,” and some of these men probably died of cholera, but most were murdered because they were feared and unwanted because they were Irish. The site is being studied and preserved by professors from nearby Immaculata University, and a State Historical Marker on King Street tells the story, but again, they were murdered for being Irish.

Hard labor in the service of an expanding nation, and murder for the nation of your birth. That’s what it meant to be Irish in Malvern, Pennsylvania in 1832.

The Irish started to come to the United States in large numbers in the 1830’s due to the Great Famine.
A blight killed the potatoes on which about 40% of the population relied for survival. Great Britain and her absentee landlords, who controlled Ireland at that time, were indifferent to the suffering of the Irish, holding power without accepting responsibility. An estimated one million Irish starved to death and another million left the country to avoid starvation, decreasing the national population by about 25%. Some Irish went to neighboring England, where they were cast as violent and alcoholic, thieves and infidels, dogs and apes, a sub-human species. Those who came to the United States did not fare much better, with NINA – No Irish Need Apply – signs common in businesses and apartments. Much of the opposition came from wealthier Irish Protestants, who rioted against Irish Catholics in Philadelphia in 1831.

A drunken, violent ape, sub-human. That’s what it meant to be Irish in England and much of America in the 1830’s and 1840’s.

All of this happened before laws were passed that banned discrimination on racial, ethnic, or religious grounds. This was also before laws limiting the work week to 40 hours and mandating worker’s compensation were passed, before the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, before child labor laws and mandatory public education. Those were the child and worker protections that we take for granted now, and hope for them to endure, but they had not been invented in the 1830’s.

If you wander up Interstate 81 north from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, you will find yourself in Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region. The southern edge of the region is in Schuylkill, Carbon, Lebanon, and Dauphin Counties. Shamokin is the western edge. The northern edge is in Scranton and Wilkes-Barre and Honesdale, in Lackawanna and Luzerne and Susquehanna and Wayne Counties.

The towns of Shenandoah and Tamaqua and Mauch Chunk (often called Jim Thorpe) are where my family wound up. That’s what we found when we left Ireland, dirty and dangerous jobs that nobody else would take. The cost of tools that you needed to do the job came out of your wages. So did the rent for the land on which you built your house, because the coal company owned the land, owned the town, owned everything around you. You might load 16 tons and still owe your soul to the company store, where you bought your food and clothing at inflated prices, but if you didn’t like it then you could just walk over the mountain to the next town, which might be owned by the same company, and shop there. If you were injured on the job, and couldn’t work, then you didn’t work, and weren’t paid. Children had no legal protection, and at ages as young as seven years, they went to work in the crackers and other jobs that were suitable for small hands and bodies.

If you had a problem, there was no point in taking it to the Pennsylvania Coal and Iron Police, which wasn’t a police force but rather a regional company security force authorized by the Pennsylvania General Assembly. The PICP were primarily strikebreakers and known for their brutality. They were supervised by the Pinkerton Detective Agency, which sent an Irishman named James McParland, under the cover of McKenna, to infiltrate a group called the Molly Maguires, who blew up mine infrastructure and murdered superintendents in defense of fellow miners. At the same time, the miners were organizing, with 85% belonging to the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association. Vigilante actions were common against Irish coal miners, too, but that violence was no interest to the PICP, which was there to protect company property and break strikes.

Sean Connery and Richard Harris starred in a fairly good depiction of the events surrounding the Molly Maguires, in a movie by that name. However, the movie omits a fact not known at the time: McParland had two brothers who were also Pinkertons, sent into the region to protect him and to convey messages from him to the agency. These facts were concealed at the trial and so the jurors were left to believe that McParland could not have prevented certain murders without tipping off his identity. The jury heard that McParland had no choice but to let some mine officials be murdered, increasing the severity of the charges against union and Molly Magure leadership. McParland also tried to convince a witness to accuse the leader of the Western Federation of Miners of murder. Bear in mind that McParland wasn’t a police officer – he was a private security agent.

Franklin Gowen, who was district attorney for Schuylkill County, was also the president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and of the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company. Gowen prosecuted at the trial, which led to the hanging of 20 men in 1877 and 1878. The historic Carbon County Jail in Mauch Chunk (renamed Jim Thorpe in 1953) still bears the muddy handprint of Alexander Campbell, a Molly Maguire who died proclaiming his innocence.

These men escaped oppression and lethal danger in Ireland, only to find the same in America. Some of them rose up with violence, but we will never know who, or what, and the violence, while not excusable, might be understandable in the manner of any other oppressed people. The president of the coal company conducted a sham trial based on the perjured testimony of a hired witness for the purpose of protecting company profits by hanging union leaders and other agitators. That’s part of my ancestry. That’s what it meant to be Irish in Northeastern Pennsylvania in the 1870’s.

When I think of my relatives from this era, I imagine them seeing me in a white dress shirt, black suit, tie with some purple or red in it, shiny black dress shoes, and laughing with a bit of disdain and more amazement. We made it out of the coal mines. When they saw me in an office, working mostly with my mind, to help children, they would cry. We did it.

We can bring the story of the coal mines full-circle. In August 1911, Pennsylvania Coal and Iron Police Deputy Constable Edgar Rice, who was Caucasian, was assigned to protect the Lukens Steel Mill in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. Mr. Rice challenged, and was then shot and killed by, Zachariah Walker, an African-American. Walker claimed self-defense, and Rice may have had no authority where the incident happened, but we don’t know. There was no trial. Walker was lynched – more precisely, burned to death – on August 13, 1911. Three times, he tried to crawl out of the fire but was pushed back by his killers. Fifteen local men and teenaged boys were later tried, but none convicted, in the murder of Mr. Walker.

This is where I see similarities between the Irish-American experience and the African-American experience, but I will not speak for the latter. Theirs is not my story to tell, and it would be offensive for me to try.

I have lots of happier stories, like about the first European to set foot in North America being Irish. He crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a leather fishing boat called a currach and he landed around 560 AD. We could also talk about how the Irish saved Christianity in Europe. Wouldn’t that be bragging, though, another Irish stereotype?

When I thinking of being Irish, one of the things that I think about is this Irish paradox. The story that I just told you is far from the sum of the Irish experience in America, but still, on March 17, we’re going to hear that “Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.” For much of our history, no one would have wanted to be Irish on any day, and so the puzzlement and the paradox. If I have reason to celebrate being Irish within the context of American culture, it is because we started as the unwanted, despised flotsam washing up on America’s shores. We persisted through grit and sheer backs-to-the-wall, nowhere-else-to-go determination, and made ourselves essential to the story of America.

I told this story without shamrocks or leprechauns or horrible brogues or green Budweiser. I also told this story without indulging the stereotypes of violent alcoholism that will play out on March 17, and I am puzzled by how these caricatures are regarded as acceptable, as being inoffensive. I’m not seeking a reason to be offended, but all the same, I want to know why coarse and stereotyped imitation of my ancestry and culture is not offensive.

It’s not really OK, but I guess that it will have to be, because it’s going to happen anyway. The “everybody” that is Irish will drink beer that was crappy to start and worse for adding blue dye to make it green, and talk like, something, some horrendous corruption of the Irish brogue and for sure no one speaking Gaelic, and make stupid and inane comments about leprechauns and shamrocks, but sometime on the morning of March 18, it will end and Ireland will belong again to the Irish.