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The Irish heritage and its aftermath

My mother in the days before the Depression and the War
Personal Photo

You need only read a book like Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt to understand that the Irish heritage is a harrowing and haunting thing. The grueling poverty that Irish people endured, the Potato Famine and the huge emigration from Ireland to the United States, with the "No Irish need apply" discrimination that followed it, stand like gravestones in a cemetery. The story of the Irish in America (and Australia) is amazing and appalling. Yet this is the heritage that evokes fierce pride and rejoicing in the descendants of those who endured these things.

In Angela's Ashes McCourt recounts his stay in a hospital where he suffered from diphtheria. He made the acquaintance of a charming young lady there, only to find that she died before he got out and returned to his family. The toll in children alone, between famine and disease, must have weighed heavily on the immigrants who arrived in New York only to find themselves packed into tenements in the Irish ghetto.

I grew up with a hazy idea of this when I used to watch very early television in the Fifties. I was about five when I watched a children's show out of Chicago, I believe, that featured a host known as Two-Ton Baker. He was a stout man, as you might imagine, who played the piano and entertained little children for half an hour. I was much too young at the time to catch on to whatever he was doing to entertain adults, but I still remember a little song that he used to sing. I think it came straight out of tenement life. It recounted the typical week, and it began like this:

"Today is Monday, today is Monday:
Monday Wash Day, everybody happy? Well, I should say!"

The song went on to tick off the rest of the week: Tuesday: soup, Wednesday: string beans, Thursday: roast beef, Friday: fish, Saturday: payday and Sunday: church. I imagine that many of my readers remember this song, or even sang it themselves. The portrait that it paints is of a people who look for their next meal, people of faith, and people who have a big base of shared experience.

I also thought about that as I found recipes for some of the Irish traditional foods for St. Patrick's Day, such as Corned Beef and Cabbage and Irish Soda Bread. I have always disliked the celebration of St. Patrick's Day because it dwells on drinking, but to be fair it is usually young and undisciplined people who reel around drunk in the streets on the evening of March 17. So I will stay off the streets of Tucson this Monday and avoid possible drunk drivers, who are statistically likely to be out there, with Ground Zero being the environs of the campus of the University of Arizona.

But for the very reason that the Irish suffered so much open discrimination when they first arrived on our shores looking for their version of the American Dream, I have to say that it ill behooves them to try to pull the ladder of success up behind them and deny the same chances to other immigrant peoples. African Americans were on our shores long before the great Irish emigration, brought here in chains against their will. We see politicians who hate our President and justify their hatred with lying talking points, in extreme bad taste to say the least, and for politicians of Irish extraction to attack Barack Obama, women and the American middle class is reprehensible.

I identify the Polish heritage that I come by through my mother; her picture appears above, a picture that shows a little girl in Chicago who first learned English when she began elementary school and eventually forgot her Polish. I knew her father, who had come from the Old Country and married in Chicago. Life was hard for him, too, and his family in the Depression; one of my mother's sisters contracted polio and the other got Whooping Cough at one point in her life and was at death's door. They lived cheek by jowl with other ethnic communities in a neighborhood called Six Corners in Chicago, which is northwest along Milwaukee Avenue. The real Polish neighborhood there is called Cragin, and other groups such as Jewish, Irish, Greek and Italian can be found in their enclaves to this day.

Every day my grandfather would walk to a corner newsstand and buy the Polish newspaper, which was on display next to newspapers in Spanish, German, Hebrew, Italian and Greek. He would read them on the way to visit my family, for which he took a train. I would see the Cyrillic Polish script of the newspaper when I was little and wondered how anyone could read it.

The ethnic neighborhoods are mostly resettled nowadays, as the immigrants who first had trouble with the newly-encountered English language have died off and their children were not restricted in their opportunities by the language barrier. Most neighborhoods, that is, but not the black ghettos, which still contain unwilling African Americans who have the means to move to a more peaceful area, but are sill walled in by discrimination. And lately we are seeing places like New York City becoming so high-priced that common people can no longer afford to live even in what used to be low-rent districts. Those districts are being emptied out, demolished and replaced by gated communities; if you want to commute to work you can live across the bridges and on the other side of the tunnels. And then you have to contend with a politician like Governor Chris Christie, an Irish-American who treats New Jersey like his personal fiefdom and unleashes traffic chaos on an entire city out of a personal desire for an unspecified revenge. "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," his staffer wrote. "Got it," replied somebody at the Port Authority, and suddenly the Fort Lee bridge was shut down.

These are the kind of things that I meditate upon when a great ethnic holiday like St. Patrick's Day presents itself. How far have the Irish Americans come from remembering their struggles, that they can turn against common people the way Christie did? The American people have to get it pretty soon: that we have a common cause against nascent fascism that is gulping down our money and purchasing our elected officials. You may think that Arizona could use a lot less border-crossers, and if you do I advise you to watch a movie called A Day Without a Mexican and consider that the people that we are using badly and discriminating against today in the Southwest are going to overcome it and be in charge of the same enterprises and corporations that will be paying our grandchildren and their grandchildren.

Everyone in the embattled American middle class has a common cause and if we do not hang together we will die in our cars, penniless, unemployed and sick when the Republicans get through with us. Last week the House of Representatives passed yet another bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act--they are in their fifty-some vote on that subject. Now that some of us, like my husband, have health insurance they want to take it away from us. They want to take away food assistance. They want to close public schools so that private/charter schools can make money out of education. Will the voting public get this straight in their minds by the time they cast ballots this fall--those of them who can manage to vote through the voter-suppression that Republican legislatures throughout the country are passing as fast as they can?

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