Local Commentaries
11:39 am
Wed March 17, 2010

Bill Knight - March 18

Macomb, IL – As people recover from St. Patrick's Day revelry, it might be recuperative to recall less of the shamrock and leprechaun blarney than the real heritage we owe to the Irish.

In 1845, the "Potato Famine" struck Ireland, a catastrophe that combined a natural disaster (a blight), with an inadequate response from the British Empire and its rule that forbad Irish Catholics from owning land. Over the next decade, Ireland's population was reduced by one-fourth. In 10 years, more than 750,000 Irish died and another 2 million left their homeland for Britain, Canada and the United States.

There, they escaped some religious persecution and subjugation, but endured different sorts of hardships - such as discrimination so blatant many want ads read "NINA" (No Irish Need Apply"), and the Molly Maguires arose.

In the early 1850s, the Molly Maguires became a secret society that controlled the lodges of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The group opposed the draft of the Civil War, influenced local politics, and threatened or killed ruthless mine owners and bosses in Pennsylvania, where the Molly Maguires were strongest.

It was a time when coal diggers were paid by the amount of coal they mined, and workers were forced to live in company homes and buy food at company stores. The Mollie Maguires became the means through which miners could carry out their anger about such working conditions.

Elsewhere, the U.S. labor movement benefited from the influence Irish-Americans had within the underground Knights of Labor organization, according to Columbia University historian Eric Foner. Interested in the issue of land since they'd been banned from owning real estate, the Irish-Americans offered a "cover" to Knights of Labor chapters facing opposition from hostile clergy and local governments. Knights activists frequently met secretly or as the local "Irish Land League."

One consequence was a sharing of Irish nationalist and American labor reform ideas, which sometimes resulted in labor activists seeing local union struggles as part of a worldwide struggle between the owning and producing classes. In fact, Knights of Labor leader Terence Powderly embodied the cross-pollination of ideas, interests and ethnicities. Born of Irish-immigrant parents, Powderly became active in both Irish and labor activities as a young man. While the Knights' leader, he also served as vice president of the Irish Land League Council.

Perhaps the most prominent Irish-American labor activist was Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, whose husband was a Knights activist until he died in a Yellow Fever epidemic.

Historian Natasha Gayle wrote, "From the beginning of her involvement in the union until she was almost 100 years old, Mother Jones was where the danger was the greatest. Crossing militia lines, spending weeks in damp prisons, unconcerned under the wrath of governors, presidents and coal operators, she helped organize the United Mine Workers with the only tools she ever used, Confidence and a voice.' She led miners in strikes in Virginia in 1891, in Paint Creek and Cabin Creek, W. Va., in 1912-1913, in Ludlow, Colo., in 1913-1914, and in Kansas in 1921."

Over the decades, many Irish workers organized on their own or turned to the labor movement to unionize, and American labor grew in power and numbers thanks to that influx, the Irish determination and leadership.

That's a real heritage that merits history being recalled in a season already remembering Black history in February and Women's history in March.

In fact, two years ago the state legislature did just that, resolving that "whereas many ... Irish immigrants migrated to Illinois and ... played major roles in our State's commerce, industry, arts and sciences, and all levels of public and governmental service; therefore, we designate March as Irish-American Heritage Month."

"Erin go braugh!" -- and "Solidarity forever!"