This St. Patrick’s Day, Imagine An America Without Irish Immigrants

Coming To America
An Irish immigrant (center) sits on a chair and waits next to an Italian immigrant and her children, Ellis Island, early 20th Century. (Photo by FPG/Getty Images)
FPG—Getty Images

Today is Saint Patricks’ Day, a celebration of Irish heritage. Saint Patrick’s Day began, of course, as a religious holiday. But time and customs have transformed it over the years into a pageant of culture; a chance to acknowledge the contributions that Irish-Americans have made to the US. Yet Irish heritage was not always so widely embraced. During the Potato Famine of the 19th century, nearly 1 million Irish immigrated to America — the first large wave of refugees the country had ever encountered. Many faced virulent prejudice, and were denied employment and basic dignity upon arrival to this country. Despite these obstacles, doors were opened for the Irish, and generations hence, the Irish have made an indelible mark on the country.

We are now at a point where America is moving in the most nationalistic direction we have seen in decades. President Trump’s new executive order bars immigrants and refugees from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen on the pretext that this will make the country safer. This begs the question: What if we had, in the 19thcentury, barred entry to Irish refugees? What would America look like today? How would the country be poorer?

Perhaps one way to view these questions is to look at the Irish immigrants who shaped this country. I focus here on three immigrants who have influenced my field—population health—while recognizing that the breadth of Irish contributions extends well beyond health.

In 1771, James McHenry immigrated to Philadelphia. He was 18, and the first member of his family to make the journey. Choosing a medical career, McHenry would later spend two years as an apprentice to Benjamin Rush — a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a friend of Thomas Jefferson — from whom he acquired the skills of his trade and a political education. As a military surgeon during the Revolutionary War, he cared for the sick and wounded, before coming to the attention of General George Washington. As a Maryland representative at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, he would lend his signature to the founding charter of the US, establishing the political system under which we live, and codifying, in the Bill of Rights, the principle safeguards of a free society.

Like Dr. McHenry, the contributions of Mary O’Connell, known as Sister Anthony, were also informed by war. Born in Limerick, Ireland in 1814, she immigrated to Massachusetts with her family when she was young. She became a nun at 21, and later served as the head of nursing at St. John’s Hospital in Cincinnati. Soon after the Civil War began in 1861, city leaders asked Sister Anthony if a group of nuns could help ease the suffering of soldiers afflicted by a measles outbreak at a Union Army camp. Sister Anthony agreed. This mission would lead to even more service, as the nuns spent the war traveling with the Army, ministering to soldiers in hospitals and on battlefields. During her service, Sister Anthony pioneered the technique of battlefield triage, saving lives more efficiently by allocating treatment among patients to maximize survival rates. The technique remains a critical practice in war zones and among disaster relief workers. For her innovation, and her compassion for Northerners and Southerners alike, Sister Anthony would receive praise from President Lincoln, and earn a nickname, “Angel of the Battlefield.”

For much of her early life, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones lived in relative obscurity. Born at some point between 1830 and 1844—historians are unsure of exactly when—in Cork County, Ireland, she was among the many immigrants driven from the country by the Potato Famine. She spent her early life in Canada, then moved to Chicago in her 20s, a dressmaker and a teacher by training. The contrast between the wealthy women she sewed for and the unemployed homeless of the city would inspire her interest in the labor movement. Jones turned to activism, traveling the country and speaking out in support of workers’ rights. Industrialization was quickly changing the conditions of labor, making work more hazardous for those who toiled at the bottom of America’s growing economy. Jones’s fight against worker exploitation and child labor drew attention to the wellbeing of a frequently neglected class, and her tireless efforts on behalf of unions helped to bring about better wages, healthier working conditions, and shorter hours, improving conditions for workers across the US.

Reflecting on the lives of these exemplary Americans, it is difficult not to think of our current political moment, and all we stand to lose if we embrace a politics of exclusion. What kind of country will we become by no longer admitting refugees? Among the ban’s negative effects, it will reduce the number of skilled scientists and doctors in the US, and chill international recruitment at top medical schools, weakening our healthcare system and undermining our health. This is to say nothing of the rhetoric directed against Muslims and Hispanics, which recalls the worst of the vitriol leveled at the Irish. As we mark Saint Patrick’s Day, then, it may be worth a pause to acknowledge the spirit of inclusiveness that ultimately won the day against anti-Irish prejudice, and transformed the country for the better.

Sandro Galea is the Robert A Knox Professor and Dean of Boston University School of Public Health.

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