On Friday afternoon, a professor of history gave a lecture in Pugliese Auditorium entitled “Flipping the Script: Irish America and U.S. National Identity.”
Matthew O’Brien, who holds a doctorate in history, started the lecture with a perspective on America as a “nation of immigrants.”
He said that while immigrants currently make up only 13.6% of the United States’ population, a relatively low percentage compared to other countries such as Canada and Germany, the immigrant experience has historically been “much closer to the heart of American patriotism.”
“When you talk about these older ethnicities, they complement American patriotism: the notion that you have a deeper appreciation because you’ve seen how it’s done somewhere else and you decided to come here,” O’Brien said.
While immigration and American patriotism may have had a close connection, O’Brien said that prejudices still formed against early Irish immigrants due to their Catholic identity. America’s overwhelmingly Protestant population saw Catholics as “sinister, foreign and duplicitous,” since they feared Catholic absolutism as seen by Louis XIV’s monarchy in France, O’Brien said.
These prejudices led to many attacks, both physical and political, against the Irish immigrants.
O’Brien said that the Kensington nativist riots in 1844 — in which two Catholic churches were burned down in response to allegations that Irish Catholics were trying to remove the King James Bible from public schools — and the political workings of the Know-Nothings, an anti-Irish and anti-Catholic political group, are examples of these prejudices in action.
O’Brien also said that despite these prejudices, Irish immigrants were able to succeed in America, “flipping the script” in their favor.
During the Irish Potato Famine, Irish immigration to America increased by 500%, an increase that has not been seen or even closely matched ever since, O’Brien said.
Those Irish immigrants were able to work extremely hard to build a new life in America and imprint their own identity onto American culture through political efforts by Irish politicians, the great work of Irish cardinals and bishops in cities such as Philadelphia and Boston and the contributions of traditions such as St. Patrick’s Day.
“I appreciated the talk because it was very informative and very personal to me, learning more about my Irish heritage,” said Franciscan University employee Kathleen Krivoniak.