Griffin speaks on history of Irish immigration in America

SAALIK KHAN | Staff Photographer
Patrick Griffin, Madden-Hennebry Professor and chair of the Department of History at the University of Notre Dame, discusses the history of Irish-American immigration during his lecture “Why People Migrate: The Irish-American Case” Monday in the Amphitheater.

Once a racist cartoon, the “Fighting Irish” now stands as a well-known symbol of both Irish pride and American pride. As historian Patrick Griffin showed Chautauqua Monday morning, a lot can change in a hundred or so years.

Griffin, the chair of the Department of History at University of Notre Dame, was the first morning lecture speaker to tackle the Week Three theme “Immigration: Origins and Destination” in the Amphitheater this week. His speech was titled “Why People Migrate: The Irish-American Case.” He discussed how the story of Irish immigration to the United States changed and assimilated dramatically over time, as well as how the Irish migration was emblematic of global migratory patterns.

“A leprechaun was a trickster. Now, it’s as American as — dare I say it — the Dallas Cowboys,” Griffin said. “But behind it is a darker story of struggle, pain and misunderstanding.”

For example, the “Fighting Irish” leprechaun mascot of the University of Notre Dame is no leprechaun at all. It is based on cartoonist Thomas Nast’s xenophobic rendition of an Irish immigrant in the 19th century.

“To many back then, the Irish weren’t just un-American,” Griffin said. “They were anti-American.”

The legend of the “fighting Irish” goes back to the Civil War. Thomas Francis Meagher was an Irish nationalist and revolutionary who recruited and led the Irish Brigade. The Brigade fought for the Union as part of the “Fighting 69th” and was used for their brute force and reckless abandon in battle. By the end of the war, twice the number of the Brigade had fallen in battle, an inversion of the ratio for the rest of the Army, where disease was normally the cause of death.

Back then, the common view of the Irish was violent, drunken criminals — a reputation not entirely unearned, Griffin said. They brought that roughshod behavior to sports and quickly became dominant in the latter-half of the 19th century. For example, John L. Sullivan, a boxer, was the first millionaire athlete. He won the World Heavyweight Championships as the last bareknuckle boxer and the first gloved one.

According to Griffin, the Irish were also responsible for bringing “daring and cunning” to American baseball, using plays like the hit-and-run, bunts and relay throws. The famous baseball poem “Casey at the Bat” is based on Irish baseball player Mike “King” Kelly, whom Griffin described as “Babe Ruth before Babe Ruth.”

In fact, the legend of baseball’s founder Abner Doubleday was a fiction made to take away from the “corrupting” Irish influence on baseball.

As Griffin’s alma mater shows, they also changed American football. Schools such as Princeton and Yale, described as “WASPish” by Griffin, were not happy playing the rough-and-tumble Irish and locked them out of the Western Association (what Americans know today as the Big 10).

It forced footballers to travel the country to find teams to play against. They also received free coverage on the radio. This combination took them to a national level. In 1927, the Fighting Irish became the official name of the University of Notre Dame’s football team and, in 1976, the well-known mascot was officially adopted.

From his extensive expertise, Griffin noted three parts of the historical immigration story. It happens within systems, immigrants leave integration for dynamism, and it is essential for cultural vitality.

Both bigotry and nostalgia obfuscate the greater story of American immigration, Griffin said. Ireland and its people had historically been a part of the United States since before its founding. They populated the Americas from Virginia to the Caribbean islands. An estimated 250,000 Irish were a part of this initial wave that began in the early 1700s and continued until the American Revolution.

“One-third of the Continental Army was Irish,” he said. “Why? Because they were the down-and-outs, always looking for a fight.”

Irish immigration continued in the millions in the 19th century, spiking heavily during the Great Famine of the 1840s and ‘50s, where Griffin said the choice was quite literally “leave or die.” It slowed down along with national rates in the early 20th century.

Griffin said this was the period when assimilation began occurring, when it became a point of American pride to be the “fighting Irish.”

He argued that, in many ways, Irish migration to the U.S. was the story of migration in general. It begins with fear and apprehension from the host country, followed by claims that immigrants are racially or ethnically subhuman and notions that countries send their criminal element. As America has seen in the last month, these ideas do not fade into oblivion but bubble in the background.

Then, time passes. Assimilation occurs. It is neither intentional nor deliberate. Cultural identity and heritage give way to nostalgia, which gives way to affluence. This is the inevitable process, Griffin said, that the descendants of all immigrants take on the journey to become indisputably “American.”

Around the time of the World War II, Griffin said evidence of Irish’s cultural assimilation became apparent. The affluence of the Irish rose in the 20th century, culminating in John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960 as the first Catholic U.S. president.

“To be a fighting Irishman [now meant] to be what America needed,” Griffin said.

Films were made lionizing the Irish like “Knute Rockne, All American” and “Wake Island.” “Rockne” also starred a young Ronald Reagan as George “The Gipper” Gipp, the same nickname that would follow him for the rest of his life. He gave the 1981 commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame, not long after his election to the presidency. His speech portended the fracturing of traditional Irish Democratic support and opened up a new generation of Irish Republicans.

What was previously a derogatory put-down on Irish pugilism was now being used to fight for peace and love, Griffin explained.

“The ‘Fighting Irish’ was no leprechaun but a 19th-century Irishman dumbed down in a cartoonish way — and he became mascot of Notre Dame in 1976,” he said. “History is full of surprises like that. In many ways, the history of America is the history of migration.”