So many Americans can claim significant Irish ancestry it sometimes seems to lose its uniqueness as an identity or shared heritage. Estimates are that over seven million souls emigrated to America from Ireland over the last three centuries, over a million making the journey from 1846 to 1851, during the Great Famine, where another million perished (Laxton, 1997). Today, perhaps upward of forty million Americans have Irish ancestry.
I am at least one-third Irish. The Dugans in the Songs were inspired by my maternal grandfather’s Irish family, primarily through his father, though his mother’s family shared a very similar experience (the Farrells, Bayeses, and Calahans are in her ancestral tree). Through this man I receive one-quarter of my DNA, and it is all Irish.
Last St. Patrick’s Day Vice President Joe Biden said, ”So my mom . . . Catherine Eugenia Finnegan Biden, used to say . . . to be Irish is about family, it’s about faith, but most of all, it’s about courage, for without courage, you cannot love with abandon.” And I see all this in my grandfather’s family. In fact, this is much of what the Songs are about.
This, for example, is the ship’s manifest for the Mullins family, where my great-great grandfather is listed as fifteen years old. Along with him are brothers Michael and David, little Roddie, mother Mary, and sister Margaret. They arrived in January of 1851 on the Colonist, one of five thousands ships to make the crossing during those six years. But it wasn’t until these latter years that autumn and winter crossings became the norm, for obvious reasons. A single mother facing the Atlantic in winter, having suffered starvation for months if not years, now living off a pound of food a day in crammed quarters rife with illness. One word comes to mind: desperation.
But a few others, also: Faith, love, family, and courage.
But their hardships were far from over. Where we might consider them simply “white” on every day except St. Patrick’s Day in today’s America, the Irish in 1850s northeastern cities were vilified, demonized, and considered one step above slaves in the social hierarchy of the times. Referred to as “bog-trotters,” “Paddys,” and “white niggers,” they were considered a scourge in New England cities.
Which is why so many of them came to Kansas in the 1850s, 60s, and beyond. Patrick moved to Kansas in 1857 with his new wife, Maria, and in their neighborhood were the Kelleys, Finnegans, Colgans…the list goes on, and it was known as “Irish Point.”
Patrick Mullins didn’t get there easily, as I’ve written before. In fact, he didn’t own land until 1866, having arrived in 1857. What did he do in the meantime?
He trudged to California and back. This article evidences so, as does this 1860 census record, which lists him as a “teamster.” Starving as a boy, crossing a frozen ocean as a teenager, half the continent as a young husband, and now and an entire wilderness behind a team of oxen as a new father.
For faith, love, family, and courage.
I find this inspiring enough to base large parts of several novels on it, but the truth is that the story of the Mullinses, and the Dugans, is a very common one in America. And we actually needn’t look to history to understand it. All we have to do is look at what is the current giant wave of American immigration: the Latin Americans. In 2010 there were over twenty-one million souls currently residing in America who were born in Latin American or the Caribbean. And over eleven million of them were born in one nation: Mexico (U.S. Census, 2010).
Indeed, one can see the current wave of Mexican national immigration as very similar to the Irish wave of the 19th century. Fleeing economic depression, violence, underemployment and corruption, they risk everything for their families. This is courage, and love, just as Biden says.
More on that next time.
Laxton, Edward (1997). The famine ships: The Irish exodus to America. Holt: New York.