Today, on St. Patrick’s Day, the day when nearly every American becomes Irish for a day, it seems only appropriate to take a minute or two to think about and appreciate the Irish and their contributions to our great nation.
It is estimated that 40 million Americans can trace their ancestry to Ireland and nearly all the population of Ireland have relatives in the United States.
Nowhere are those contributions more evident than in the police and other first responder professions. It seems only fitting to present a salute of commendation to the Irish-Americans in recognition for their contributions as some of the first members of organized first responders in the United States.
If you’ve read Come What May, the first novel in the Malone Detective Mysteries series, you know that protagonist L.A.P.D. Detective Ben Malone traces his ancestry to Ireland. While thanks to television and Hollywood motion pictures, Irish-American cops has largely been rendered a stereotype, there are facts behind the typecast.
By the turn of the 20th century, five out of six NYPD officers were Irish born or of Irish descent. As late as the 1960s, 42% of the NYPD were Irish Americans.
Immigration is a hot-button issue these days, mostly because of the proposals to build a wall on our southern border with Mexico and attempts to restrict the immigration and resettlement of Muslim refugees from the Middle East. While like many Americans, I find myself feeling largely ambivalent about both of those contentious issues, I do find the controversy ironic in one glaring sense.
The most ardent proponents of open borders and advocates of refugee resettlement continually invoke the vision of America as a nation of immigrants. They present America as a country with a long unbroken and unsullied history of welcoming the down and out from other countries. They characterize Americans as people who eagerly embrace and clasp refugees and other immigrants tightly to the bosom of liberty, welcoming them unreservedly to the land of the free, and home of the brave. Such rhetoric shows one of two things.
Either the pro-immigration activists are completely ignorant of American history, or else are actively indulging in the revision of history to square history with their own agendas. The truth is this. America has a rather abysmal track record when it comes to living up to the familiar and hallowed inscription on Lady Liberty.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
While we have evolved into a nation of immigrants despite ourselves, America has never been particularly welcoming to immigrants. You need to look no further than Irish immigration to see that from the true historical perspective. Throughout her history, America has not exactly rolled out the welcome mat to the tired, poor, huddled masses from abroad, yearning to breathe free, or to the economic refugees seeking a higher standard of living than they could ever hope to attain in their native countries.
The Irish started immigrating to America in large numbers during colonial times. An estimated 250,000 of them migrated to the United States during the era. Many Irish immigrants of the period participated in significant numbers in the American Revolution. One British general went so far as to testify before the House of Commons that “half the rebel Continental Army are from Ireland.”
Given the times of the American Revolutionary period and the make-up of the American citizenry during the period, the colonial wave of Irish immigration to the fledgling United State wasn’t particularly controversial. The fact that the earliest Irish immigrants were predominantly Protestant and spoke English facilitated their assimilation into American society.
However, from 1820 to 1860, when nearly 2 million Irish arrived on these shores, about three-quarters of them after the Great Irish Famine struck in 1845, it was a much different story. The mass immigration of destitute and desperate Irish Catholics, many of whom spoke only Gaelic or a smattering of heavily-accented English, played out quite differently. Neither their religious persuasion nor their lack of command of the English language endeared them to American society.
Beginning in the 1820s, there was a demand for cheap labor for canal building, railroad building, lumbering, and other civil construction works in the Northeast. Those were tough, low-paying jobs that Irish immigrants filled in large numbers. But once the demand for cheap labor started to subside, Americans started to view the Irish as threats to their own job security. Discrimination against the Irish in the workplace and opposition to further Irish immigration became rampant.
While terms like bigotry and xenophobia are fashionable trigger words in the current politically correct charged environment of modern day America, such words and the ideologies they represent has a long and notorious history in this country. Just ask the Irish. In fact, there is a term, Hibernophobia, that refers specifically to anti-Irish sentiments, and that includes racism, oppression, bigotry, persecution, discrimination, and hatred or fear of Irish people as an ethnic group or nation, whether directed against Ireland in general or against Irish immigrants and their descendants.
“Help wanted – no Irish need apply.”
