Famous Sayings: #53 — ‘The Luck of the Irish’

March 17, 2017

You must have the luck of the Irish.

luck of the Irish, Irish, luck famous sayings

To be honest, when I started doing my research for this week’s Famous Sayings post, I had another saying prepared. However, I came across “luck of the Irish” and I decided to go with that.

I’m not sure when I first heard that term, but often, I think back to the Disney Movie titled “Luck of the Irish” starring Ryan Merriman. Can you believe that movie is 16 years old? Wow, how time flies by.

Anyway …

Why not look at this phrase? Today is St. Patrick’s Day, a day steeped in Irish tradition, so it would make since to publish a post closely tied to the Irish. But as I did my research, I was reminded of dark chapters in Irish and American histories.

When and Where Did the ‘Luck of the Irish” Saying Originate?

The term “Luck of the Irish” did not originate in Ireland. Nor was it a positive term when it first used.

My searched started at IrishCentral. In a short article by the IrishCentral staff, I found out that the term “luck of the Irish” was not Irish in origin. In fact, an Associate Professor of History at Holy Cross College said it was a term of derision.

That educator is Edward T. O’Donnell, the author of 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History. He said the term “luck of the Irish” was used to dismiss or downplay the successes Irish and Irish American miners had in the second half of the 19th century, during the gold and silver rush years. Basically, people who used the term were saying the Irish succeeded due to sheer luck as opposed to their own wits.

Also, a factoid about the word luck was given, with Mental Floss being cited. The work “luck” is Middle Dutch in origin. “The word comes from ‘luc,’ a shortening of ‘gheluc,’ meaning ‘happiness, good fortune.’” The work might have been integrated into the English language as a gambling term somewhere in the 15th century.

Were the Irish ‘Lucky’?

Given their history, I would say no. Well, not in the way their detractors said.

According to Christopher Klein, 2 million Irish immigrants arrived on American shores to escape the Great Hunger in Ireland. The potato was the premier crop of the Irish, especially since they were given small tracts of land to work on by British farmers. But, in 1845, many of the crops were infected and rendered useless.

The Irish suffered mainly due to living under harsh British rule. They were poor, but they were also denied food by the British government. The only hope many of the Irish had was escaping to new lands. Some used their lives savings to go to the United States and others were sent their by British landlords who felt that was a cheaper option.

Many most of those immigrants faced harsh treatment and rough conditions on their travels. Some didn’t even survive the sea crossing and others suffered due to a lack of health care. Others saw their children die due to disease.

After a time, a party would be held for those who would depart. The party was more like a wake because much of the time, when the Irish immigrated to the Australia, Great Britain, or the United States, they did not see their families again (Ola).

More About Anti-Irish Sentiment

Of course, the Irish faced extreme prejudice when they first arrived in the United States. The Irish faced a double-barreled prejudice since they were immigrants and Catholic. Since the thirteen original American colonies were largely started by Protestants escaping religious persecution, the anti-Catholic sentiment developed over the centuries.

The Irish were often depicted as ape-like creatures in drawings (albeit, that was imported from England, but still …). They were accused of being violent and driving down wages.  And they were accused of being agents of the Pope.

The refugees seeking haven in America were poor and disease-ridden. They threatened to take jobs away from Americans and strain welfare budgets. They practiced an alien religion and pledged allegiance to a foreign leader. They were bringing with them crime. They were accused of being rapists. And, worst of all, these undesirables were Irish.

Get the reference?

The Know-Nothings

On a serious note, the American Party was founded in the 1850’s to oppose immigration and Catholicism. They became the “Know-Nothings” because they claimed to know nothing when asked about their politics.

Buoyed by the war-cry “Americans must rule America!”, the Know-Nothings elected eight governors, more than 100 congressmen and mayors of cities including Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago in the mid-1850s. They found their greatest success in Massachusetts where in 1854 the American Party captured all state offices, the entire State Senate and all but a handful of seats in the House chamber. According to Dolan, once in power in Massachusetts the Know-Nothings mandated the reading of the King James Bible in public schools, disbanded Irish militia units while confiscating their weapons and deported nearly 300 poor Irish back to Liverpool because they were a drain on the public treasury. They also barred naturalized citizens from voting unless they had spent 21 years in the United States.

