The Irish Were Once Despised Refugees On These Shores, Too
Long ago and far away, I sometimes joked that I only look white: actually, I’m Irish. These days, people have no idea what you’re talking about. Courtesy of Ancestry.com, I’ve since learned that all the family stories are true: all eight of my great-grandparents were born in Ireland. Mayo and Cork, for the most part, counties where rebellion against centuries of English oppression ran strong.
As a lad, I was taught that being Irish took precedence over being American. There was a mandatory “Irish” view on damn near everything—although family members argued fiercely about what it was.
Often it was the women against the men. My father had friends of every ethnicity that he’d made in the Army and playing ball. “You’re no better than anybody else,” he’d often say. “And nobody’s better than you.”
My mother mistrusted anybody who wasn’t blood kin.
I thought that was nuts by third grade.
Anyway, what with Irish-surnamed lunkheads helping Trump spread his bigotry far and wide, it seems appropriate to remind people that from the 17th century onward, every racial slur that was ever used to describe black slaves was first applied to the native Irish.
Micks were routinely described as donkey strong, but stupid. They were good at music, dancing and prizefighting, but congenitally lazy and unreliable. The Irish were sexually promiscuous, dirty, foul-smelling drunks.
Irish satirist Jonathan Swift’s 1729 pamphlet “A Modest Proposal” remains a searing indictment of the colonialist mentality—as shocking now as then. Might impoverished asylum-seekers whose children are caged along the U.S.-Mexican border, for example, not turn a nice profit by offering them as a delicacy for rich men’s tables? “I rather recommend buying the children alive,” Swift wrote with savage irony “and dressing them hot from the knife, as we do roasting pigs.”
During the Irish Potato Famine from 1845 to 1850, more than a million of the native Irish died of starvation even as the island exported food to England. A million more emigrated, many on the aptly named “coffin ships” vividly described in Joseph O’Connor’s brilliant novel “Star of the Sea.” (The author is singer Sinead O’Connor’s older brother.) Not long ago, Canadian authorities recovered the bones of half-starved Irish children who died in an 1847 shipwreck on the Gaspe Peninsula.
And how did Americans react to the Irish diaspora? Pretty much the same way Trump supporters are reacting to Spanish-speaking asylum seekers on our southern border. The anti-immigrant party of the 1850s called itself the “Know-Nothings.” In 1855, Abraham Lincoln wrote a friend about them:
“I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can anyone who abhors the oppression of Negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”
He could have written it last week.
Alas, we can’t urge Trump to go back where his family came from, because his big flapping mouth might land him in prison. Having had their fill of it under Adolph Hitler, the Germans have criminalized what they call “Volksverhetzung,” or “incitement of the people.”
In Germany, it’s illegal to urge “hatred against a national, racial, religious group or a group defined by their ethnic origins, against segments of the population or individuals because of their belonging to one of the aforementioned groups…or calls for violent or arbitrary measures against them.”
The penalty is three months to five years.
I much prefer First Amendment free speech protections, but you can’t say the Germans don’t know where these things can lead. The law has mainly been used to prosecute Holocaust deniers. Several European countries (Ireland included) have similar laws, although they are rarely invoked.
So anyway, that’s where I’m coming from as a direct descendant of refugees. What we have here is a perfect storm of Trumpism, equal parts ignorance and bigotry. Only Trump, (born in Queens) could tell Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, (born in The Bronx) to go back where she came from.
Sure, Ocasio-Cortez asked for trouble with her childish “women of color” gibe at Nancy Pelosi, of all people.
But if he has no idea what he’s talking about, Trump absolutely knows what he’s doing. No more pussy-footing. The 2020 presidential campaign is going to be the ugliest race-based, free-for-all any of us has ever seen.
And if it works, you can bend over and kiss America goodbye.