From the lecturer: ‘Fighting Irish’ offer lessons for migration today

Guest column by: Patrick Griffin

We are, of course, a nation of immigrants. But we are also a nation of Americans. What is the relationship between the two? I hope to explore the tangled relationship between the identities migrants carry from their homelands and the ones they craft in the United States. I will do so by exploring the complex history of the idea of the “fighting Irish.” More than simply the nickname of the athletic teams of the University of Notre Dame, the “fighting Irish” began as an aspersion against the ability of Irish immigrants to be considered American. With time, it took on new meanings, some of them troubling but some of them liberating. To explore how the idea of the “fighting Irish” changed over time, we need to look at athletics — boxing, baseball and, of course, football — but we also have to look at broad patterns of migration.

I plan on taking us to the 17th century, when thousands of Irish left for the Caribbean. We then venture to the 18th century, to the movement of tens of thousands of Irish Protestants to America. Far from being a separate movement, this migration of the so-called Scotch-Irish fits into broader patterns of Irish migration to America. Finally, we explore the great 19th and early 20th-century movement of millions from rural Ireland to urban America. By examining movement over a number of centuries, we gain a greater appreciation of how people thought of themselves and how they considered and reconsidered the society they were trying to fit into. We must, I think, view migration from what we could call the longue duree to understand how and why certain groups are attached to certain labels, such as the “fighting Irish.”

Far from a static idea, the notion of the “fighting Irish” changed dramatically with time and events. Once it was used to cast the Irish as sub-human. Later, it would be employed to consider them the ultimate freedom fighters, Americans par excellence. Today, it is used in the most sentimental ways. How these shifts occurred means appreciating how flows of migration changed, how migrant groups were assimilated, and how the United States was confronted with new challenges that made older ones drift away.

The study of the “fighting Irish” offers, I think, all sorts of lessons for appreciating migration and adaptation even today. For a start, migration occurs within systems. It also entails remembering and forgetting — not only on the part of migrants, but also on the part of host societies. Identity shifts with changes in the sending and receiving country. And what one term means in one context can change profoundly in another. The story of the “fighting Irish” is a quintessential American tale, one we are wise to remember as we grapple with migration today.

Patrick Griffin is Madden-Hennebry Professor and chair of the history department at the University of Notre Dame.