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St. Patrick’s Day and Irish Emigration

March 17, 2013 - Ray Tsuchiyama

March 17, the date that St. Patrick died, is celebrated as “Saint Patrick’s Day” throughout the world. In Ireland, the holiday is more somber, with all businesses closed and many Catholic Irish citizens attending Mass. Saint Patrick is the patron saint and national apostle of Ireland, and is best-known for launching Christianity in Ireland. Although much of what we know about St. Patrick comes more from mythologies, St. Patrick was most likely an energetic Christian missionary in Ireland in the Fifth century A.D. Analogous early New England missionaries arriving in Hawai’i and the Christian transformation for many Hawaiians, St. Patrick ended pagan rites in Ireland, eliminating the last Druid influences in Irish culture, and baptized thousands of Irish families.

In American cities with large Irish populations, St. Patrick's Day has evolved into a day of parades and celebrating Irish culture. To many Irish citizens, televised news programs of New Yorkers and Boston residents, many who have never been to Ireland, drinking “green beer” and dying their hair green and wearing Halloween-like leprechaun costumes, is embarrassing. 2013 Ireland has a very cosmopolitan capital city (Dublin), high-quality education and universities (Trinity, Dublin City College, Limerick University), and high tech centers (like the Cork Microelectronics Center and Google, Microsoft R & D centers).

The Irish diaspora refers to Irish emigrants and their descendants throughout the world, ranging from countries like near-by United Kingdom and beyond the Atlantic ocean to North America, and also including countries like Mexico, Australia, Argentina, New Zealand, South Africa, Brazil and continental Europe. The diaspora may have more than 100 million people, which is more than fifteen times the population of the island of Ireland itself (just over 6 million in total, or six Hawai’i’s – little Singapore has over 5 million citizens). Even the Liverpool English-language accent is very close to the Irish accent, since many Irish emigrants settled in that British port city, now famous for the rise of the Beatles.

For many years Ireland’s major export was people. After 1700 probably 10 million Irish people left Ireland (and compare that to today’s 6 million still living in Ireland). There were more people living in Ireland in the middle of the 19th century than now (over 8 million). Over 50 million Americans claim "Irish" as their primary ethnicity.

And the Irish emigrants did well. For example, the French Cognac brandy maker, James Hennessy and Co., is named for an Irishman, and a French President was Patrice MacMahon or known as duc de Magenta. An estimated 700,000 people of Irish ancestry are in Argentina, and in the mid-1940s the President of Argentina was Edelmiro Farrell, whose father was Irish. Others with Irish ancestry include Che Guevara, Argentine-born revolutionary, and his nemesis John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States, plus boxer Muhammad Ali, as his mother's great-grandfather was Irish. Interestingly, Éamon de Valera, former President of Ireland, was born in New York City.

When I lived in the Boston area, what struck me was that there were many Bostonians (in very close-knit neighborhoods like South Boston and Charlestown) who knew more about the Battle of the Boyne, when the Irish Catholics lost a crucial battle to the Protestant William of Orange, than contemporary Ireland (I have visited Ireland several times and worked with many Irish engineers in the semiconductor industry, more than many U.S. citizens of Irish descent) – and this battle occurred in the year 1690 (about 100 years before Captain James Cook arrived in Hawai’i). In other words, although many Americans considered themselves “Irish”, Ireland itself had changed and evolved in many ways (but so has Japan, France, Poland, Hong Kong – for many immigrants who help shape the United States).

In a smaller way, Hawai’i exports people. Nearly 60,000 former Hawai’i residents live in Clark County, Nevada. There are many analogous jobs in hotels, hospitality, restaurants, insurance, sales, and so on – in a desert resort, without a State income tax, no excise tax, and cheaper standard-of-living (milk, meat, gas, auto insurance, and housing all cost lower in Nevada): people move in search of economic incentives. Smaller Hawai’i communities are in Seattle, the Bay Area, and Southern California (UH alumni clubs also exist in Colorado and New York City). Hula halau and Hawaiian music groups practice in these cities – and many children have only images of Hawai’i as told by their parents and aunts and uncles. Generations from now, how Hawai'i culture is celebrated by these descendants of Hawai'i emigrants to the Mainland would make a fascinating video program.


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