ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Beyond St. Patrick’s Day, The ‘Irishness’ of New Jersey

By Young Soo Yang

Peggy Smith School of Irish dancing at the 1965 Newark St. Patrick's Day parade. Photo courtesy of Dermot Quinn.

They say everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. Here in New Jersey, that may be more true than elsewhere. According to saintpatricksdayparade.com, New Jersey has more St. Patrick’s Day parades than any other state — a total of 26 this year.

But beyond the parades, the Irish over the past four centuries have had a lasting impact on this state, profoundly shaping its identity in agriculture and industry, in education and arts, and most importantly in state and local government. Consider the gubernatorial trifecta of Richard Hughes, William Cahill and Brendan Byrne, just a few in a long line of New Jersey governors who can lay claim to Irish ancestry.

Although people from Ireland arrived here as early as the late 17th century, they came in droves during the Great Potato Famine of 1845-1850.

Seton Hall University Professor Dermot Quinn, author of “The Irish in New Jersey: Four Centuries of American Life,” has chronicled the Irish experience. He says the Irish American identity is hard to simplify because of the varieties of “Irishness” that span Irish immigration to the U.S.

“The different kinds of Irish people who came to New Jersey over the centuries testify to that — Ulster-Scots, Gaelic-speakers, Presbyterians, Catholics, the well-to-do, the poor and so on,” said Quinn.

When they did arrive, they mostly congregated in cities like Paterson, Jersey City and Newark where Irish roots run deep.

“The Irish were a country-dwelling people who found themselves living in cities. That was not the least of the confusions they had to deal with in the New World.”

So entrenched is the Irish legacy that it’s easy to overlook the early hardships and how out-of-the mainstream they were because of their Catholic faith and manner of speech (they had accents or actually spoke Gaelic).

“It’s easy enough to forget the rough edges of the world to which the Irish had to adjust themselves,” said Quinn who cites the “‘No Irish Need Apply’ signs, the grinding poverty, the anti-Catholicism and so on.”

The jovial side of Irish America. Photo courtesy of Dermot Quinn.

Once a rejected minority, the Irish eventually became very much part of the establishment, gaining social acceptance and political influence while still maintaining their Irishness.

The concept of assimilation is often invoked when speaking of the immigrant experience, carrying with it the connotation of relinquishing the native cultural identity. Quinn, however, rejects this definition.

“Different groups assimilate in different ways, each bringing their own distinctive qualities to the American experience,” Quinn said. “Assimilation, in other words, is not so much a matter of becoming American as it is a matter of subtly changing what it means to be American.”

“What, in any case, is this ‘America’ to which they assimilated? It was not a static or fixed thing but a compound of many influences, of which Irishness itself was one,” he said.

He adds that St. Patrick’s Day itself is not so much a celebration of Ireland but America and its extraordinary capacity for generosity and upward social mobility.

“Being Irish American combines some of the optimism and exuberance of the new country with some of the melancholy and fatalism of the old,” he said. “It’s a more subtle phenomenon than many people think.”

Notwithstanding the innocuous Irish clichés and, at times, over-the-top St. Patrick’s Day festivities, the ties that bind Ireland and America are deep and abiding, says Quinn, because almost everyone in Ireland can point to American relatives in their immediate or distant family history.

“I think there’s probably a bit of friendly bemusement when Irish Americans seem to overdo it — green beer, The Quiet Man, that kind of thing. But, yes, the Irish view of America, and of Irish America, is one of great affection and, frankly, gratitude,” Quinn said. “There’s no country in the world that Irish people feel more at home in than America.”