Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Happy St. Patrick's Day!
St. Patrick's Day is traditionally a religious holiday in Ireland. The celebratory nature of the day was created by Irish immigrants to the United States as a way to retain their Irishness and ease the transition into American society.
The Irish immigrated to the United States beginning in Colonial times, but the largest wave came between 1820 and 1880, when almost 3.5 million Irish arrived, among them my ancestors from County Meath. These millions left their homeland for many reasons including poverty, famine, religious prejudice, and political subordination.
This circa 1910 postcard from the collections of the Museum's Curt Teich Postcard Archives is a terrific representation of Irish immigration to the United States and the bond between the two countries.
One of the great motivators for Irish coming to the Midwest was the Illinois-Michigan Canal. Built between 1836 and 1848, this 100-mile commercial waterway, linked Lake Michigan in Chicago to the Illinois River in Peru. The canal’s contractors relied heavily on recruiting Irish for the work force and advertised in newspapers in Dublin, Cork and Belfast. After working on the Canal and saving enough money, many Irish decided to settle in Illinois and bought land in Lake County.
Evidence of Irish settlement was reflected in area place names. "Ireland" was located east of the Des Plaines River in Libertyville and Vernon Townships. "Irish Hills" referred to the area of rolling hills around Hunt Club Road and Route 173 where a high percentage of Irish farmers settled. "Codfish Town" was a designation used for the Irish neighborhood near Washington Road in Lake Forest where, in the late 1800s, the smell of codfish cooking on Friday evenings wafted in the air. (For more on Lake County's Irish Place Names check out my post.)
Shown in the photograph (above) is the Fuller family of Waukegan, welcoming their newly arrived Irish cousins in 1918.
Postcards reflected both positive and negative images of the Irish. This circa 1910 postcard proclaiming "Erin go Bragh" or "Ireland Forever" is illustrative of the positive.
Though the Irish immigrants were materialistically poor, they brought a rich cultural heritage with them. Cultural events such as the St. Patrick’s Day parade, first celebrated in Boston in 1737, were regarded by many Americans as evidence of the separateness of these new immigrants. But the Irish desire for self-expression through parades and the “wearing of the green” in their adopted country helped them to retain their heritage while embracing the freedom at the heart of being American.
In the last several years, the Irish-American secular celebration of St. Patrick’s Day has made its way back to Ireland. The national holiday honoring Ireland's patron saint is now marked by a multi-day festival of parades, concerts and fireworks.