Presidential Proclamation — Irish-American Heritage Month, 2013

IRISH-AMERICAN HERITAGE MONTH, 2013

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BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

A PROCLAMATION

For more than two centuries, America has been made and remade by striving, hopeful immigrants looking for a chance to pursue their dreams. Millions among them were born in Ireland, separated from our shores but united by their belief in a better day. This month, we celebrate the Irish-American journey, and we reflect on the ways a nation so small has inspired so much in another.

Generations of Irish left the land of their forebears to cast their fortunes with a young Republic. Escaping the blight of famine or the burden of circumstance, many found hardship even here. They endured prejudice and stinging ridicule. But through it all, these new citizens never gave up on one of our oldest ideas: that anyone from anywhere can write the next great chapter in the American story. So they raised families and built communities, earned a living and sent their kids to school. In time, what it meant to be Irish helped define what it means to be American. And as they did their part to make this country stronger, Irish Americans shared in its success, retaining the best of their heritage and passing it down to their children.

That familiar story has been lived and cherished by Americans from all backgrounds, and it reaffirms our identity as a Nation of immigrants from all around the world. So as we celebrate Irish-American Heritage Month, let us retell those stories of sweat and striving. And as two nations united by people and principle, may America and Ireland always continue to move forward together in common purpose.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim March 2013 as Irish-American Heritage Month. I call upon all Americans to observe this month with appropriate ceremonies, activities, and programs.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this twenty-eighth day of February, in the year of our Lord two thousand thirteen, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-seventh.

BARACK OBAMA

Echoes of Irish History

The immigrant voyage of millions of Irish to America in the nineteenth century was staggering in its hardship.  Many know of the Coffin Ships during the Great Hunger and the incredible death toll associated with the 6 to 8 week journey on inadequate vessels designed for hauling cargo rather than passengers.  However, little known but just as significant were the tragedies attending those who fled the imposed cruelties in Ireland before the blight even occurred in 1845.  Before that tragedy, mass emigration from Ireland accounted for one- third of all traffic across the Atlantic.  Between 1825 and 1840, 220,000 Irish emigrated to the U.S. at a time when there were few maritime or immigration regulations in place.

Perhaps none who ventured across the Atlantic seeking a better life had as tragic an end as the 100 Irish men, women and children who set forth on October 16, 1836 on the ship Bristol and the 116 who followed 8 days later on the ship Mexico.  Little remembered today, both of these ships wrecked, with a loss of 216 lives, off Long Island’s south shore within weeks of each other.  The double-tragedy shocked all who read the spectacular headlines for months to come. The wrecks were among the deadliest maritime accidents in U.S. history up to that time.  Their fates brought about  sweeping changes in the government’s neglect of the maritime industry, with measures to insure safer travel, including tasking federal ships with sea rescues which evolved into the Coast Guard.  So many avoidable deaths so close to land and perishing so horribly, gripped the nation’s emotions.  Even  Walt Whitman  wrote about the event in his poem, The Sleepers, from Leaves of Grass.

I look where the ship helplessly heads end on, I hear the burst as she strikes,
I hear the howls of dismay, They grow fainter and fainter.

The Bristol departed Liverpool on Oct. 15 and reached the shores off Far Rockaway on Sunday, November 20 awaiting a pilot escort to guide them through the Narrows.  Local boatmen acted as pilots bringing arriving vessels into port safely.  Though licensed by the harbor, pilots were generally self-employed.  The ship waited for a pilot to arrive, but the New York pilots, who had little regulation and cared less for Irish immigrants, ignored the captain’s signaling, preferring not to work on Sunday!  Later that evening, a storm and strong currents drove the Bristol toward Rockaway Shoals.  The ship grounded and the captain told the passengers to go below and give the crew a better chance to work on deck.  In about an hour, a tremendous wave struck.  Life boats  and everything moveable were swept off the deck. The hatches were ripped off and the vessel filled with water.  Of the 82 steerage passengers below, none but a few close to the hatchways, were saved.  Not a sound was heard; death was instantaneous as 60 persons swam unprepared, into eternity.

