This article is part of a series of religious and cultural papers dealing with Asian, African, and "new" European immigrants to the United States, and how the Church might better minister with these communities. It was written by Rev. Timothy J. O'Sullivan, appointed to the Irish Apostolate in the United States by the Irish Episcopal Commission for Emigrants.
Information about the "New" Irish
The island of Ireland is situated in the extreme northwest of Europe and has been inhabited since Stone Age times. For more than five thousand years, people moving westward across the European continent have settled in Ireland, and each new group of immigrants--Celts, Vikings, Normans, English--has contributed to its present population. In 1841, shortly before the Great Famine, the area comprising the present Irish State had a population of over 6.5 million. The next census in 1851 showed a massive decline to 5.1 million for the same area, due to deaths from starvation, disease, and large-scale emigration.
Emigration from Ireland to the American colonies began, at least, as early as 1662, when some Irish Quakers settled in Pennsylvania, and continued at a steady pace during the first half of the eighteenth century. But it was not until 1815 that the Irish began to leave for America in significant numbers and continued to do so during and after the famine. In fact, between 1820 and 1920 (amazingly for such a small country) Ireland ranked fifth (after Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Mexico) in the total number of immigrants admitted to the United States.
In the 1960s and '70s, there was less emigration from Ireland to the United States because of the improved economy at home. However, the oil crises of 1973 and 1979 caused major problems for the world economy, and Ireland was no exception. So Irish emigration began again, mainly to Great Britain, the United States, and in increasing numbers to other European Union countries.
The majority of the Irish people belong to Christian denominations. In the 1991 Census, approximately ninety-one percent of the population of the Republic of Ireland was classified as Catholic. The rest were mainly Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, or Methodist. The combined Catholic population of the Republic and Northern Ireland today is approximately 3.9 million.
Christianity came to Ireland in the fifth century, and soon transformed a pagan land on the very fringes of Europe. Many pagan customs and places of worship were christianized rather than suppressed. The best-remembered of the missionaries was Patrick who bequeathed to us, in his Confessions, the story of his conversion while in slavery in Ireland, his return as a bishop and preacher of the Gospel, his austere life of penance and prayer, and the transformation of an entire people.
During the next 300 years, when darkness descended on the European mainland due mainly to incursions from the East, Irish monks were to play an important role in bringing Europe back to Christianity. The Celtic Church flourished, and Ireland became known as the "Land of Saints and Scholars." It was very much a lived Christianity, rediscovered by recent studies of Celtic spirituality. The simple peasant on the land saw the hand of God in every facet of daily life. Some of the earliest manuscripts in the Irish or Gaelic tongue are today preserved in monasteries and libraries throughout Europe. However, with the destruction of the monasteries in Ireland, many precious documents were lost.
For 200 years, Ireland suffered under the Penal Laws which forbade the practice of the Catholic faith. Churches were destroyed and priests were forbidden to live or minister in Ireland. Yet, today the many "Mass-rocks" in quiet places attest to the refusal of a people to give up a faith that meant everything. Many gave up land and every earthly possession rather than give up their faith. Many priests were executed, as were those who sheltered them. Irish colleges sprang up in Europe to ordain young men for heroic work in Ireland. An English Viceroy on being asked to explain why the Catholic faith could not be eradicated wrote, "It is the Mass that matters."
After the easing of the Penal Laws toward the end of the eighteenth century, a national seminary was built at Maynooth to provide for the needs of the Irish Church. At the same time, economic necessity was again forcing many to emigrate to the United States, to Great Britain, as well as to Australia and New Zealand.
To meet the spiritual needs of the emigrants, many seminaries opened in Ireland in the late 1700s and early 1800s to provide priests to accompany the emigrants to these "new" lands. Many of these were among the first priests to minister to immigrants in the United States. Some became the first bishops of the American dioceses. Wherever Irish emigrants settled, many of their children answered the call to priesthood and religious life and played a notable part with other, mainly European, immigrants in building up the life of the Church in English-speaking countries. In the early part of this century their children, as missionaries, brought the Gospel to countries in Africa and Asia.
Family life is important to the Irish, and family prayer was for generations an integral part of that life. The home was the school of faith. The Irish brought that practice with them wherever they went. For many reasons the Industrial Revolution passed Ireland by. As a result, most of those emigrating would have come from a rural background where they had a simple education. And so the transition from the Irish countryside to urban life in the United States must have been a difficult one. In addition, many would not see their folks again.
Today's Irish immigrants are different. Many are now well-educated; they adapt quickly and are fairly well-prepared to take advantage of new opportunities. Like most immigrants they can keep in touch with home and some can get home regularly--Ireland is comparatively near for them. On the other hand, fewer now have family here to welcome them. Language excepted, they face all the challenges that are the lot of immigrants adapting to a new culture without the extended family, in what must be the world's greatest multicultural cauldron. Fortunately, for the Irish, faith is both an anchor and a bond.