Luck of the Irish
With roughly 32 million people in the U.S. now claiming Irish descent (with at least one in every county,) it can be easy to overlook the difficult history of the Irish immigrant within the States. Many of the stereotypes of the Irish we still hold on to today, ones that rear their ugly heads most prominently every year in March, were born from a legacy of intolerance and purposeful cruelty. Claims of the Irish as heavy drinking (even though pubs were closed by law on Saint Patrick’s Day until the 1970s,) red-haired (only about 10% of Irish people are redheads,) hot-tempered (though there are finally calls to combat the offensive “Fighting Irish” Notre Dame mascot in recent years and Ireland is known for its lack of serious violent crime,) deeply religious (though the number of people in Ireland who don’t identify with any religion has risen over 70% in recent years and are the second largest “religious” group in the country,) and as liars (plainly defamatory and probably stemming from the Irish tradition of storytelling and oral history) may be more of a joking matter now, but were once the basis for very real and harmful discrimination.
There’s one stereotype that seems like it couldn’t possibly be harmful, but like most origins, has a darker side: the luck of the Irish. These days we associate the phrase with rainbows, leprechauns, and pots of gold—though only one of those items is at all related. The fact of the matter is, the phrase “the luck of the Irish” was originally meant to be derogatory.
Edward T. O’Donnell, an Associate Professor of History at Holy Cross College, has determined the phrase has a western American origin, linked to the silver and gold rushes in the second half of the 19th century. As many of the most successful miners in this period proved to be Irish immigrants and Irish-Americans, the term “the luck of the Irish” found its feet—but not in a congratulatory way. Rather, the phrase was meant to imply that its only by sheer, dumb luck that the Irish were succeeding, rather than through their intelligence or hard work. This stereotype, of the Irish as lazy or dumb (tell that to a country with the highest rate of third level education in the EU,) coupled with the many others, led to a decidedly negative experience for the Irish immigrant during this time period.
In fact, life in 19th century America was certainly far from lucky for many Irish immigrants—many of whom never even made it across the Atlantic as they fled the Famine, leading to the term “coffin ships” for Irish vessels docking on the Eastern seaboard. If you made it to the U.S., you may have been greeted with “No Irish Need Apply” signs or signs in boarding house windows that said “No Dogs, No Irish” (these remained common in Britain into the 1950s.) And these examples are only the tip of proverbial iceberg—the full weight of the troubles the Irish suffered in America could, and does, fill many books. As the Irish were considered barbaric, savage heathens by the invading British as far back as our records go, that close-minded attitude continued to affect the U.S. populace long after we severed our ties from England.
This month we celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day—and we’re not here to rain on that parade (fingers crossed it’s a beautiful day for the Hartford one!) However, as we don our green clothing and drink our green beers, it’s important to remember that our country hasn’t always celebrated all things Irish and pay respect to the more complicated history that lies behind us. While Irish luck has certainly turned in the past century as the Irish have spread across the globe, reminding ourselves of history is the best way to make sure we don’t repeat it.
This post is part of a series. Read our last Irish history post, all about Irish inventions, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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