The Pioneer Valley’s “New Irish”

We’ve all put on our green shirt and socks, clasped the shamrock pin to our lapels, and downed our green beer. Today is the day that, as the saying goes, “We’re all Irish.” Now that I’m in the Pioneer Valley, and Holyoke specifically, St. Patrick’s Day holds special significance. Holyoke has one of the largest St. Patrick’s Day parades in New England, inflating the population ten-fold this coming Saturday. But even without the parade, St. Patrick’s Day should hold special meaning in the Paper City.

The Great Hunger

To be Irish must include understanding the potato famine of 1845-49. We all know about the blight that destroyed the potato crops on which the Irish depended, but what may be more surprising is the magnitude of death and suffering the Irish endured. Out of a population of around 8.5 million, 1 million people starved to death and another 2 million immigrated. Birth rates plummeted. By Irish independence 70 years later, the population of Ireland was only half of what it was in the 1840s.

Boston memorial
Memorial to the Irish Famine, located in Boston. Source: dcmemorials.com

Today, around 34 million people, or a little over 10% of the total US population, claim some Irish ancestry. What’s more, the Irish are seen as quintessentially American – escaping starvation and oppression, coming to the United States to work hard, integrating into society, fighting to preserve the Union in the Civil War, helping build the railroads, adding their own flavor to the American melting pot, etc., etc. Eventually this collective ascension culminated in the election of John F. Kennedy. The Irish made good.

Immigration and Integration

This story – tragedy, hardship, immigration, and triumph – strikes a special chord here in Holyoke. The construction of the canals and, later, need for labor in the paper mills attracted Irish immigrants to the newly founded city at Hadley Falls. By the late 1840s, what would become the City of Holyoke was known as the “Irish Depot,” with scores of poor, uneducated, non-English speakers arriving every week.

Not that the Anglo factory owners particularly liked the Irish. The name of “Holyoke” was given to the new city as a way to combat the growing Irish-ization of the community, though that didn’t stop the influx. Tensions grew into all-out brawls in the streets between the Irish and Germans or French-Canadians. Nonetheless, by the 1850s, the Irish constituted roughly 1/3 of the total city population.

no irish need apply
Ads like this were common in the 19th Century. Source: historymyths.wordpress.com

The most recent new arrivals to the Pioneer Valley have been from Latin America, and particularly Puerto Rico. Today, the population of people claiming Puerto Rican ancestry in Holyoke is roughly 44%, the highest proportion for any city outside of the island itself (compared to just 15% who claim Irish ancestry today).

The circumstances are certainly different – Puerto Ricans are Americans, and so they are emigrants rather than immigrants. Furthermore, there is no Great Hunger on the island, just a persistent and sometimes volatile economic malaise. (Though, it should be noted that refugees from Central America and  Syria are in fact fleeing poverty and death, and the United States has welcomed them with less than open arms.)

But there are also a lot of similarities. Those who come from Puerto Rico and other places in Latin America may not speak English, may not be well educated, may not have high-paying skills. They come to this country – to this part of the country – to find better opportunities, to be closer to family, and to make a life for themselves. They are driving economic growth and are becoming the entrepreneurial workhorse of the country.

Put simply, they are adding their colors to the potpourri of American culture.

St. Patrick’s Day 2016

With all this in mind, there has been a lot said lately about immigration, particularly by the Republican front runner. Donald Trump has been typically blunt in his comments, saying,

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best . . . They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Nevermind the fact that the recent trend shows more Mexicans leaving the United States than entering. My intention with this blog is not to provide myself with a political soapbox (though sometimes I do anyway), but rather to explore the Pioneer Valley wearing my urban planner hat and making some observations.  So here’s what I see:

The Pioneer Valley, especially in Hampden County, is full of people concerned with restoring downtowns, fostering new jobs and businesses, and improving public safety for everyone – not with building a wall that someone else pays for. Sure I see neighborhoods and suburbs that are segregated, and I see plenty of gaps in opportunity. But I also see people from all backgrounds on the bus, at work, in restaurants, out on the street, and in parks, everyone going about their lives and enjoying what the community has to offer.

The millworks all along the Connecticut River are a reminder of what Irish immigrants built 150 years ago. The 400,000 people that come out to the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day parade are a demonstration of how they have become woven into the fabric of our community. Today, the taco trucks, Latin music, Puerto Rican flags and Spanish radio are a sign of the region’s “New Irish.”

And on St. Patrick’s Day, we’re all Irish.

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