The true meaning behind St. Patrick’s Day

Activists and DACA recipients are seen in New York City Feb. 15. (CNS photo/Shannon Stapleton, Reuters)Activists and DACA recipients are seen in New York City Feb. 15. (CNS photo/Shannon Stapleton, Reuters)

Have you heard the stories about the hardworking immigrants who came to America to make new lives for themselves and yet were accused of being lazy, unruly and criminals whose only goal was to take jobs away from the good people of the United States?

I am talking, of course, about the Irish.

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Today, with 32 million Irish-Americans making up about 10 percent of the U.S. population, few of us think of the Irish as immigrants. But it was not too long ago that the Irish were reviled and ridiculed by politicians and the mainstream press. As we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, then, we should take a moment, amid the green beer and the merriment, to remember just how central immigration really is to the Irish-American experience.

As we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day we should take a moment to remember just how central immigration is to the Irish-American experience.

It is central to my personal experience as well: Though I now have the privilege of serving as the president and chief executive of Northwell Health, New York state’s largest health care provider and private employer, I was born in East Limerick to a family of very modest means. Like so many other dreamers before me, I moved to the United States in search of a better life. As I watched the parade marching down Fifth Avenue last year—a parade in which I had the pleasure of serving as Grand Marshal—I could not help but think about the millions of men, women and children who left behind homes and families across the globe for a shot at the American dream.

I am not suggesting that the question of immigration isn’t a complicated one or that those who argue for a policy that carefully vets each newcomer are necessarily wrong. I merely wish, as we celebrate immigrants like me and their contributions to America, to remind us all of two key facts.

The first is that the debate we are having now is not new. Thomas Nast, the infamous 19th-century cartoonist, gained his reputation, in part, by portraying the Irish immigrants as criminals and marauders. “Want ads” in the New York papers often specified that Irishmen need not apply. The immigrants braved these insults, worked hard and, before too long, redefined American culture. In the 1840s, for example, Boston was a town of slightly more than 100,000 people; by the end of the mass Irish migration of the decade it had absorbed 37,000 newcomers, among them the great-grandparents of the future U.S. president John F. Kennedy.

Having had the opportunity to come here, work hard and thrive, I know how precious the privilege of U.S. citizenship truly is.

It is worth remembering both the animosity the Irish, Jews and Italians experienced upon arrival and their eventual success at redefining American culture when we think of today’s immigrants arriving from Mexico, the Philippines, Nigeria and elsewhere.

This is no mere sentimental exercise: This month also brings the expiration date for Dreamers to renew their status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Many of these young immigrants, brought to the country as children, may face deportation unless Congress takes action. Having had the opportunity to come here, work hard and thrive, I know how precious the privilege of U.S. citizenship truly is, but also how devastating it would be to the nation if we lost the ingenuity and dedication of the millions of newcomers who make it the great nation it is.

Which leads me to the second key fact to remember: While immigration is a mass phenomenon, immigrants are always and forever individuals. Anyone who imagines a shifty usurper who comes here to take away U.S. jobs must also imagine someone like me, who got his start working on boats on the Manhattan docks and now oversees a health system that employs 66,000 people, many of whom—including some of our top physicians who heal hundreds of thousands of Americans every year—are immigrants themselves.

Given all that we Irish immigrants have achieved in the United States, it is tempting to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by toasting our accomplishments. But as any immigrant will tell you, a single immigration story only makes sense in the larger context of all other immigration stories: the Irish and the Mexicans, the Indians and the Cubans, the Chinese and the Dominicans and everybody else. Today, we celebrate their achievements and their traditions as well.

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Mike Theman
5 months ago

My perception of the "true" meaning of St. Patrick's Day - since we're obviously making up truths here - is drinking and getting drunk, one of the stereotypical characteristics of Irish immigrants and their progeny. That so many Americans of non-Irish descent go out and celebrate drinking on that day is a testament to how immigrant characteristics, both good and bad, are incorporated into mainstream American culture.

Steve Magnotta
5 months ago

Thank you, Mr. Dowling. Well and truly said.

E.Patrick Mosman
5 months ago

Can it be assumed that you are a legal immigrant, arriving with the required visa, documentation and became a US citizen as did my Irish grandparents. Comparing the hundreds of thousands of legal Irish and other immigrants to the millions of illegal, oops, undocumented immigrants is a false equivalence.
In the past Immigration Police patrolled the streets of New York with authority to ask individuals for their immigration papers and if they could not produce proof of legal entry they were arrested and deported. Most while while holding on to their homeland's customs, became Americans,spoke or learned English, voted legally, raised their children as Americans and insisted on a good education and never, or seldom, returned to their country of origin. The Federal government's failure to enforce its own immigration laws and to secure the borders has completely shredded the ideal that the USA is a nation of laws by allowing and funding individuals and religions to aid and abet illegal(immigration) activities.

Christopher Lochner
5 months ago

Celebrate all immigrants and not just the materially successful?? Or is this way too Christian?

