By Robert A. Vella
I’ve often wondered about the phrase, “the luck of the Irish.” My family immigrated to the U.S. from Sicily at the turn of the last century, and were of the same socioeconomic class as most Irish-Americans who had arrived only a few decades earlier. These two ethnic groups lived in close proximity to each other and shared a similar experience in their new land (i.e. begrudging acceptance after years of discrimination). We had so many Irish friends and in-laws when I was growing up that it seemed our family was really Ital-ish (Italian-Irish American).
But, back to the phrase. I have no idea how and where it originated. Perhaps it refers to the resilience of the Irish people, or to the fortunes of individual Irish miners during the California gold rush. Maybe it just reflects their optimistic outlook on life. If someone knows, please tell me in the comment section.
Regardless, looking at Irish history reveals a people who haven’t been all that lucky.
Sometime after 8000 BC, the first Mesolithic hunter-gatherers began appearing in Ireland.
The Celtic peoples of central Europe migrated to Ireland in the first millennium BC and established the Gaelic culture.
Around 800 AD, the Vikings raided Ireland repeatedly causing untold carnage.
The Norman invasion of the British Isles in the 11th and 12th centuries marked the beginning of a prolonged period in which outsiders ruled much of Ireland, and the sectarian strife between Catholics and Protestants emerged.
The Black Death struck in the 14th century which temporarily weakened the power of the island’s Norman and English inhabitants. But, King Henry VIII began a successful reconquest in the 16th century.
In the 17th century, the people of Ireland vigorously rebelled against their oppressors but were brutally put down, robbed of their land, and some were even sold into slavery.
Some 400,000 Irish perished during the famines of the mid-18th century caused by the Little Ice Age.
A century later, an even worse famine resulting from a potato blight reduced Ireland’s population by half. Those who couldn’t leave the island greatly suffered or died. Many who did leave came to America.
While the British tried to suppress the Home Rule movement in their native land, Irish immigrants in America received a most unwelcome reception. They were chastised, religiously persecuted and exploited for their labor. Through it all, they bravely persevered.
Back home, the Irish War for Independence broke out in 1919 which was followed by the bloody Irish Civil War that finally created a free state and republic from 1922 but had left the island politically split in two.
Today, Ireland remains divided and its people have been hit hard by the recent financial crisis and global recession.
Just a little history to celebrate this St. Patrick’s Day. I may be Italian, but today I feel very, very Irish.