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Evaluating Evacuation Day: St. Patrick's Day Might Be a Celebration of Immigration

Michael J. Ring

This past Tuesday, Suffolk County here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts marked a holiday apparently considered paramount to the history of the city of Boston: Evacuation Day.

Evacuation Day?

The holiday, celebrated each March 17 in the city of Boston and three other local municipalities, commemorates the day in 1776 when the British redcoats ended their occupation of Boston. By some happy coincidence, March 17 happens to be Saint Patrick's Day. How fortuitous that Suffolk County, a region which has a large percentage of citizens of Irish descent, was able to find an event which just happened to coincide with the day of celebration of Irish culture.

Evacuation Day, as a historical event, is not of the same caliber as Patriot's Day or Bunker Hill Day. Those holidays commemorate the battles of the American Revolution fought here and serve to remind both us and the nation of Massachusetts' role in freeing the United States from British rule. Evacuation Day merely marks the day that the rump of the British contingency left this region to go attack other regions.

But there is merit for a holiday on March 17. More than a holiday for the Irish, it could be an Immigrants' Day. It would remind all Americans of the struggles and successes of their ancestors and serve to offer lessons for new groups of immigrants arriving to our nation.

Saint Patrick's Day reminds us of the contribution of the Irish to American society. It is a tale of the struggles of an immigrant population that was faced with blatant discrimination upon emigration from the Old Country, and then worked its way up through society to achieve high positions in business and politics.

The Irish Potato Famine of the late 1840s is perhaps one of the greatest human tragedies of the 19th century. A British government led by the sympathetic Robert Peel was forced from office in 1846, and the Irish received no support from the government of the United Kingdom. British landlords forced Irish tenant farmers off of their property so they could avoid feeding the starving farmers. The winter of 1846-1847 was one of the snowiest on record in Europe, further crippling the stumbling isle. Millions of Irish died from starvation or disease in the late 1840s and early 1850s. While Ireland today is an independent, modern, industrial nation, the effects of the famine are still noticeable: Ireland is the only nation in Europe whose present day population is lower than it was in 1840.

The hundreds of thousands of Irish who emigrated to America in the 1840s and 1850s were faced with a harsh life as well. Many businesses in Eastern cities refused to hire the new immigrants; unemployment among the new immigrants was high. Large families were forced to live in cramped, squalid tenements, and inadequate health care led to high rates of disease.

The United States government had no help for the Irish immigrants in the 1850s; the North and the South were too busy fighting with words and preparing to fight with guns. That is not to say the Irish went unnoticed: in that decade anti-immigrant sentiment ran morbidly high. The Know-Nothing Party, whose platform was blatantly anti-immigrant, attracted significant political support in the 1850s.

But it did not take long for the Irish to assimilate into American culture. The immigrants cherished their jobs and worked hard to achieve success. In the factories of the East, the new arrivals toiled night and day to build themselves a better life. Gradually society overcame its stereotypes and became more accepting of the Irish-Americans.

Nor did the Irish turn away from government. Indeed, the success of the first immigrants was based in large part on their willingness to enter the political process. The Irish were a mainstay of the Democratic big city machines of the Gilded Age. By the turn of the century, this political involvement was reaping large dividends: mayoral and gubernatorial races featured Irish candidates with increasing frequency.

Even today in heavily Irish neighborhoods like South Boston, Charlestown, and West Roxbury, voter turnout is often 80 percent. The immense impact of the Irish have had in America has largely come through their respect for the ballot box. While many today approach government with apathy or are totally repulsed by the political process, Irish-Americans (myself included) still vote religiously and consider it a patriotic duty to become involved in government, at least at the local level.

The Irish were a large wave of European immigrants to reach the shores of this nation, but they were by no means the only ones. Germans, Scandinavians, Italians, Greeks, Poles, and Russians all followed in huge numbers. These groups, too, were met with discrimination upon their arrival but through hard work and political involvement rapidly became an integral part of America. Happily, many newer immigrants from Asia and Latin America are also succeeding in the United States of America.

Some new immigrants, however, are struggling. The problems they face today are largely the same ones the Irish faced 150 years ago. Scapegoating and a lack of available work are still challenges for new immigrants to overcome. But the spirit of a holiday such as Immigrants' Day would remind them of two tried and true rules for success.

First, new arrivals should not be discouraged by scapegoating. It is only by showing the fruits of their labor that they will be able to shatter the stereotypes of society. Perhaps our government should do more to help its new arrivals, but still the ultimate responsibility for success or failure rests with the immigrants themselves.

Second, the Irish experience should show the need for new immigrant groups to make their voices heard in the political process. It is no accident that neighborhoods that complain about a lack of representation have a low voter turnout. Only by getting to the ballot box can new arrivals make their voices heard in the halls of government.

This week, ground was broken on a new Irish Famine Memorial along the Freedom Trail on Washington Street, near the Old South Meetinghouse and Old State House. The memorial will certainly serve as a monument to the contribution of the Irish in this city, but it will also be a beacon of hope to new immigrants that with hard work and patriotic responsibility, the American Dream can be theirs. This is something we who are not ourselves immigrants often take for granted, and an Immigrants' Day holiday will remind us of our ancestors' struggle and these important values.