Sunday, March 13, 2011

Understanding the Irish in America and an Gorta Mor

Well, I think it's time for some Irish history here at the Windy City Author's blog. Although this week will bring us St. Pat's Day and everyone in Chicago becomes Irish at that time, I think what's happening across America culturally and politically right now makes this a perfect time to reflect on Irish history and the role the Irish have played in changing America. 

All ethnic groups have shaped America. I'm not one to extol one group over the other because I believe every ethnic group has placed an indelible and important stamp on America. I love cultural diversity and I have always wanted to learn all that I could about the different races, cultures, and religions of the whole world. Growing up in Chicago gave me a window to the wider world and the privilege of actually getting to know and live with a variety of wonderful people. 

So this blog entry is not a paen to the Irish; it's not meant to say they are better than any other group. It's just to explain to you what made them different from other immigrant groups and how that difference has been played out in American culture and political thought.  

First of all, the Irish arrived in America with a leg up because they spoke English. The importance of this cannot be over estimated. They also arrived with a deeply ingrained history of resistance to English authority and oppression, as well as the more recent searing experience of the an Gorta Mor (The Great Hunger) or what is more commonly known as the Irish Famine. Additionally, they benefited from both the spiritual and pragmatic guidance of their Irish priests, men who were also steeped in the Irish history of resistance to oppression. The Catholic Church, although present in America since colonial times, was a minority religion in an often very hostile land. The Irish were the first large immigrant group of Catholics and their success in America became very important to the wider Church.

The combination of the same language, a long history of resistance to WASP overlords, and the backing of their Church empowered the Irish to more quickly than any other immigrant group rise in defiance of the ruling establishment. The Irish understood that the men who held power controlled the soup pot and the Irish were determined to never again not control the flow of soup.

Rather incredibly the ghosts of an Gorta Mor continue to haunt the true Irish heart. The other day I received a note from an old high school friend, Mary Kennedy, now a very accomplished attorney, who spoke of her heartbreak watching the tragic events in Japan unfold... quake, tsunami, nuclear threat. Her empathy was profound for a very different race of people on the other side of the world, as I'm sure it is for millions of other Americans. But what struck me was that in particular reference to the possibility of a nuclear meltdown Mary was said that the Japanese people's horrific memory of Hiroshima must burn in their hearts like the memory of an Gorta Mor burns in hers.

This remarkable empathy for others, although certainly not unique to the Irish heart, is integral to the Irish ethos and I would suggest that it more than any other force in American politics shaped the American journey away from its Calvinist traditions.

Today America is returning to those Calvinist traditions and we will not be the better for it.

To understand this, let's first be sure we understand an Gorta Mor.

To be continued...

1 comment:

  1. "Today America is returning to those Calvinist traditions and we will not be the better for it."

    I couldn't agree more!