We Were Once Refugees, Too

Galway Bay by Mary Pat Kelly available for purchase here.

For most of my life, I didn’t feel the need for any identity more specific than “American”. I grew up in a Catholic neighborhood where the other kids had traditions, families, and faces that looked like mine. What need had I for anything beyond that?

Reading Galway Bay, a novelized version of the author’s great-grandmother’s sojourn from Ireland to America, was the beginning of an awakening on my part, that the heritage that extended beyond my grandparents was more significant than names and dates on a ledger in the archives of various city halls.

I read this book several years ago, and my realization was compounded by my first trip to Ireland last year. History was taken out of textbooks and became as vibrant and alive as myself. Pre-independence, the Irish were second-class citizens in their own country. Our language was outlawed, our religion demonized, and the governing forces painted us in the caricature of apes. When the only food we had that they didn’t see fit to steal rotted in the blight, they left us to starve. When American Choctaws sent money to ease our suffering, they stole that too.

Faced with slow, agonizing death, the Irish turned to the uncertainty of the ocean. Families were torn apart, never knowing if there would be a reunion of parent and child, brother and sister, ever again. No one knew if we would survive America, but we knew for damn sure we would die in Ireland. To this day, Irish Americans outnumber Irish nationals.

In America, we were still the poor and the pissed-on, but through resiliency and the support of others unloved by society (Native Americans, Black Americans, Jewish immigrants) we survived. We thrived. We even returned home to see where it all had started. By the time we were three generations deep, the children of Irish immigrants were indistinguishable from any other white Americans. We were assimilated.

We have, I think, assimilated too well. Too often, from the lips of family members, I’ve heard the same words and stereotypes that were once used to dehumanize our ancestors, being turned against other ethnic groups. We have lost sight of solidarity and adopted the aspect of our oppressors, much like the pigs in Animal Farm.

To be clear, Irish assimilation is not because we were more tenacious or intelligent than anyone else. It is the whiteness of our skin that led to our privileged place in modern society, and nothing more. Had Ireland been closer to the equator, we would never have put one of our own in the White House, and the stereotype of the drunken Irish would be a reason not to hire us instead of a mildly offensive joke.

White skin is armor, and Trump’s America is a battleground for the safekeeping of the rights and values this country was founded upon. On the same weekend we honor the victims of the Holocaust and tweet out #NeverAgain, Trump issued a ban prohibiting Muslims from given countries from entering the US, even as they flee certain death in their homelands–and too many of my fellow Irish-Americans support a policy that would’ve spelled our own doom if it had been enacted a century and a half ago.

The naysayers all have their reasons as to why “this time it’s different”. They had them in 1939 when we turned away the Jews. They had them when we were turning away the Chinese and Japanese in the early 1900’s and cut out whole swaths of the entire Asian continent in 1917. They have them now as we turn away green card holders and refugees, and hopefully this will be the last stand and we won’t ever have a cultural wave of apathy or antipathy towards those seeking safety ever again, but I doubt it. Hatred is hard to kill.

American values should not lie in the empty promises of politicians or solemn reflections on July 4th. No matter how much I value my Irish ancestry, I value my American nationality more, and being American means hitting the pavement to protect Black Lives, means protesting an oppressive government, and means making room for those who seek sanctuary on our shores.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among those are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

So get out there and act like it.

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