Staff Columnist

Iowa-Irish experience was not always a celebration

Unruly, uneducated mobs attacking our way of life; sound familiar?

Cory Crowley (far right), originally from Cedar Rapids and now of Washington, DC,  leads the Glynn Gang float, Willy McWonka and the Irish Oompa Loompa, during the St. Patrick's Day Parade in Cedar Rapids on Friday, March 17, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Cory Crowley (far right), originally from Cedar Rapids and now of Washington, DC, leads the Glynn Gang float, Willy McWonka and the Irish Oompa Loompa, during the St. Patrick's Day Parade in Cedar Rapids on Friday, March 17, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Eastern Iowa will be more than a little bit Irish this weekend.

I’ll have my pick of several Irish-inspired bars to visit in Iowa City. I’ll wear my “Kiss me, I’m a Sullivan” shirt, which my mom found ready-made, even though my surname only ranks about the 100th most common in the United States. And while I’ll drink Busch Light — I’m still more Iowan than Irish, after all — there will be no shortage of Guinness and Jameson around town.

Saint Patrick’s Day, honoring the patron saint of Ireland, reminds us Irish immigrants have left a big, green and orange mark on American culture. More than 30 million Americans identified as Irish in the most recent census, making the Irish American population several times bigger than the population of Ireland itself.

Here in Iowa, about 13 percent of residents claim to have predominantly Irish ancestry, ranking third behind German at 35 percent, and “other” at 52 percent, according to the online Iowa Data Center.

But the Irish-American experience has not always been such a celebration.

Dubuque was an early hub for European immigrants. The 1850 census showed a majority of local residents were foreign born, including 25 percent who had roots in Ireland.

Irish families spread in all directions from Dubuque throughout Iowa, and others came up after their boats landed on the coast at the Gulf of Mexico. My line of Sullivan’s started farming near the Maquoketa River in rural Jackson County in the early 1850s, according to my grandmother’s notes.

Immigrants on the American frontier often settled in groups with others from their home country. Many Irish Iowans worked as day laborers, miners or tradesmen. They were not always appreciated by their neighbors.

“The mostly unskilled Irish laborers came from peasant backgrounds. … The Germans usually enjoyed a more comfortable standard of living than the Irish,” Iowa historian Ralph Scharnau wrote in a 2011 report for the State Historical Society of Iowa.

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In 1871, the Cedar Rapids Times published a commentary about the “orange riots,” which had recently broke out in New York between rival Irish sects. The author bashed the Irish for refusing to acclimate to American culture.

“They refused to except [sic] our American interpretation of religious and civil liberty. … They still mutter warfare against the fabric of public law,” an unnamed commentator wrote.

European newcomers to the United States never faced the same level of institutional discrimination as people of color have. Still, it is hard to ignore the unpleasant connections early Irish Americans share with today’s immigrants and refugees.

People hoping to make our country their home are sometimes characterized as criminals, even by supposed public servants. Scared white people — descendants of immigrants themselves — say immigrants will steal our jobs, impose their religion or harm our children.

That is just as wrong today as it was in 1871. Keep that in mind as you raise your pint glass this weekend and celebrate your Irish heritage.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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