Michael Follin, as immigrant Sean O’Shaughnessy, is angered to find a “No Irish need apply” sign barring his way to opportunity in America. But those like him persisted and persevered, as Follin will illustrate in “Saints Preserve Us: The Irish in America” at the Ohio Historical Society March 12, 19 and 26. The Ohio Village Singers will also host “From the Pubs of Ireland,” with music, food and drink, March 14 and 15.
Around St. Patrick’s Day, everyone wants to be Irish.
But when immigrants from the Emerald Isle began arriving in America in the nineteenth century, they were greeted with suspicion and prejudice and help-wanted signs that declared “No Irish need apply.”
But they persisted through generations to have a profound effect on the culture and to reach the highest peaks of power.
“They were oppressed and downtrodden, but incredibly resilient,” according to Michael Follin, an interpretative education specialist with the Ohio Historical Society who will portray immigrant Sean O’Shaughnessy in “Saints Preserve Us! The Irish In America,” on March 13, 20 and 27, as part of the Echoes in Time theatre program.
Follin created “Saints Preserve Us” from his own family’s history and diary accounts of people who made the passage from Ireland to what they had been told would be the “Golden Door of Opportunity” in the New World.
He will tell the story of this immigrant and his bride and take questions from the audience.
The Ohio Village Singers will also celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with the music that sustained and celebrated the Irish experience in “From the Pubs of Ireland,” March 14 and 15, which includes a taste of “St. Paddy’s Punch,” a hearty Irish meal and costumed interpreters enlivening the experience.
Follin’s ancestors, landed gentry and one of the leading clans in Ireland, came in the wave of Irish immigrants who landed before the American Revolution.
“They literally lost everything” after leading an aborted uprising against the King of England, and were given the choice of hiding or leaving the country, Follin said.
John Follin established a plantation in Fairfax County, Virginia, and was a Revolutionary War hero with a large monument erected to his memory at Arlington National Cemetery.
The family moved west with the construction of the National Road and prospered as stonecutters.
Other immigrants found work digging canals, mining coal and building the railroads. The Irish were treated as “throw-away labor,” and people said that, for every mile of canal or railroad tie, “there was a dead Irishman.”
The next flood of Irish immigrants arrived under even more dire circumstances, many of them fleeing starvation during the Potato Famine of the 1840s.
The crossing of the Atlantic in “coffin ships” could be just as harrowing and life-threatening, with the callous crews and filthy conditions.
“They were just a step above slave ships,” Follin said.
What they found at “The Golden Door” didn’t match the reports they received from those who had gone before.
The sick could be quarantined and then sent back. Officials would find a pretense to send back those who registered as Catholics, causing many arrivals to lie about their faith.
Many of those who arrived on the docks “were duped from the start” by runners who would direct them to rooming houses that overcharged for their accommodations, Follin said.
Cartoons by Thomas Nast and others portrayed the Irish as nearly sub-human. And there were the hated “No Irish need apply” signs.
This is the world that Follin’s character, a composite of several individuals, inhabits.
While bereft of any worldly goods or wealth, the Irish came with something just as valuable.
“They were incredibly ambitious. They were not afraid of hard work,” Follin found. “They would do the jobs that no one else would do. They saw opportunity and they weren’t afraid to take it.”
With hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants taking up residence in cities such as Boston, New York and Chicago, they began to dominate politics. This path to power was exemplified by the Kennedy family, who went from immigrant laborers to the White House in four generations.
“They were doing it for their children. They were working so their children could have a better life,” said Follin, who sees a continuation of this pattern with the Asian and Hispanic immigrants coming to America today.
One of the things that sustained the Irish immigrants, and endeared them to the larger culture, is their music.
“It’s a personification of the soul of the Irish people,” Follin offered. “It’s what kept them going against all odds.”
Traditional Irish songs will be on tap during “From the Pubs of Ireland,” promised Priscilla Hewetson, who founded the Ohio Village Singers 30 years ago and remains director of the longest performing vocal ensemble of period music in the country.
No other ethnic group’s music has the range from heart-tugging beauty to bawdy humor as the Irish, Hewetson offered.
The program will include such favorites as “Saint Patrick was a Gentleman” and the oft-requested “Fields of Athenry.”
And during such rowdy numbers as “The Jug of Punch,” the audience will be invited to sing along.
For such a despised people, Americans have absorbed a lot of the Irish culture, from jack-o-lanterns to St. Paddy’s Day, which was first observed here in 1737 and grew with the spread of the Irish influence.
The holiday is a much more low-key event on the Old Sod, Follin said, and is observed with parades, Catholic Masses and families (even the children) going from pub to pub. But no green beer.
What is the greatest legacy of the Irish?
“They have a zest for life,” Follin said. “They can see the positive in anything.”
“Saints Preserve Us! The Irish in America” will take place each evening at 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. in the Discovery Theatre, and is free with admission to the Ohio Historical Center at I-71 and East 17th Avenue in Columbus.
Admission for “From the Pubs of Ireland” is $57, plus $4 for parking, and $47 for members of the Ohio Historical Society. For reservations, call 800-686-1541 or 297-2266.
For information visit www.ohiohistory.org