March 17, 2005

Irish in America offer temperament for all to live by

There's something special about the Irish in America, which probably explains why so many celebrate St. Patrick's Day as if it were a holiday.

Some say it's a good reason to drink, and if you're going to drink, it might as well be with someone who knows how, like an Irishman. An Irishman would say being Irish is a good reason indeed to drink.

And that fatalistic attitude is what makes the Irish so great. Should it come as any surprise that Murphy's law - "What ever can go wrong will go wrong" - was devised by Murphy and not an Alberti or a Honecker?

Or as playwright Oscar Wilde once wrote: "An Irishman has an abiding sense of tragedy which sustains him through temporary periods of joy."

• • •

The Irish were among the first Europeans in Iowa. During the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s, entire families came.

A promise of possibility lured many of these immigrants to the frontier. An 1841 edition of the Philadelphia Catholic Herald proclaimed Iowa "The Garden of America" and "The Eldorado of the West," a place where land could be bought for $4 an acre, making frontier life worth the travails.

Over the next several decades, tens of thousands of Irish came to Iowa. They dug lead from mines and plowed the prairie earth into furrows.

And for the mere opportunity to feed themselves, many paid in blood. James Donahoe and his wife, Ann, both born in Ireland, came to Pocahontas County in 1856. Two of their children died from disease. One boy was found shortly after he returned from the grasslands checking traps set to catch prairie chickens.

Such suffering has led the Irish to be a practical people in America. A case in point, this Irish proverb: "A lock is better than suspicion."

• • •

Being of English and Scottish descent, as a kid I got along better with classmates who had Irish surnames than those boasting a German or an Italian heritage. The Yoders and Roccas of my farm town tended to be bullies.

But the Doyles and Quinns had good-natured heads on them that acquiesced to practicality, yet yielded a sense of humor when well-laid plans just didn't work. Or as the sofa pillow little Jimmy Doyle's mother had embroidered said, "A silent mouth is melodious." But then she did have nine kids.

Of course, ethnic stereotypes are merely that; there are many good Germans and Italians and any number of rotten Irishmen. But I like to think there are certain characteristics passed through a family (my wife and my mother both agree that all Bignells are bullheaded, for example). Perhaps there is some quality in my family line that connects well with the kind of Irish families who settled the Midwest.

My great-great-great-great-grandmother, Martha, immigrated to North America from England with her husband, George Bignell Sr. When he died in his early 40s, leaving her with eight children to care for, she remarried within a year. The new husband was Irish. They had six more children and lived four decades together.

What attracted Martha to George also must have attracted her to the Irish immigrant who became her husband. And for better or for worse, part of Martha's genes are mine.

An Irishman would say "for worse," but he'd be grinning as well.

• • •

The Irish had to be tenacious in Iowa.

In 1856, John Rourke, James Maher, Patrick Conlan and other Irish settled in Island Grove, a village in Emmet County. A gang of outlaws lived on Island Grove's southside. Disguised as Indians, they frequently raided the homes of these early Irish settlers. One day, Patrick Conlan was among those from whom goods were stolen.

With only his revolver, he forced them to return his belongings.

The outlaws left the area soon thereafter.

• • •

The Irish ought to be bitter people. Because most practiced Catholicism, they were much reviled in our nation's early, Puritan days.

One fatherless Irish family immigrated to western Iowa during the Civil War from Ireland's County Westmeath. Five young adult children accompanied the mother. As traveling, the oldest son was killed, merely because he was Catholic. After that, at least one of the family members stayed awake at night holding a gun.

More than 150 years later, their family farm still stands in Monroe County, near St. Patrick's Church at Georgetown.

Their tolerance and perseverance is testament to another Irish proverb: "The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind finely."

• • •

This Tuesday in Iowa, the Irish will celebrate their heritage. Some towns, such as Emmetsburg (the self-proclaimed Emerald Isle of Iowa) and Melrose (where street signs boast names like Shamrock, Kerry, Kells and Trinity), plan festivals.

Chances are you'll have little trouble finding someone right here in Johnson County who is Irish with whom to enjoy the day. Nearly 1 in 6 Iowans claim Irish heritage. As little Jimmy Doyle's dad would say, "We're like crows in a cornfield."

So on Tuesday raise a mug to the Irish in Iowa and to then to the Irish everywhere.

And as you do, be sure to repeat this grand old Irish toast: "May the Lord keep you in his hand and never close his fist too tight."


(originally published March 16, 2003)

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