“America!” said many Irish immigrants peering from the deck of their ship at their first glimpse of New York harbor, long before there was any Statue of Liberty.
America represented hope to them. America represented liberty. America represented whatever their dreams could muster, for they had heard that America was a place where you could make your life into whatever you could make it. In America, you could obtain a piece of land. In America, you could succeed. In America, you could fail. In America, you weren’t a vassal of Kings and Nobility from another land. In America, you were free. In America, you could die while trying. In Ireland, you would simply die. In either case, death was the final end. It’s a hard world.
It wasn’t easy for them, though. They mostly came with nothing more than a yearning, which will see a man far enough if he is determined, or if he is lucky, though the combination is far better. Most made something of their lives in America since most survived. Some failed utterly. Many are laid in unmarked graves along trails. Some of them are buried in national cemeteries, having served in the Civil War, since many came here during the period 1840 through 1860, leaving an Ireland that had been devastated by the Potato Famine, when millions of Irish starved to death. An empty belly is a powerful motivator.
So, Ireland vomited out its masses onto the shores of America. They arrived here at a time when there was no safety net beyond their church, or the kindness of strangers. But America was mostly a Protestant nation, and the Irish were mostly Roman Catholic. And strangers weren’t typically kind, as we all have learned that employers frequently posted signs that read, “No Irish Need Apply.”
There were no hospital emergency rooms. There were no government food programs, housing programs, educational programs, or health programs. The federal government in those days did not see its role as being involved in the betterment of the lives of average citizens; that was the province of the states and local governments. The states and local governments didn’t do much, leaving charity up to the churches and to the people. The business of government was government, not charity.
“Help Wanted. No Irish Need Apply,” the sign said.
Sean looked at the sign and turned to his brother, Patrick. “There’s no use in asking here if they have any work.”
Patrick looked at the sign, relying on his younger brother to tell him what it said, since he could not read. He looked at the wagon in front of the mercantile. It was piled high with grain sacks, each weighing over a hundred pounds. He listened to the teamster argue with the store owner on the boardwalk. He could hear their heated exchange. This was chance.
“Good mornin’ to ya, sirs,” said Patrick, stepping up onto the boardwalk. “Me and my brother, Sean, will get that wagon unloaded for ya in short order.”
The proprietor and the teamster both looked at Patrick, his dirty cap, his red hair, his green eyes. They heard the lilt in his lyrical voice. The proprietor pointed at the sign and said, “You must not can read, boy. Irish ain’t welcome here. Now, git.”
“I’ll be gittin’ just as soon as I’ve unloaded that wagon, as I figgur you’re needin’ the wagon unloaded worse than you’re not wantin’ us Irish around your fine store.” Patrick had a wide grin on his face when he said this, and a twinkle in his eye. Sean watched his brother in amazement at his moxie.
The teamster demanded the wagon get unloaded so he could be on his way. The proprietor, Mr. Bathecombe, looked at the wagon. He looked around at a street filled with busy people. He looked at Patrick and then at Sean. He frowned. Then he sighed. Then, Patrick knew that he and Sean would at least have enough money for a biscuit or two for breakfast after they had unloaded the wagon; he could see the resignation in Bathcombe’s eyes.
“All right. You two get busy unloading that wagon. Tote the sacks around the the back of the store and stack them up under the lean-to,” said the proprietor. “I ain’t paying but a dime for each of you, but that’s more than you are worth, I daresay.”
Neither of the brothers said a word, they just got busy. Bathcombe turned to some customers who were waiting for his attention, and the teamster sat on a bench on the boardwalk, satisfied that he was getting’ his wagon unloaded. In short order, it was empty. Patrick went in to get his pay as the teamster drove down the street to get his next load of freight.
Mr. Bathecombe gave Patrick the two dimes, looking over the top of his spectacles one more time with a sigh. He said, “I don’t approve of the Irish. I think you all are a bunch of no good, thievin’ rascals. I think you red-headed hordes are going to destroy this nation, you and that Pope of yours. But I need some men to do some heavy work around here, and no one else seems willing to do it. Do you and your brother want a job, at least until you can find something else and be on your way?”
“Aye!” said Patrick.
“Well,” Bathecombe continued, “I’ll be paying you fifty cents a day, and your brother a quarter. Plus breakfast and lunch. You’ll be on your own for your supper. You’ll work when I say work, and you’ll stop when I say stop. You can stay in the shed out back if you haven’t any other place. But remember, I don’t want any lip when I need something done. If you didn’t have strong backs, you’d be on your way right now. I will not tolerate Irish insolence. It’s not your brains I want…it’s your back.”
“Aye, sir,” said Patrick. He knew the value of both, his brain and his back. It was his brain that allowed him to see a chance in the situation at hand, in the possibility of his becoming a solution, however distasteful, to Bathecombe. This allowed his back to be employed gainfully, but in reality, it was his brain that got him the job. It was his brain that allowed his back to earn some money, even if it was just enough for breakfast.
Bathecombe looked at the sign, “Help Wanted.No Irish Need Apply.” He reached up and took it down, shaking his head. “What have I just done?” he asked himself, thinking of all the things he would have to explain to his fraternal brothers at this Thursday’s meeting at his Masonic Lodge.
“Damn a bunch of Irish,” he said to out loud, to himself, but out loud nevertheless. Patrick and Sean said not a word. He turned to Patrick and Sean, saying, “For right now, you can start sweeping this boardwalk and shoveling the horse dung out from in front of my store.”