Mercedes Michalski
5 months ago

My name is Mercedes Anne Bernadette McCarthy Jensen Michalski. It tells of my history and St. Patrick's Day is a holy day to me, because my mother, Anne, told me it was. She always made sure my sister Lori, and I wore green ribbons in our hair on this day. I have been to Ireland twice in my life, marveling at the people who looked, felt and acted like me. Long live our diaspora, and also the immigrants who have found their way to the U.S. There are no illegal human beings.

Lisa Weber
5 months ago

One of my grandfathers was an immigrant. My other grandparents were all children of immigrants. It is good to be reminded that immigrants have never been entirely welcome in the USA, but they came anyway and have made America what it is today.

Kevin Murphy
5 months ago

Are you talking about legal immigration? Somehow it has become sinful to believe people should enter the country legally.

Ellen B
4 months 3 weeks ago

Somehow it's become sinful (among some "Christians") to believe that people who have made a clerical error or entered the country through no act of their own should stay in this country.

don ttouchme
5 months ago

So an immigrant thinks we only need more immigration and not only from Europe with whom we share ties of kinship. Basically non American immigrants are the ones insisting we accept millions of third world immigrants from Nigeria and Haiti and wherever else. And we've allowed so many immigrants like this guy who are very impressed with immigrant ingenuity but not with the people who built the country. We've pretty much lost control of our own nation because of mass immigration and immigrants like this guy only want more immigration. Basically because he doesn't care about America. It's a cash cow for him to slaughter.

Dennis Galon
5 months ago

As a Canadian and fond observer of American politics, I am depressed by some of the reactions to this warm-hearting reminder of the standard pattern of immigration to North America--despised and discriminated in the first generation, only to become salt-of-the-earth citizens by the second and third.

My depression is caused by the heartless distinction in posts here between legal and illegal immigrants.

I presume the following statements are true. Am I right?

1. The distinction between legal and illegal immigrants is NOT ultimately a statement about immigrants but rather about the host country. Immigrants are legal or illegal, not by virtue of their being morally "good and law-abiding" or "bad and criminal," but rather by virtue of the democratic majority in the host country being disposed to welcome or reject, and expressing that in the voting booth. The Irish immigrants of this story were driven to emigrate by terrible conditions at home, exactly the same as today's Middle Eastern and Latin American immigrants. The former were legal and the latter illegal, not because the Irish were more law-abiding than Syrians and Mexicans, but because of American public policy. The moral distinction between moral and immoral rests with that public policy, the politicians who legislate it, the the majority who elected those politicians.

By way of contrast, Canada, a country with 10% of the US population, has accepted, indeed sought out roughly 50,000 Middle Eastern refuges in the last year, with a view to easing in some minor way the current immigration burden of Europe. That would be the equivalent of the US accepting 500,000 annually! We can absorb our 50K, and so could the US absorb 500K.

At the present time, thousand of Haitians and others formally granted sanctuary in the US are illegally crossing the border into Canada. They cross willingly into the arms of waiting federal police (Royal Canadian Mounted Police), who inform them they are illegal, register them for an eventual refugee hearing, and then bus them to shelter in larger centers. Shame on the US!

2. I know it is true of Canada, and presume it is also true of the US, that we urgently need young immigration to counter the phenomenon of a lopsided age profile in our populations--proportionally way too many retired seniors and not enough young workers to keep paying taxes. By simply paying attention to those statistics, one grasps that we NEED immigrants; they are doing us a favor and not the other way around! Why are these population facts not front and center in the American immigration debate? If all 11 million illegals were magically, instantly, deported, what would the effect be on the age-pattern and labor-market pattern in the US? I assume actually imagining that magic result would sober the current debate with a very serious dose of positive regard for immigrants, legal and illegal.

3. This is a Catholic news source, so it is surely not out of place to reference Mt 25.31ff--the famous Last Judgement scene. We tend to read our own notion of good and bad people into Christ's judgement of sheep versus goats. What the text actually says is that those of us who generously treat any and all others as Christ himself will enter heaven; and those of us who refuse to recognize Christ in all others, will retire to that other place. Literally, therefore, every immigrant, legal or illegal is Christ, and their plight ought to be seen by Christians in exactly those terms.

This post is rather angry . I have just returned from a talk by an African woman (Rwanda) who immigrated to Canada in 2008, after 15 years in refugee camps in various African countries. Involuntarily separated from her husband, she ILLEGALLY crossed multiple borders with one infant strapped to her back, another in her arms, and a third literally tied to her right leg. She and her children lived under a UN-supplied tarp supported about four feet high, so adults could not stand upright--effectively living in the open, but sleeping under a tarp.

From now on the phrase "ILLEGAL immigrant" will always conjure in my mind an image of this woman's incredible suffering and dignity, a genuine Christ per Mt 25.31. From now on, the phrase "ILLEGAL immigrant" will be for me a term of glory, of human bravery in the face of extreme agony.

Vince Killoran
5 months ago

East Limerick? That's a rough place.

Mercy, as well as good public policy, necessitates that we establish a route to citizenship for undocumented Americans. It's the smart and Christian thing to do. But the question of what our overall immigration policy should be is an important one.

Going forward, should the USA have "open borders"? If not, then what limits should be set? How should our borders be secured?

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