Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Migrant Present, Migrant Past

Reflecting on mass movements of humanity, and how they have shaped who we are today.

Syrian Immigrants, Greece, 2016
In this year of unprecedented emigration from the Middle East to Europe, with a new EU/Turkey agreement sending desperate victims of senseless wars back to Turkish camps, with the Pope and other religious leaders issuing futile calls for compassion, and with hundreds of thousands of innocents being swindled by criminal traffickers, and many drowning in the Mediterranean, this is a time for all of us, and particularly those of us nestled safely in our homes in the United States, a land of immigrants, to reflect on the mass migrations of past decades and centuries that have shaped our republic and defined our culture, right to the present day.

Irish Immigrants, New York, Circa 1900
On my part, these reflections lead to Ireland. I've written in an earlier post about my Irish ancestor Bryan Carroll, who emigrated from County Meath, Ireland, and died in 1850 at the age of 45 in Upstate New York. Census data shows that Bryan emigrated before the unthinkable suffering and privation of the Potato Famine had descended on Ireland, a period when England surrendered to political and religious prejudice and abandoned the welfare of its Irish subjects, just as governments in the Middle East are doing to their citizens today. Nonetheless, Bryan was certainly part of the unprecedented migration that occurred over many years in the 19th and early 20th centuries, sending millions of Irish on long, perilous journeys to Northern England, Australia, and North America, where descendants like me live and thrive today.

The lessons of the Great Hunger and the Irish migration are beautifully chronicled in the 1999 book The Great Shame - and the Triumph of the Irish in the English-Speaking World by Thomas Keneally (author of Schindler's List). Within the tale of his own ancestor, Hugh Larkin, who was transported to Australia in the 1830s, Keneally paints a vivid picture of both the broad religious and political context that drove the Irish migration and the searing details of the potato blight itself and the disease and poverty it visited upon the Irish--effects that were hugely exacerbated by the indifference, and even disdain, of Parliament and the Crown. As 850,000 Irish were entering the port of New York between 1847 and 1851, still more were traveling to Canada, where government restrictions on emigrant ships were more lenient, and then making a barge-and-land journey south into the U.S. In early 1847, Congress passed new restrictions in an attempt to stem the tide, including higher minimum fares to New York and reductions in the maximum number of passengers per ship, actions that echo loudly in the actions of European governments today. But fortunately for Irish-Americans like me, these laws were largely futile, and as a result, Keneally writes, "the United Stated faced unprecedented challenges to public health and civic imagination." The strength of the human spirit won out in in the end, and few would claim today that the gifts brought to these shores by the Irish have been anything but expansive and enriching. As Keneally explains:
Irish navvies had made New York what it was by digging the Erie Canal, which turned the port into a great outlet for the produce of the Midwest. Now, entering into the New York Irish traditional trades of digging, cartage, saloon-keeping and politics, the refugees of the Famine would give it its cheap labor, augment its particular character and influence forever its politics.
The differences between the great Irish migration and the current emigration from the Middle East are at least as numerous as the similarities, but it is crucial to recall that many of the Irish were herded, frightened, and swindled just as Syrians, Libyans, Afghans, and Iraqis are today. And one startling fact suggests a preternatural connection that could well transcend these two historical movements of humanity: The first emigrant ship to land in Canada in the great migration year of 1847, it happens, was called the Syria.