Doesn’t this also sound familiar?

Want to Know What Else I Found?

The Hartford Courant was used as one source to espouse those views Thomas M. Day took it over in 1855. In an editorial piece, the Hartford Courants anti-immigrant past was explained. The Irish arrived in Connecticut in droves during the 1840’s and 1850’s to escape famine and they eventually became the first major immigrant group to settle in the state since the Puritan English.

Thomas Day’s Anti-Immigrant Fervor

When I came upon these paragraphs, I had to quote them:

Thomas M. Day, a well-to-do Hartford lawyer and world-class racist with no newspaper background, took over The Courant in 1855 and embraced the nativist Know-Nothing movement that swept the state in that pre-Civil War decade. “America for the Americans” was their battle cry, and for Mr. Day, “Irish American” was an oxymoron.

In editorial after editorial he savaged the Irish, only taking breaks to attack “the Negro, the Mongolian, the Malay or the Red American.”

Mr. Day warned of the dire consequences of allowing the Irish — “ignorant, degraded and priest-led foreigners” — to vote. If the Irish took an interest in public affairs, soon “Irish Roman Catholics will be found in all our minor offices, and like the Irish police in New York, allow their countrymen the fullest liberty and never check them from crime.”

Mr. Day blamed the Irish for bearing children that had to be raised in the Hartford Orphan Asylum and for filling the jails and almshouses, but also for driving down mechanics’ wages because “Irish are besieging the workshops, for work at less than living prices.”

A Change of Heart

Day would moderate his views afterward. Democratically-aligned newspapers took Day to task over his views the and new Republican Party had started its own newspaper, The Evening Press, in 1856. Abraham Lincoln’s anti-slavery speech in Hartford in 1860 also moved Day.

Day left the Courant in 1864 and in 1867, the newspaper merged with The Evening Press.

To Bring This Think Back …

Today, there are 32 million Americans with “predominantly Irish roots” (Klein). St. Patrick’s Day is a day to celebrate those roots, although it remains a religious observance for many Irish men and women (Mulraney). Many non-Irish people are encouraged to take part in the celebration and have a pint of Guinness (if you drink, which I don’t).

I will sign off by wishing you a very Happy St. Patrick’s Day and I hope you have a happy and safe weekend.

Works Cited

“Irish Immigrants Faced Hardship And Prejudice.” Hartford Courant. 16 March 2015. Web. http://www.courant.com/opinion/editorials/hc-ed-st-patricks-day-20150316-story.html

IrishCentral Staff. “Where does the term ‘the luck of the Irish’ come from?” IrishCentral. 28 Feb 2017. Web. <http://www.irishcentral.com/roots/history/where-does-the-term-the-luck-of-the-irish-come-from>.

Klein, Christopher. “When America Despised the Irish: The 19th Century’s Refugee Crisis.” History.com. 16 Mar 2017. Web. <http://www.history.com/news/when-america-despised-the-irish-the-19th-centurys-refugee-crisis>.

Mulraney, Frances. “All the pubs in Ireland used to be closed on St. Patrick’s Day.” IrishCentral. Originally Published in 2015. Updated 3 Mar 2017. Web. Retrieved 17 Mar 2017. <http://www.irishcentral.com/roots/history/all-the-pubs-in-ireland-used-to-be-closed-on-st-patricks-day>.

Ola, Kosakowska. “Where does the ‘Luck of the Irish’ come from?” Tour Ireland. 26 Nov 2015. Web. Retrieved 17 Mar 2017. http://tourireland.com/blog/?article=196

Tung, Angela. “‘Luck of the Irish’ is an Old Mining Expression.” Mental Floss. 16 Mar 2012. Web. <http://mentalfloss.com/article/30236/luck-irish-old-mining-expression>.

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