In an atmosphere of oppression, bigotry, discrimination, and unveiled hostility, it was simply a job, a wage, that Irish immigrants were seeking, and they couldn’t afford to be choosy. Largely unskilled, uneducated and typically functionally illiterate, they gladly accepted the most menial jobs at the lowest wage scales, jobs that native-born Americans and other immigrant groups did not want.
In America in the 1840s, job advertisements that read “Help wanted – no Irish need apply” were commonplace. The restriction was used in advertisements for many different types of positions, including store clerks, hotel workers, bartenders, farm workers, house painters, hog butchers, coachmen, bookkeepers, workers at lumber yards, upholsterers, bakers, gilders, and tailors.
Faced with discrimination in the job market, Irish immigrants turned to undesirable jobs with long hours and minimal pay to find work, accepting the menial jobs everyone else looked down on, and no one else wanted. Most of these occupations, which included urban civil service positions, were harsh, offered only low pay, and lacked benefits. Some were outright dangerous.
The only work many Irish could find was “service work” with fire and police departments. The Irish gladly accepted these first responder positions, despite the low pay and inherent risks, as the jobs provided an income and an avenue of integration into American society. Many historians say that the Irish were at the forefront of organized, professional fire and police departments, some going so far as to say that those services wouldn’t be in existence today were it not for the Irish.
Irish-Americans have a proud tradition of service in the police, fire departments, and other first responder agencies across America. While they initially took on these low-paying dangerous jobs because it was the only work to be had, it quickly became a badge of honor to serve their communities in these professions.
Police and firefighter work for many Irish-Americans became the family business, as depicted on the popular television series, “Blue Bloods.” The Irish immigrants who took on first responder professions began having families and their children (and their children’s children) followed in their footsteps. In many of the large American cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Boston, the police and fire departments are still well-represented by men and women of Irish ancestry.
Irish cops may have been largely passed into the myth and legend created by Hollywood, yet the Irish cop on the beat, a peculiar product of a peculiar history, endures as a reality to the present day. No one really knows how many people of Irish extraction are in law enforcement today since the emphasis on tracking demographic categories has shifted to minorities like African Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanics. Irish-Americans have long since been absorbed statistically into the “white” category. Yet one would be hard-pressed to visit virtually any major police or fire department in the United States today without encountering a police officer of firefighter of Irish ancestry.
Some Americans might well be surprised at just how Irish New York’s first responders remain, even in the 21st-century. As one striking example, the sheer number of Irish surnames, particularly among the 343 FDNY firefighters lost in the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers, is as astonishing as it is heart-rending.
Life for the Irish immigrating to and living in the United States wasn’t easy. An accurate depiction of the openly displayed hatred towards the Irish can be observed by watching the extremely historically accurate and award winning 2002 film, “Gangs of New York.” But despite the hatred, the Irish eventually prevailed. They persevered, and they overcame to become respected citizens of their adopted nation. Their heroic service as first responders was no small part of that.
As noted, many believe that America owes a debt of gratitude to the Irish for our organized, professional, and fully functioning fire and police departments which might literally not even exist without their contributions. By the twentieth century, not only did Irish-Americans perform such duties, often they filled the highest leadership roles in such organizations as police and fire chiefs and commissioners.
It seems only fitting today, on St. Patrick’s Day, the day when most every American becomes Irish for a day, to give Irish first responders their due, a salute of appreciation or a tip of the cap. Take a moment to think about and appreciate the Irish and their contributions to our great nation.
This retired Irish-American cop doesn’t have a surname like Kelly or Reagan. My Irish roots come from my mom’s side. Yet I come from a long line of Irish-American cops and proudly share the ancestry with my character Malone. I’m also proud of all the Irish-American men and women who continue to serve their communities by heroically performing their duties as first responders, following in the footsteps of our ancestors. Many of them are happy-go-lucky types. Some of them always love a good fight. All of them display the same attributes that perfectly suited those who came before us to police work. Loyalty, bravery, and dedication to public service. To you all, I raise a pint on this St. Paddy’s Day. Thank you for your service.