Philadelphia freedom: Enda Kenny in America’s first capital

America Letter: As Taoiseach goes to meet Trump, prejudice issue once again to the fore

Philadelphia’s St Patrick’s Day parade: The City of Brotherly Love is central to the Irish-American experience.

Philadelphia’s St Patrick’s Day parade: The City of Brotherly Love is central to the Irish-American experience.

 

When Enda Kenny arrives in the US this weekend for his American swansong, it is apt that Philadelphia will be his first port of call. The elegant 17th-century port city perched on the Atlantic seaboard is steeped in history.

Philadelphia played a central role in the revolutionary fervour that swept the colonies in the late 18th century. In 1769 it joined the boycott of British goods that ultimately led to the Boston Tea Party and American independence. It was here that the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4th, 1776, and the US constitution a year later.

Philadelphia served as the nation’s capital before the fledgling Congress moved to an undeveloped area on the Potomac river 140 miles south, which would become Washington, DC.

The city also occupies a central place in Irish-American history. Irish tradesmen and merchants began arriving soon after it was settled by a British Quaker, William Penn, in the late 17th century. By the late 18th century, Irish emigrants were among the city’s top officials. Irish workers infiltrated the fabric of the city, working predominantly in the ports, textile industry and railroads, while women entered domestic service.

In 1771, the year of the city’s first St Patrick’s Day parade, the Friendly Sons of St Patrick was founded. The benevolent organisation still exists, and the Taoiseach will attend its annual dinner on Saturday.

Sectarian tensions

The religious tolerance promoted by the Quakers ensured that Irish Catholics and British Protestants at first lived together peacefully. But sectarian tensions surfaced by the early 19th century.

Nativists riots erupted in 1844, just before the Famine would drive new waves of Irish emigrants to America. Sparked by a dispute over the reading of the King James Bible in schools, mobs attacked Catholic churches and houses during several nights of violence. The attacks made national news and became an election issue. The anti-Catholic American Republican Association winning congressional seats.

The experience of the Irish in America had two sides. While the Irish found themselves victims of anti-Catholic bigotry, some were also participants in racist behaviour.

As early as 1834, there were reports of Irish immigrants leading an attack on an African-American march in Philadelphia. Many Irish competed with freed slaves for work during these years, giving rise to tensions. As the debate about slavery intensified in the years leading up to the US civil war, many Irish opposed abolition– despite calls from across the Atlantic for the Irish to stand up for the rights of African-Americans.

The Liberator, Daniel O’Connell, famously campaigned for the abolition of slavery. In an 1841 pamphlet known as The Irish Address, Irish-Americans were urged to back abolition. “Irishmen and Irishwomen! Treat the coloured people as your equals, as brethren!” But the exhortation fell on deaf ears, with the Irish-American community, backed by bishops, keen to keep out of the debate.

As abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was to write two decades later to the Dublin abolitionist Richard Allen: “Even to this hour, not a single Irishman has come forward, either publicly or privately, to express his approval of the address, or to avow his determination to abide by its sentiments.

“It is horrible to think that so large a mass of your countrymen, who have known what it is to suffer from oppression, and who have torn themselves away from their native shores, in order to find freedom in this land of boasted liberty, should be enlisted in support of the most horrible system of slavery that the earth has ever known.”

Same debates

Today, 150 years later, a similar argument is again to the fore as a debate continues over the Taoiseach’s attendance at the White House.

Which side is Ireland on: the side of immigrants, of all race and religions, whose right to live in their adopted country is being undermined by Donald Trump’s policies? Or will the Government adopt the each-for-their-own attitude, which aims to secure the best deal for the Irish whatever the moral rights and wrongs of the policy?

When Kenny addresses the Friendly Sons of St Patrick dinner on Saturday evening, he will be speaking to an organisation that originally pledged to aid the victims of “starvation, eviction and exile from Ireland”.

Whether this spirit of empathy and generosity extends to the needy of today, those who are desperately seeking to escape war and starvation for a new life in the United States, is likely to loom large over Kenny’s final St Patrick’s Day visit as Taoiseach.

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