Patrick shook his head and said, “I’m thankin’ ya, Mr. Bathecombe, for the job,” and holding his hand out with the two dimes, “And we’ll be right back after me and me brother have had our breakfast and knocked the edge off our hunger since we’ve completed our first contract with you. Right after our breakfast, we’ll begin our new one.”
Bathecombe frowned, was a bit put out by Patrick’s insolence, thought seriously about running both of them off, but, a contract is a contract. True, they had fulfilled their obligations of the first contract and were now starting a second. He watched somewhat slack-jawed as Patrick grabbed his brother by the arm and dashed across the street to an eatery with fresh eggs, biscuits, bacon, ham, and coffee. The brothers were mighty hungry.
As he watched them race across the street, Bathcombe thought that these two were not like the other Irish. He thought that the older of the two had some good negotiating sense. He thought that Patrick was dangerous, since he had a brain to think with.
“I better keep my eye on them two,” said Bathecombe, turning, wondering as he went through the threshold of his own store, just what would become of the world he knew with all those Irish, their whiskey drinking, their songs, and their Pope. Then, Bathecombe realized that he really didn’t know much about the Irish, other than he didn’t like them or their Pope. “This is all against my better judgment,” said Bathecombe to himself. Then he thought, fleetingly, that Patrick was indeed a pretty good negotiator, and perhaps that would be useful for him, too, when he was suddenly interrupted from his thoughts.
“Mr. Bathecome!!” fairly hollered Mrs. Edgewater, “Must I wait all day while you gawk at those dirty Irishmen?”
“Coming, Mrs. Edgewater. Coming!” And he turned to his affairs, occasionally glancing out the storefront window, looking to see if Patrick and Sean were headed back his way, as he went over in his mind the list of things he wanted them to do. So distracted was he that he wrote down in the ledger one pound of butter rather than the two he weighed out for Mrs. Edgewater.
One can mostly substitute the immigrants of their choice into this story. The immigration debate is not a new one to America. After the Irish there were the Italians, the Slavic, the Scandinavians, the Hmong, among others. Before the Irish, the Native Americans had the French, the English, and the Spanish…and the Irish had the English, and the English had the Normans, the Angles, the Saxons, the Jutes, and the Romans. Considering that, just who are the English? Who are the Irish? Who are we?
But there is a rational limit. All 150 million Mexicans cannot move to the USA for economic reasons, even political ones. History teaches us that if the immigration wave is large enough, the native culture vanishes. Mexicans have no natural rights to emigrate and become citizens here, or at least no more rights than Americans have to become citizens of Canada. If you show up at the Canadian border with a U-Haul trailer full of household furnishings, you can expect to be promptly turned away if you are an American, and you can expect to be even more promptly turned away if you are Hispanic. Oddly, if you are Guatemalan or an El Salvadoran, you can expect to be denied entry into Mexico if they think your destination is Mexico, and permission for entry to those merely passing through is only recent.
America is still a land of hope and opportunity. It becomes even more so when Immigrants are immediately allowed to participate in our tax system and obtain the Earned Income Credit, which means that US taxpayers will rebate money to people who are not even citizens. No country on earth does that. While credits of $5,000 and more are certainly beneficial for low income citizens, especially when the credit comes as a cash refund, it does not elevate one to wealthy status. Not really. Not practically.
But if you are from rural Chiapas and you learn that in America you can get $5,000 dollars from the government simply by filing a tax return, and your annual income in your native Chaipas is $500 per year, then no one on earth can satisfactorily explain to you that this will not make you a wealthy person. And if just one of your family, or two, can make it to America, get that tax refund and send it back home to Chiapas, your entire extended family will be wealthy. It is too much temptation. Too much temptation for fraud, too.
Only America would do this, which is why no one clamors to get to Russia, or North Korea, or Mexico, Cuba, or Venezuela. America still represents the best hope of people who would be free. Sweden does not do that. Even Switzerland does not do that. And while Americans not as free as we once were, we are still pretty free…freer than most, even if there are lists created by some who don’t think so, who long to point to polls and studies crafted that show otherwise for some mysterious reason.
America still has one thing that is the greatest testimony…we still contemplate, on a regular basis, the building and strengthening fences to keep people out. It’s the day we build fences to keep Americans in that we will have a bigger worry.
“Don’t fence me in,” the song says. When the people exiting Mexico become a liability for the Mexican government, we’ll likely see some restrictions on migrants looking to leave Mexico. Right now, the money they send back home is a large part of the Mexican economy, probably as large as the money America sends there through narcos and petrodollars.
“No Irish Need Apply.” The Irish did indeed apply. Some of them made it. Some of them didn’t. Some of them died along the way, much like the rest of us. The world is still the world. Nations are still nations. I am thankful for that. When the world becomes a nation, then all freedoms will be gone other than the token freedoms the one-world government will let us exercise. A one-world government will crush cultures in favor of a false homogeneity, which will be resented, but crushed nevertheless.
Me? I’ll have the Irish, please, full of their voices, their music, and their St. Patrick.
But, in hindsight, the green-eyed, red-haired Irish look a whole lot like me, excepting the red hair. I am the Irish, the Scots-Irish, and the Presbyterian Scots.
I’ll admit that it’s a lot easier when the immigrants look a lot like me.
©2014 Mississippi Chris Sharp