The Absence of Irish Immigration in High School Curricula Leaves a Gap in our Study of U.S. History

Jack P. Carroll ’24

Contributing Writer

In a historical landmark decision on Monday Aug. 31, the California legislature made courageous and praise-worthy academic progress in becoming the first state to pass legislation that requires all high school students to complete a course related to the study of “racial and ethnic groups that have been oppressed and exploited through U.S. history.” 

However, as has been pointed out by numerous education policy experts and California state education leaders, the curriculum approved under Bill AB331 misses many meaningful opportunities to promote diversity by forgetting to include a myriad of historically oppressed and underrepresented social groups in the United States–the Irish among them. 

Before going any further, I must note that I applaud the decision of the California State Assembly in their efforts to provide students with an acute understanding of the struggles and successes of various social groups whose well-being, for too long in our nation’s history, was tragically neglected and left unaccounted for altogether. 

Furthermore, by instilling our nation’s future leaders with a profound sense of respect and appreciation for different ethnic groups with which one may be initially unacquainted, I believe that our nation can become further unified in our national and global efforts to help those in need and continue to disband the prejudices that have deeply fragmented our society. 

It is for the aforementioned reason, with regards to the importance of a high school education curriculum that is ripe in social diversity, that I was disappointed to learn that the cruel and bigoted oppression that the Irish faced when immigrating to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, as well as their perseverance and future accomplishments, were not included in California’s recently approved curriculum. 

However, as disappointed as I was when first reading through the bill, I could not say that I was surprised by the legislature’s exclusion of the Irish in their curriculum. The study of the history of the Irish in the United States in modern high school curricula, for whatever reason, has been largely ignored and left unaddressed. 

In fact, in my four years of high school, I do not recall ever learning about Irish immigration and their struggles in the United States. The closest I ever came to learning anything about Irish culture was in my senior English course, A.P. English Literature and Composition, when my peers and I read the novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The Irish culture which is deeply embedded within the plot was, of course, not the focal point of our thematic analysis of the text. 

Given the widespread disregard for Irish culture and heritage that, as displayed by Bill AB331 and existing curricula across the country, continues to remain an integral component of the study of systemic oppression of various social groups in high schools nationwide, I believe that all readers could further enhance their cultural awareness and understanding of the root causes and effects of oppression in the United States with the study of Irish immigration. 

While major national curriculum reform, which extends the study of historically oppressed social groups in America to include the Irish, among a long list of others, does not seem likely to take place any time in the near future, I believe that all readers could obtain a glimpse of the previously mentioned benefits with a cursory glance into nineteenth-century Irish immigration–which I have provided below. 

The story of the Irish in the United States is one of immense suffering and tragedy. The dark times that many Irish immigrants were soon to face upon their arrival were linked to even darker origins that were most vividly described by one of the most influential Irish historians, Christine Kinealy. 

When recounting the famine-stricken landscape of Ireland in the mid-nineteenth-century, which would claim the lives of one million and later motivate the emigration of roughly two million in only a seven year time span, Kinealy, writes in the Great Hunger Museum in Hamden, CT: 

No part of the country escaped from the horror of the Famine, and no religious group was exempt from its ravages. Disease and death stalked Ireland, and despair and despondency filled the vacuums. The laughter of children was replaced by cries of pain, and the singing of birds by haunting silences. From 1845 to 1852, Ireland was a society living at the extremes–from callousness to compassion, from brutality to benevolence. Moreover from birth practices to funeral rites and everything in between, nothing was as it had been before. 

As further presented at the Great Hunger Museum, the desolate landscape was, of course, facilitated by an unresponsive British government which, amidst the widespread suffering and death that became a disturbingly integral component of many peoples’ lives, further fueled the destruction of Irish civilization. 

For example, a law that left landlords responsible for feeding their tenants, who during the famine had little to no money, led to the eviction of approximately half a million people. The landlords then, after removing their tenants, used the land to graze livestock in an attempt to profit, all while disregarding the health and wellbeing of their tenants. 

The famine, which began when a fungus-resembling organism called Phytophthora led to the plight of potato plants all throughout Ireland, along with the ruthless treatment they received from their ruling government, however, would not mark the end of the Irish struggle. 

For the Irish immigrants who were fortunate enough to survive the unsanitary and cramped conditions of the “coffin ships”–the flotillas named after the quarter of the 85,000 passengers who did not survive the trip overseas–a life of backbreaking physical labor, employment discrimination, poverty, racial caricatures, and violent confrontations with anti-Catholic and anti-Irish factions awaited. 

Indeed, it was not uncommon for one to see anti-Irish job-listing advertisements in newspapers that read “No Irish Need Apply”; as well as the destruction of Irish property, such as the burning of the Old South (Catholic) Church in Maine in the summer of 1854. 

It is also worth noting that these anti-Irish efforts, which hardly scratch the surface of the brute oppression that the Irish faced, were mainly driven by the anti-Irish and anti-Catholic group known as the “Know Nothings.” They were a neo-nationalist hate-group disguised as a political party which aimed to combat Irish immigration to the U.S. and declare their Protestant religious views as superior. 

It would not be until decades after their arrival that the Irish would begin to gain social footing in the United States, specifically, through their large voter turnout in state and local elections in which they elected leaders of the Irish community into positions of power in government. 

Furthermore, it would not be for over one hundred years until the first Irish-Catholic U.S. President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, would serve in office. 

Lastly, and most disturbingly, it would not be for another 150 years from the start of the famine that Britain would take some responsibility for its devastating contributions to the famine. 

As a descendant, myself, of the generations of brave men and women who sacrificed their wellbeing when emigrating from Ireland to an initially cold and indifferent reception in the U.S., I believe that it is imperative for our nation’s youth to closely study the Irish struggle in order to ensure that our students receive a comprehensive understanding of the horrific and degenerating consequences of discrimination amongst all cultures and all societies. 

While the decision of the California legislature to incorporate ethnic studies is a needed step in the right direction towards ensuring a rich multicultural education, it should be broadened so that historically oppressed social groups–such as the Irish–that are currently missing from California’s curriculum receive the careful study and consideration they deserve in curricula.

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