The Mexico left Liverpool eight days later but had a more difficult crossing, encountering storms and pummeling seas.  She took twice as long as the Bristol, to reach New York.  Arriving on New Year’s Eve, Captain Charles Winslow signaled for a pilot, but callously, the pilots had adjourned to a Manhattan saloon to ring in the New Year.  Winslow tried to keep the ship away from the treacherous shoreline while he waited for a pilot to respond to his signals, but currents and a storm carried his ship to the Long Beach shore.  The ship was also overloaded with a cargo of iron bars and coal, which added to the difficulties in controlling her.  To the  owners, the passengers were simply another commodity, occupying a cargo deck leased to a passenger broker.  The crew, weakened by the weeks of battling high winds and flailing seas, and hampered by freezing temperatures, lost both lifeboats in launch attempts.  Not till 3 p.m. did a rescue boat reach the Mexico, led by 51-year-old local wreck-master Raynor Smith, who ignored the perils posed to his long boat and six-man crew.

He took in 8 survivors, including Capt. Winslow, 4 crew members, and 3 passengers who had volunteered to help the crew.  The remaining famished and terrified passengers were left behind praying that the boat, or others like it, would return for them.  As day turned to night, Smith, his crew and other would-be rescuers refused to risk another trip to the Mexico as the seas churned unabated.  The weather was so intensely cold, that it was difficult for anyone to remain on deck longer than half an hour at a time.  Fifteen minutes after the rescue boat had departed, the ship struck the bottom at Hempstead beach, not more than a cable’s length from the shore.  It is believed that none drowned, but all froze to death.

A correspondent for the Morning Courier and New York Express later reported: When (passengers) perceived that no further help came from the land, their piercing shrieks were distinctly heard at a considerable distance, and continued through the night until one by one they diminished. The next morning the bodies of the many unhappy creatures were seen lashed to different parts of the wreck, embedded in ice.  Of the 104 victims, two-thirds were women and children, all of whom stood praying on the deck of their broken ship in zero-degree weather just 200 yards off Long Beach where they slowly froze to death in sight of the land of their dreams.  Only their tears made it to shore!

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The Queen’s Visit

By the mid 1800s, Ireland was in the hands of landlords who took more and more of the fertile land, forcing the Irish to survive on smaller and smaller plots, until they became totally dependent on the crop that could produce the most yield per acre – the potato. It was a difficult life, but at least they weren’t starving, for potatoes are a remarkable source of vitamins and minerals. Then late on August 20, 1845, a potato fungus was discovered at the Dublin Botanical Gardens. The following day, August 21, is a date remembered in Irish history as the first day of An Gorta Mor – the Great Hunger – a tragedy that saw millions lost to emigration, disease, and starvation. Within the week, reports came in from all over Ireland that the potato crop had turned black in the ground. It was the only crop affected, since everything else grew in abundance, but the other crops belonged to the landlord.

The landlords protected those crops from the hungry Irish until they were harvested, and exported to England for profit. Parliament did little to help, quoting the economic doctrine of Laissez Faire saying that the country was to be left to the effect of natural forces. Many died in ‘45 awaiting a better harvest in ‘46, but it didn’t come. The potato crop in ‘46 was almost totally destroyed. People were forced to eat what little seed potato they had to survive, many fell victim to the diseases which attend starvation and when the sick and starving Irish couldn’t pay their rent, they were evicted. The blight did not return in 1847, but that year saw the largest death toll in the 5-year period since those who had eaten their seed potatoes had nothing to plant, those who had been evicted had nowhere to plant, and those who had fallen victim to disease were unable to plant. To make matters worse, the blight returned in 1848 and 1849 and neither landlord nor Parliament provided adequate assistance. Millions died of starvation and hunger-related disease on the roads, alongside prosperous farms. A limited amount of aid was provided but it was too little and there were some soup kitchens, but in some, the cost of receiving food, was the surrender of their faith and conversion to the Church of England. It was a price too high for many, and they turned their backs on the food, rather than turn their backs on God.

