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St. Patrick's Day. A Day to Celebrate, and Not Just for The Irish

By Joe Rothstein — March 12, 2018

Mexicans as rapists and MS-13 gang members. Haitians and Africans from shithole countries. Immigrants as terrorists. Can the U.S. survive the fire of racism and nativism that Donald Trump has ignited and continues to fuel with verbal kerosene?

For anyone who believes we should continue to be a nation of immigrants, these are gloomy times. Racism and ignorance long latent in our society rule the White House, exposing the indigestible residue from our cultural melting pot. Now that we are here, with cultural defamation as national policy and a president intent on driving wedges to win votes, is it possible to return to our immigrant nation roots?

For a hopeful answer to that question I give you St. Patrick’s Day, the day when more than 30 million Irish-Americans march, drink green beer and celebrate, joined by countless others of us. But dial back to mid-19th century America when tens of thousands of Irish arrived on our shores to escape a devastating famine. There were no celebrations then. What awaited them was much hostility.

“The refugees seeking haven in America were poor and disease-ridden. They threatened to take jobs away from Americans and strain welfare budgets. They practiced an alien religion and pledged allegiance to a foreign leader. They were bringing with them crime. They were accused of being rapists. And, worst of all, these undesirables were Irish.”

That’s from Christopher Klein’s essay on Irish history in the U.S. which you can find on the History Channel’s website,

Here’s more:

“Herded like livestock in dark, cramped quarters, the Irish passengers lacked sufficient food and clean water. They choked on fetid air. They were showered by excrement and vomit. Each adult was apportioned just 18 inches of bed space—children half that. Disease and death clung to the rancid vessels like barnacles, and nearly a quarter of the 85,000 passengers who sailed to North America aboard the aptly nicknamed “coffin ships” in 1847 never reached their destinations. Their bodies were wrapped in cloths, weighed down with stones and tossed overboard to sleep forever on the bed of the ocean floor.”

The Irish were mostly Catholics. At the time, as now, the U.S. was predominantly Protestant. Protestants with such a dim view of Catholicism that no ugly rumor about the newcomers was beyond belief. Such as, priests raped nuns in convents and strangled any babies the nuns had the indecency to birth.

Animosity to the Irish was so widespread that a new political party formed to press an anti-immigrant agenda. It was called the “American Party,” and its members vowed to elect only native-born citizens. Party members were called “Know-Nothings” because they proudly claimed to “know nothing” of politics. Their motto was, “Americans must rule America!”

Is this beginning to feel familiar?

They elected 100 congressmen, eight governors and mayors of Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago before flaming out.

Over the years, pulling their collective selves up from the bottom of the socio-economic ladder one rung at a time, the Irish became “real” Americans. So real, that more than 20 U.S. presidents can trace their heritage back to Irish ancestors. Even Barack Obama, through his mother’s family.

But old prejudices never fully die. President Richard Nixon once told advisor Charles Colson that "The Irish can't drink. What you always have to remember with the Irish is they get mean. Virtually every Irish I've known gets mean when he drinks. Particularly the real Irish.”

How often the U.S. has gone through this. It hardly matters where the immigrants come from, some among us will resist having them here. In the 19th and early 20th centuries prejudice erupted even against those whose skin was white: Irish, Italians, Germans, Russians, Eastern Europeans. For decades it was the Chinese and others from Asia. For America’s entire history it’s been Afro-Americans, the only immigrant group that did not come here voluntarily.

Despite periods in our history when groups like the Know Nothings can seem ascendant, majority American opinion since our founding has been welcoming to just about anyone from anywhere, particularly those fleeing persecution or life-threatening disaster. The difference now, as opposed to all prior U.S. history, is that we have a president who promotes rejection rather than acceptance. Can we overcome that and remain true to the promise affixed to our Statue of 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!”

It’s going to require tens of millions of sons and daughters of the boat Irish and descendants of other once-persecuted minorities who found freedom and opportunity in America to make sure that the golden door that opened for their families does not close for this generation’s huddled masses.

In the mid-19th century it would have seemed improbable that the Irish would claim 20 U.S. presidents as their own. Looking back at that history gives us reason to hope that such a welcoming past is still our future.

(Joe Rothstein is a regular columnist for and author of the acclaimed political thriller “The Latina President and the Conspiracy to Destroy Her.” Mr. Rothstein can be contacted at

Joe Rothstein is editor of U.S. Politics Today. His career in politics spans 35 years, as a strategist and media producer in more than 200 campaigns for political office and for many political causes. He was a pioneer in professional political consulting and one of the founding members of the American Association of Political Consultants. During his career Mr. Rothstein has served as editor of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Anchorage Daily News and adjunct professor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. He has a master's degree in journalism from UCLA.