What does it mean to be to be Irish? Does it mean your ancestors immigrated to America during the Potato Famine? You speak Irish Gaelic? You eat corned beef and cabbage every Sunday? You drink your Guinness warm? You play the bagpipes? You believe in Leprechauns?
In search of Irishness, I went to Saturday’s St. Patrick’s Day parade in downtown Rochester.
First, I turned to Blake McKelvey’s “The Irish in Rochester: An Historical Retrospective” from Rochester History (October, 1957). McKelvey’s traces Irish Rochester history from the first immigrants who founded the so-called Dublin district in 1817 to Rochester in the 1950’s when discrimination against the Irish had waned as assimilation had waxed.
The first big wave of immigration was in the 1820’s when Irish working men helped build the Erie Canal. In the decades afterwards, Irish immigrants were mostly Catholic, leading to charges of “Popery,” by the weekly religious paper, the Rochester Observer. The Observer claimed that Irish Catholic’s first loyalty was to the Vatican.
Anti-Irish sentiment reached its peak in 1854 when Rochester elected as Mayor the nativist Know Nothing Dr. Malthby Strong.
McKelvey argues the Civil War was a turning point in Irish acceptance. Many Rochester Irishmen leapt to the defense of the Union, refuting charges that most Irish Rochesterians were Copperheads who opposed the war and wanted a peace settlement with the Confederacy. During the war, Patrick O’Rorke, who bravely fought and was killed at Gettysburg, became an immediate fallen hero for the Irish-Rochester community. The Colonel Patrick O’Rorke Memorial Bridge in Irondequoit is named in his honor.
After the Great Irish Famine in the 1840’s, Irish immigration to Rochester declined markedly. As the number of native-born Irish receded, subsequent generations were less and involved in Irish traditions.
By 1957, McKelvey says most Irish Rochestarians had lost a “distinctive ethnic label.”
On St. Patrick’s Day, 2013, Rachel Barnhart published Rochester’s Irish in the Rochestarian. The article presents more information drawn from McKelvey’s history.
Bearing in mind McKelvey’s claim that most Irish Rochestarians have lost a “distinctive ethnic label,” I was wasn’t sure how much authentic Irishness I would find at the parade. As expected, thousands of green-clad and green-beered people were happy to be Irish for the day. Most people claimed a trace of Irish blood somewhere, but didn’t identify as Irish. At the same time, I did discover a fair number of true-green Irishmen and Irishwomen.
First, I had to get through the four Gatekeepers pictured above. The Gatekeepers express their Irishness through their devotion to its ancient history. Well versed in the vagaries of Celtic, Scottish, English and Scandinavian military gear, the green capped leader said his men’s outfits were more or less authentic to 13th century Ireland.
Barking out “dilly, dilly,” the Gatekeepers were on guard against anyone not wearing green. Before you could cross, you had to prove you had something green on your person. I feared I was greenless, but the leaders said a dollar bill would suffice. I showed him a George O’Washington and was passed through.
Once inside, I scouted for real Irishness. This couple looked authentic. Alas, they didn’t identify as Irish: her ancestry is English, his German. But they love Irish music.
I struck Irish gold with Mary O’Connor, an actual Ireland native. 50 years ago during the troubles, Mary moved to the United States. But her brogue and love of all things Irish are permanent. What then defines the Irish? Mary says they are true, hardworking and have a great sense of humor.
All of Irish descent, these men express their Irishness by wearing funny looking shorts and blowing into weird instruments. They say most people appreciate their music, but some curmudgeons tell them to pipe down.
David Shakes is not Irish, although he wore enough green to pass the Gatekeepers. A Frederick Douglass reenacter, David was at the parade to discuss Douglass’ lecture tour of Ireland in 1845. Douglass viewed the Irish, in both Ireland and America, as a persecuted people, seeing parallels between their plight and that of African Americans
At the front of the parade was St. Patrick himself. Almost. It was Mark Garland in disguise. For five years now, Mark has marched at the front of the parade dress as its namesake.
With Dan Caverly and Michael McCarthy, I hit the Irish Sweepstakes. A first generation Irish-American, Dan was named Citizen of the Year. How did he earn that distinction? Dan says his wife asked the very same question.
Grand Marshal McCarthy is 6th generation Irish-American. How does Michael characterize the Irish? They are peaceful, gentle and friendly. When he visits Ireland, the people are as friendly in the big cities as they are in the countryside. Michael’s characterization as peaceable does clash a bit with the image of the Gatekeepers. But a lot has changed since the 13th century.
The Grand Marshal’s favorite Irish author is Frank McCourt; his favorite Irish movie is The Secret of Roan Inish.
POSTSCRIPT: After searching for Irishness, I realized how Irishness marks my neighborhood. On Clinton Avenue is McQuaid Jesuit High, named after Bishop Bernard John McQuaid who McKelvey sees as the central figure in the mid to late 19th century Irish community. On South Avenue is the James P.B. Duffy School. Duffy was a one term Congressman and civic leader. Also on South is the Lamberton Conservatory. Born in County Armagh, Ireland, Alexander B. Lamberton was the Rochester Park Commissioner from 1902-1918. Lamberton was Scots-Irish and a Presbyterian. At that time, in Rochester it was generally easier for a Protestant Irishman to rise to social prominence than a Catholic Irishman. In the photo, the people are playing Pokémon Go.