07 May 2010

PLACE YOURSELF IN THEIR SHOES...

     I would like to pause today and pay tribute to the hardships that our Irish ancestors overcame to establish their new lives in the United States. Whether they settled in the cities or on farms, coast or prairie, rarely are any of our ancestors' stories a tale of easy assimiliation and streets of gold. We researchers often look at census records from the mid 1800's, in particular, and forget to stop and think about what historical events the people listed might have experienced first-hand. I would like to hightlight one such historical event, the anniversary of which occurs today. It happened in Philadelphia, but the experiences of those immgrants were mirrored elsewhere and shed light on the welcome your ancestors might have received in America during that time period.
     On this week in 1844, the Irish immigrants in Philadelphia experienced violence, fire, and death at the hands of anti-Irish mobs. Generally, the mobs were said to have been incited by Nativist or Know-Nothing political parties. Historians, of course, have various views of the instigators and causes, so I will not delve into a historical discussion here, but will post links below for those who care to learn more about the riots. The violence began on May 6th, 1844, and by May 8th many buildings and churches were burning, including St. Michael's on North 2nd Street, where my great-grandmother was baptized. (An aside here for Philadelphia genealogical researchers--records were lost in the fires) .
     This sad anniversary reminded me that my ancestors did not live in a vacuum. They were not only witnesses to history, they were part of it. Was my great-great grandmother Mary Lagan in any danger from these mobs? Did Owen Tracy, her future husband, get hurt? Were they scared? Did they watch their church burn?  Did they wish they were back in County Tyrone?
     What prejudices and hardships did your ancestors experience? How did they feel when they were called names or denied jobs?  If you don't know, please take time out from climbing your family tree and explore the history of their times, their cities, and their own little neighborhoods. Learn about their "shoes," then place yourself in those shoes.
     Then, thank them.

LINKS TO LEARN MORE:
HISTORICAL SOC. OF PA. TIMELINE (go to 1844)
ST. MICHAEL'S CHURCH HISTORY
Book: Dennis Clark's THE IRISH IN PHILADELPHIA