Irish-American Heritage Month

The US Census Bureau has some “Facts for Features” for Irish-American Heritage Month 2011 which honors the achievements and contributions of Irish immigrants and their descendants living in the United States. For example, there are 36.9 million US residents who claimed Irish ancestry in 2009. This number was more than eight times the population of Ireland itself (4.5 million). Irish was the nation’s second most frequently reported ancestry, trailing only German. See also the Library of Congress page for Irish Contributions to American Culture.

St. Patrick’s Day brings to mind shamrocks, Irish heritage, green beer, leprechauns, and perhaps most notably the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade. Dating back to March 17, 1762, the parade is associated with Guinness and other potent potables often drunk to excess. A NY Daily News article reported that, earlier this month, Mayor Michael Bloomberg faced boos and jeers at the Rockaway Queens St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the second-largest St. Patrick’s Day celebration in the city, for his comment last month at the Upper East Side headquarters of the American Irish Historical Society: “Normally, when I walk by this building there are a bunch of people that are totally inebriated hanging out the window waving.” He later apologized but still faced taunts from the crowd perhaps due to plans to lay off 4,600 teachers.

Another Queens Parade, the “St. Pats Parade for All,” began in March 2000 as the city’s only parade to welcome lesbian and gay contingents after the Manhattan St. Patrick’s Day Parade organizers, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, banned the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization (ILGO) from marching as a group. ILGO, after several unsuccessful efforts to participate in the parade, sued and lost a court action seeking a permit to march. See Irish Lesbian & Gay Org. v. Giuliani, 143 F.3d 638 (2d Cir. 1998) citing the US Supreme Court decision in Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group, 515 U.S. 557 (1995).

The story of the Irish is more than controversies about public intoxication and the exclusion of gays and lesbians. The Brooklyn Law School Library has in its collection a short easily readable book, How The Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe by Thomas Cahill (Call # DA930.5 .C34 1995), which starts with the fall of Rome and the ensuing chaos that it unleashed. As the barbarian hordes were overrunning the remains of the Western Roman Empire, it was not just knowledge of the ancients that was lost. Cahill argues that people did not have time to think on great things. But along came the Irish from the wilds of Hibernia, where barbarians dared not go as the Celts were dangerous. They abducted foreigners into slavery most famously a young Romanized Briton named Patricius. After escaping, the future St. Patrick returned as a missionary to bring Christianity to the Emerald Isle.

The book shows that Christianity brought civilization and a strong sense of peace to the warring Celts of Ireland. It argues that Christianity, a faith that objected to violence as the solution to problems, created the space for study and knowledge. Early Irish Christians (as well as the Jewish nation) preserved the written word to keep civilization alive, saving the works of the ancient Greek and Roman pagans as well as their own literature. Without that effort, much would have been lost forever. The story of how we almost lost the foundations of Western Civilization and how a small group of Irish monks kept the light burning with the world plunged in the Dark Ages is worth reading on St. Patrick’s Day.