Blog No. 20 Everybody’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day

MIDDLEBURG, VA --- In his address to Congress, the president said:

“I earnestly recommend to the congress that in the exercise of its wise discretion it should take into consideration the coming to this country of anarchists or persons professing principles hostile to all government.... They and those like them should be kept out of this country; and if found here they should be promptly deported to the country whence they came.”

The president wasn’t Donald Trump. And the address wasn’t two weeks ago. Rather, President Theodore Roosevelt made his remarks in a speech before Congress on Dec. 3, 1901, according to Wikipedia.

As Mr. Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration Limits wends its way through the courts, it is slated to go into effect tomorrow. The bill prevents those seeking American citizenship from six foreign nations. And, bars them from entering our country. Pending some last-minute court order, which as of this writing seemed certain, the Executive Directive would go into effect today.

In Mr. Roosevelt’s lifetime, the country had received a huge influx of immigrants from Europe seeking a better way of life. Among those were millions of Irish, who fled starvation, caused by the Irish Potato Famine, and sought a better way of life in America.

“It is estimated that as many as 4.5 million Irish arrived in America between 1820 and 1930. Between 1820 and 1860, the Irish constituted over one third of all immigrants to the United States. In the 1840s, they comprised nearly half of all immigrants to this nation,” according to Catholic News.

Today, their descendants have indeed multiplied. According to 2013 Census data, more than 33.3 million Americans—10.5% of the total population—reported Irish ancestry in the 2013 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. This compares with a population of 6.4 million on the island of Ireland.

In fact, America is a nation of immigrants -- Irish, Polish, German, Chinese, Japanese, French, English, et al. With the exception of Native American people, virtually everyone in America came from ancestors who landed on these shores from somewhere else. Whether of their own free will and accord, as indentured servants, or as slaves. The fact is, over 97% of 21st Century America is descended from relatives who came from some other country to our shores.

So, the conversation about “securing our borders” and making America safe for Americans, while serious, in many ways is just a sound bite. Crying out to bar immigrants from coming to America isn’t something new. In fact, it’s been going on nearly as long as there has been an America.

“Immigration during the first five years of the 1850s reached a level five times greater than a decade earlier. Most of the new arrivals were poor Catholic peasants or laborers from Ireland and Germany who crowded into the tenements of large cities. Crime and welfare costs soared. Cincinnati's crime rate, for example, tripled between 1846 and 1853 and its murder rate increased sevenfold. Boston's expenditures for poor relief rose threefold during the same period.”

— James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom

Indeed, American history is full of cries for eliminating or reducing immigration. Again, it’s not a new idea. But as much as the haters have tried, they have always failed.

Miss Liberty still stands in New York Harbor. She is still seeking the “huddled masses yearning to be free.” And as far as I can tell, there isn’t any political movement to have her dismantled or removed.

Immigrants are part of the American story. They’re as American as apple pie. And the pride that Americans take in talking about their ancestors, and the struggles they often had in making their way to “The Land of the Free,” is always something close to our hearts.

Perhaps no other people are prouder of their heritage than those of Irish-American ancestry. As we approach St. Patrick’s Day Friday, it is worth remembering the past, but also learning from it.

For instance, I learned last week while going through some family papers with my sister, that I too have an Irish ancestor.

“C’mon, that’s not possible,” I said, as I thumbed through hundreds of old pictures from weddings, bar mitzvahs and gatherings. Some of the pictures were well over 120 years old.

“No, really we do,” said Robin Miller, my sister, who lives in Scottsdale, AZ. “Grandma Hazel’s mother was Irish. Her name was Alice Devine.” Hazel being my mother’s mother -- that would make Alice our Maternal Great-Grandmother.

All we know about Alice is that she died in childbirth sometime in the 1910s in New York. How she met Sam Weber, my great grandfather, and where they lived, etc., is unknown.

I do know that Alice’s husband, Sam Weber, was a longshoreman, who worked on the docks and piers on the West Side Manhattan, along the Hudson River. He loaded crates, handled various cargos, and apparently was a union man for over 60 years. I heard plenty of stories about him when I was little from Grandma Hazel.

But precious little about Alice Devine.

One of my dearest friends is an attorney in Miami, John Devine. We’ve been friends for more than 50 years. I told him about Alice. He was surprised. “Wow, so we could be related. That’s pretty neat,” said John.

But then, Devine is a common enough name, he said. Alice could easily be from Liverpool or London as she could Kerry or Cork.

As a kid, I can remember my Mom and Dad taking me to New York for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. My grandfather, Jack Zuckerman, Hazel’s husband, would often march in the Parade as part of the Shomrim Society, a fraternity of Jewish New York City Policemen. He was a member.

The Shomrim cops would gather, and march to bagpipes down Fifth Avenue on St. Patty’s Day. Grandpa wore his dress blues, and looked great, as I recall. Here’s a link to their website: http://www.nypdshomrim.org

That’s about as close to Irish as our family ever got.

Until now.

As we enjoy St. Patrick’s Day, and all the associated festivities associated with it, it is worth remembering how those early Irish-American immigrants struggled. They had to form together to get work, to find housing, to feed and cloth their families in tenements and ghettos in Chicago, New York, Boston, Detroit, Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Their hard work and efforts helped this country build the railroads, dig coal in the mines, grow crops upon the land, and filled our factories and shops with workers. Irishmen were great writers, artists, musicians, dancers and poets. We’ve had a Kennedy and a Reagan as president. And, more shall come.

Because, despite all the hateful rhetoric, America remains the world’s last, best hope. The essential nation, as Madeline Albright wrote. America is the place where people still long to visit; to have the chance to stand and take the oath of citizenship.

I’m proud of Alice Devine, and all my relatives for helping us arrive at this place and time. And I don’t want to stand in the way of families today and tomorrow, who want to bring their loved ones to reap the benefits of becoming an American.

Because our strength is our diversity. America is, to steal a phrase, people of different temperaments, talents, convictions, regardless of their national origin, coming together to make a great society. That’s who we are. It’s what it’s always been.

The haters who would bar others who from coming to our shores, well, they are not in the majority, and they never have been. Those who think keeping immigrants out will allow those who are already here to get better jobs, make more money, and afford better opportunities –- they’re sadly mistaken.

Instead, we need fresh ideas, fresh minds, and yes, fresh strong backs to drive this nation farther and higher than ever before. That’s what immigrants will bring to America. We should not stop them from joining us. We should open our arms to them.

So while Friday we celebrate that happiest of holidays, St. Patty’s Day, perhaps we should also celebrate Immigrant’s Day, remembering all those who came to America, and celebrating their bravery and conviction.

So hoist a glass or two for all your Immigrant Friends, Irish or not. Because on St. Patrick’s Day, we’re all Irish.

And, if you would, make a special toast to Alice Devine, who reminds us that, no matter our ethnicity, Jew or Gentile, Hindu or Muslim, we are all part of the great American experiment in democracy; that we are all the children of immigrants, who came from some distant shore to America, to find a better way of life.

To all children of immigrants, I say, Happy St. Patrick’s Day -- from one Irishman to another.

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