- Historic Sites
The Coming Of The Green
The Irish built America’s roads and canals, fought in its wars, and triumphed over poverty and discrimination: it was a grand battle indeed
August 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 5
Now there was in Ireland in olden times a great poet named Oisin. Such was his power that he had but to speak of summer, and whiter went from the land; and where there had been only the rime of front and the blackness of rocks, there were meadow’s filled with clover and sweet grass and the murmuring of bees.
And one day a maiden came to Oisin and said, “I am Niav of the Golden Hair and I have come to take you to the Land of the Ever Young, which lies to the west and where you will be happy after all your toils. For you must know, Oisin, that this land you may make yours, as much by your strength as by your speech, which is as pleasant to the mind as spring water running over my feet when I have walked far and am weary.”
And Oisin bade farewell to his companions, who grieved that he should go, and set out for the Land of the Ever Young with Niav of the Golden Hair.
The time had come, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, for the Irish to go to the Land of the Ever Young, which lay across the Atlantic Ocean and which they called America.
To remain in their own country was to accept a present and a future without hope for either themselves or their children. Ireland, at this time, had been united with England by an Act of Union, which, dissolving the Irish Parliament, had with one stroke deprived the Irish of what little self-government they had previously enjoyed.
Rebellion after rebellion had failed to shake off England’s control. The land was owned by foreign landlords who planted tenants as their most profitable crop. The system was to rent small acreages to the landless Irish so that the landlord was certain of his rents—the hazards attendant upon agriculture being faced by the tenant, who could be utterly destroyed by one crop failure. If the tenant did well with his small rented farm, the landlord raised the rent. If the tenant objected to the raisin of the rent, he was evicted, for he had few rights under the law and could get no one to represent him in those rights he did possess.
This planting of tenants as the most profitable crop had become so intensified by the beginning of the nineteenth century that twenty or thirty tenants often shared a farm that a few decades previously had supported but one farmer and his family. The plots were so small that the tenants could not live on the produce from them. The Irish tenant farmer planted potatoes in the early spring because it was a crop that looked after itself. Then he turned his wife and his children out on the load to beg. He himself went to England to search for work, for there was none for him in Ireland. It work was lacking, he, too, became a beggar. When autumn came he returned to his plot, harvested his potatoes, and, using these and whatever money the family had gleaned in the summer months, contrived to get through the desolation of winter until the cycle could be repeated again.
The house he lived in in Ireland was made of boards and turf; and if he could get a little pig to fatten on potato peelings, or perhaps a hen or two, the pig and the hens shared the turf house with the Irishman and his family, for there was nowhere else to put the livestock.
The land itself was beautiful. The mists that lay in the mornings over the lakes and in the blue valleys shone like the cloth of heaven. Off the Kerry heads the azure ocean broke into foam as white as a gleaming bone. Quick rains Hooded the meadows, and then the sun came out so that the grass seemed to be growing in a sheet of crystal. In the spring, marigolds covered the bogs with rich gold, and lapwings moved with slow grace through the sky, each echoing the mournful cry of his fellows.
The Irishman lived in paradise and was a pauper there. His land and its beauties were not his. He and his children were the most hideous creatures in it, and for his and their salvation he must leave this land and go somewhere else.
And the place he should go to was America.
The Irish were not strangers to America, for they knew it by repute, and many of their kinsfolk had gone there from the earliest times. Some of them had gone as indentured servants, bound to another man for a number of years, after which they would be set free in the new land to make their own fortunes. Others were men who could not bow their heads—men who had been soldiers in the armies of the old Irish nobles or who had owned land in their own right. Thousands had gone to America in the years before the Revolutionary War, driven by increased British restriction on Irish trade. They had joined the army of General Washington, and so many Pennsylvania Irishmen had served Washington that the men of the Pennsylvania regiments were called the “line [or army] of Ireland.”
America was the land where all that was denied in Ireland might be achieved, including liberty—and the very word conjured up the brightest imaginings in the minds of the Irish.
A letter from America would put a whole Irish village in a state of tingling excitement. The word would go out to all the neighbors that Kevin Reilly, “the little feller, ye’ll remember, that was so thin he stood halfway between the earth and heaven,” had written a letter to his father from New York or Boston, and everyone would come in to see this wonderful and exciting thing.