St. Patrick’s Day is a day of victory for us all — not only because we enjoy green beer, lucky charms, and t-shirts — but because “100% Irish” paraphernalia contrast that of just a few generations ago, when paraphernalia supported American Party political candidates who argued that America should be rid of the Irish. For me, it’s personal.
How to Keep Your Family Alive
In the mid-1800s, my ancestor Michael was an Irish farmer whose crops in Southern Ireland had been devastated by disease. Realizing that he couldn’t keep his wife and ten children alive in his native country any longer, he left the Emerald Isle for the strange world of America, with his wife Margaret and eight of their children. His son Timothy, from whom I descend, stayed home to nurse his ill young brother back to health, but instead watched helplessly as he died, like so many of their neighbors. As an adolescent boy, he emigrated to America.
Home of the Brave
In his new world, Irish were demeaned alongside blacks. Contemporary cartoons depicted Irishmen as ape-like funnymen, committing crimes in a drunken stupor. Worse still, an illustration in the influential Harper’s Weekly aimed to scientifically demonstrate Irish inferiority.
Caption: “The (Irish) Iberians are believed to have been originally an African race, who thousands of years ago spread themselves through Spain over Western Europe. Their remains are found in the barrows, or burying places, in sundry parts of these countries. The skulls are of low prognathous type. They came to Ireland and mixed with the natives of the South and West, who themselves are supposed to have been of low type and descendants of savages of the Stone Age, who, in consequence of isolation from the rest of the world, had never been out-competed in the healthy struggle of life, and thus made way, according to the laws of nature, for superior races.”
That’s not to mention Irish immigrants’ strange religion, Catholicism. Many Americans, fearing that the Irish would turn their nation into a ‘papal state’ ruled by Church law, formed anti-Irish groups that marched in the streets, lashed out in violence, and at the very least created an intimidating presence.
Thousands of Irish were called upon by Archbishop John Hughes to defend Catholic church buildings against anti-Irish mobs. His biography by Rev. Henry Brann recalls,
When, therefore, he heard that a threat had been made to burn down his cathedral, (Archbishop Hughes) caused three or four thousand of the most intelligent and prominent Catholics to arm themselves, and to take possession of the churchyard in Mott Street, and defend the building. When the ‘Natives’ heard of these preparations, they were afraid to attack, and no more was heard of the threat.
This all reminds me of two things:
- To treasure and give thanks for my ancestors’ courage
- To not let history repeat itself through me
How Far We’ve (Yet to) Come
I wonder how convinced I might’ve been of Irish inferiority were I a non-Irish American in the mid-nineteenth century. How obvious would it have been, that the Irish were a threat? I wonder how much “proof” of their dangerous natures I would’ve seen with my mind’s eye.
Today, Muslim immigrants come here seeking refuge from their own dangerous plights. They, as well as native-born American Muslims, are by many considered threats to national security. They are strange-looking people with an alien culture and violent tendencies, who will surely turn our nation into an Islamic State.
Last month, Lifeway Research published some recent polls of 1,000 Americans each. Among the results:
37% – say they are worried about Sharia law being applied in America
27% – believe ISIL reflects the true nature of Islam
Encountering One Another
About one month ago, not far from my city, a Houston mosque at Quba Islamic Institute suffered tremendous damage by an arsonist. Al Jazeerah reports an encouraging conversion story in the fire’s wake:
Joshua Gray, a truck driver from Catersville, Georgia, took to Facebook and accused Muslims in the United States of not taking a stand against Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
He called Muslims “scum,” in one comment, and in another post he wrote that he hoped a mosque “burns for every American killed by these terrorists.”
(Imam Zahid Abdullah) responded to Gray by inviting him to Quba. Gray, already driving through Houston area, accepted. Then he spent five hours at the mosque speaking with its members and seeing them in prayer.
“It just changed my opinion on a lot of the things I’ve seen and heard by just going in and actually talking to him face to face,” Gray, who said he never met Muslims prior to visiting Quba, told Al Jazeera.
He added that Zahid and other members of the mosque treated him with “friendliness” and were “welcoming” and “well mannered.”
“Everything that a lot of us are told as Christians, they do as far as treating everybody the same. Even after my comments that I made, they still treated me good,” Gray said. “It’s just not what I was expecting.”
Gray later issued a public apology on Quba’s Facebook page, and added: “Anger gets the better of us sometimes by things happening around the world, and in our own country, so we tend to lash out the only way we are able, which are the ones like you, who dont like it anymore than we do. Thanks for inviting me.”
A most-difficult challenge from Pope Francis has been his call for us to create a “culture of encounter”. His message for this year’s World Communications Day reminded us that Jesus’ command to love applies to all our neighbors, even those whose culture and religion are strange to us (cf. Luke 10:25-37).
“May the image of the Good Samaritan,” he said, “who tended to the wounds of the injured man by pouring oil and wine over them be our inspiration.”
Saint Patrick is celebrated by the Irish today not only because he brought Catholicism to their homeland, but because he adopted Ireland as his homeland. He loved the people among whom he was once an alien slave. On his day, may we boldly accept the challenge — a true challenge — to embrace those who are strange to us.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)