The Irish in America occupy an interesting niche. The Irish Diaspora refers to the period of time where Irish citizens left Ireland in droves, immigrating to a variety of other nations. The big exodus started in the 1840s during the Great Famine, a series of crop failures that lead to economic collapse and loss of food. So it was off to “Amerikay”, and into the cities of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.
These immigrants were dirt poor, filthy after weeks in poor travel conditions, malnourished due to the Famine, and often didn’t speak English. Worst of all, they were Catholic in a predominantly Protestant nation. It was the New World’s first major influx of poor immigrants, and the current residents of these cities were not happy with the new arrivals. There were anecdotal stories of signs saying “Irish need not apply”, Irish workers were given the lowest of menial jobs, and generally they were viewed as the worst sort of white trash.
Slowly and systematically the Irish fought back and integrated into society. They got jobs at multiple levels of civil service (police, fire, sanitation), helped fight to create unions, and worked to move into positions of power to prevent additional victimization.
The difficult conditions that immigrants ran into on arrival lead to the development of an Irish cultural identity that’s still present today. It’s that nostalgic that I call cultural Irish Catholicism. There’s a respect for the Catholic Church (even if you don’t practice), and appreciation for the old home country, and an ingrained sense of community around a common cultural heritage.
Notre Dame University is a powerful visual representation of this. Talk to an Irish Catholic, and chances are that they have a soft spot for Notre Dame football, even if they have another college team they follow. As a child I liked watching Notre Dame play because they were Irish and Catholic. They were “us”. That’s the only reason I’d watch as a child. I grew up and eventually shifted my primary football allegiance to the Texas Longhorns (Hook em!). But there’s still a warm fuzzy spot for the Irish.
Last night, the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame went undefeated for the season. They will compete for the national championship in January. The little Irishwoman in me is thrilled. The storied Fighting Irish, an independent team without a conference, sticks it to the college football establishment. They were never supposed to be here. Just like the first Irish to step foot in Amerikay. In spite of the obstetrical in their way, they made their own path, fought for a place at the table, and came out on top.
It’s a small reminder of what my family members battled as new immigrants to America. Sure it’s just football, and it may not matter much. But for me it’s a bit more than that.