The current wave of White Nationalism and Islamophobia we’re embroiled in was hardly the first time that the U.S. succumbed to anti-immigrant fervor. When the 1845 potato famine sent thousands of Irish people to America, hoping to find work and feed their families, the long-brewing anti-Catholic feelings in the country boiled over. Take this paragraph that describes the cartoon above:
“[Thomas] Nast’s anti-Irish cartoons focus on the Irish as a destructive and lying group, who endangered American society. In the immediate aftermath of the Orange Riot of July 12, 1871 in New York City, in which Irish Catholics clashed with the National Guard protecting an Irish Protestant parade, Nast drew a number of anti-Irish cartoons for Harper’s Weekly. One cartoon illustrated the Draft Riots of July 1863, where Irish Catholics attacked African-Americans throughout New York City. At the top of the drawing Nast wrote that the Irish Catholic is bound to respect “no caste, no sect, no nation, any rights,” highlighting the believed lack of respect the Irish immigrants had for American society. Furthermore, the contrast between the Irish and the Anglo-Saxons in this cartoon clearly shows the Irish in negative light. While the Anglo-Saxons are drawn as regular looking people, the Irish are drawn with ape-like faces illustrating their inferiority as well as the lack of intelligence. Such depictions of Irish were not limited to Nast, with other papers such as Puck and Judge also using caricatures of Irish as primitive and violent.”
—“Thomas Nast Anti-Irish Cartoons”, Catholic Historical Research Center
As I said, anti-Catholic sentiment had been a thing in the U.S. before the famine. There were the Bible Riots in Philadelphia, where anti-Catholic mobs set homes and churches on fire, killing dozens and wounding far more. And I want to emphasize that popular perception was that Catholicism was the religion of invaders. Most of the English colonists had been protestant, and many of the people who participated in the riots and demonstrations were part of so-called “Nativist” organizations, out to protect “real American culture.”
To be perfectly clear, I say so-called because none of them were members of Native America tribes. These were white mutts just like me, whose ancestors had come over mostly from Holland and England just a few generations before and either participated in or profited from the systemic slaughter and displacement of America’s indigenous peoples.
Anyway, the Archbishop of New York had a wall built around St. Patrick’s Cathedral during this time, and the Ancient Order of Hibernians (a pro-Irish group) stationed men armed with muskets around many catholic churches in cities where tensions were high. This is the same organization that sponsored (and in some places still sponsors) many of the St. Patrick’s Day parades throughout the U.S. today.
St. Patrick’s Day parades, during the 19th Century and well into that the 20th, were acts of political protest. Police and National Guard units were sometimes sent in beat up and arrest as many of the parade participants as possible. When Harry S. Truman first participated in the New York City parade in 1948, it was a big deal.
St. Patrick’s Day Parades were Irish Pride Parades—people marched to protest inequality, anti-Irish prejudice, anti-Catholic prejudice, and to honor previous generations who endured those riots, police assaults, and so on.
And during those turning point years, after Irish-America cops fought for the right to march in their uniforms, there was a bit of controversy in some parts of the community—people who were old enough to remember when riot police were sent in to stop the parade.
Now, most people think they are just big parties. Green beer! Everyone’ Irish on St Paddy’s Day! Right? Right?
Over the last few years some of the big city St Patrick’s Day Parades have begun to allow gay Irish-American groups to participate in the parades. But not everywhere. And before you try to argue that since St Patrick is a religious figure (though he was never canonized by a Pope, so not officially a saint), remember all that green beer and cheap Irish whiskey shots at bars? All the raucous behavior and public drunkenness at the parades?
It is not a religious event.
The St Patrick’s Day Parades in America have always been political events. They were originally about fighting discrimination. They are supposed to be about pride in being Irish, right?
Guess what? A lot of Irish-Americans are queer. Hell, a lot of Irish people are queer. The current Prime Minister of Ireland is an openly gay man! He brought his husband with him when he met with the Vice President last week, and then our very homophobic Veep had to stand by and smile diplomatically while the Prime Minister gave an anti-discrimination speech. In 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote!
My own heritage is mixed, like a lot of pasty-pale-skinned Americans. A chunk of my dad’s ancestors came to the U.S. from Ireland, but they were descended from Anglo occupiers who invaded Ireland in the 15th Century. Many of my mom’s ancestors came from Ireland and were poor Irish Catholics. There are conflicting stories in the family about exactly how and when each branch converted to evangelical Protestant, but, my great-grandpa was proud of his Irish roots, and told stories of how his great-grandpa struggled to find work after coming to America during the potato famine.
So, I think I have at least a bit of a right to state an opinion on Irish Pride Parades. And this queer fairy descended from more than a few Irish immigrants, thinks that telling queer Irish-Americans they can’t march in a St Patrick’s Day Parade is bigoted, backward thinking best described as pure blarney.