Parliament was denounced for not intervening in the Irish tragedy, and they reacted by declaring the crisis officially over in 1847. Their evidence was the few acres of potatoes had been produced that year with no sign of the blight. But they made no mention of the fact that it returned in 1849 and 49. After 1849, the potato blight slowly abated, but the blight on the Irish continued. Most historians estimate that the effects of the great hunger were not over for another 30 years as the lack of land or living wage, food shortage, and disease continued. Emigrants sent money back to loved ones they were forced to leave behind and it helped them climb back to a stable life, but it would be a generation before many of the emigrants could establish themselves in the lands to which they fled. In the end, most of those who suffered the Great Hunger, were gone before its effects were. The benchmark event that marked that turn in history was the formation of the Land League in 1879.

A meeting convened in Daly’s Hotel, Castlebar on August 16th 1879 inaugurated a body called the Mayo Land League. Founder Michael Davitt convinced MP Charles Stewart Parnell to join the land agitation and the Mayo Land League became the National Land League with Parnell as President and Davitt, as Secretary. Branches were formed in almost every parish in the country and by the end of 1879 there was a formidable organization in place to plan what became known as the Land War. It was only then that it could be truly said that the Great Hunger was over and the Irish began to take back their land.

One of the most insensitive incidents to come out of the Great Hunger was the British government’s premature declaration of the end of the blight and in order to show that all was well, a massive publicity campaign was mounted, the highlight of which was a visit by Queen Victoria at harvest time in 1849. As the Irish starved and died in the workhouses and on the roads, hundreds of thousands of Pounds were spent to beautify the roads on which she would travel. Crowds of curious and angry onlookers were kept in check by British soldiers as reports were sent to the world that wherever she went, the Queen was cheered by her adoring subjects, and headlines proclaimed that “THE FAMINE IS OVER AS THE QUEEN VISITS IRELAND.” Ironically, that report – although propaganda in its time – would eventually come true.

The truth of that statement lies in a most remarkable incident that occurred on the exact anniversary of the first day of the hunger, exactly 30 years after the blight had begun to fade! The date was August 21, 1879, and the place was the Church of St. John the Baptist in the Irish village of Knock in Co. Mayo. On that evening, a small group witnessed an astonishing vision as three figures, surrounded by a mysterious glowing light, suddenly appeared, beside an altar on which rested a cross and a lamb surrounded by adoring angels. The witnesses knew that they were in the presence of St. Joseph, St. John and Mary, the mother of God. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Word spread, and shortly, others from the area arrived and saw it too. No such heavenly visitation had ever before been reported in Ireland, and the people fell to their knees and prayed, oblivious of a soaking rain. The figures remained, silent for nearly two hours, and then vanished as suddenly as they had appeared. In 1939, after many years of intense investigation, the apparition at Knock was granted canonical sanction by the Church. Of the hundreds of visions reported, it is one of only ten to have received such recognition, and it ranks with Lourdes and Fatima as a holy site of pilgrimage, yet it is the only appearance of the Virgin during which She remained silent.

Many have questioned why Mary said nothing, and only stood praying. Praying for what, for whom? Any student of Irish history should know the answer for there are clues in the date of the apparition. Consider that the Great Hunger wasn’t really over for 30 years after 1849; Mary appeared in 1879 – exactly 30 years later! And She appeared on August 21, the exact anniversary of the first day of the Great Hunger! Is it possible that, since the Irish had suffered so much for their faith, that the Lord, in appreciation, sent His beloved mother; and that She, as any mourner would, stood in silent prayer for the generation which had just passed away. Think of it, the timing is incredible. Not only is August 21 significant, but the year 1879 was truly the end of the great hunger, for the Irish began taking their land back from the landlords. While the dates have an uncanny significance, there is yet another irony. Since August 1879 marked both the historic end of the Great Hunger and the year in which Our Lady visited Knock, a 30-year old headline had at finally come true: THE FAMINE WAS OVER AND THE QUEEN HAD VISITED IRELAND – but it wasn’t Victoria; it was the only Queen that the Irish ever recognized !

Millions have visited Knock since 1879 and numerous miracles have been reported at the shrine. The Catholic people of Ireland, who struggled so hard to keep their faith alive had received a visit from heaven, and the Virgin had received a new title – Our Lady of Knock.