Friday, March 5, 2010

Irish-American Heritage Month

March is Irish-American Heritage Month. In honor of the observance, I offer these notes:

Fleeing famine and brutal oppression, more than a million Irish refugees flocked to the U.S. between 1846-1855 in search of opportunity for a better life. It’s been estimated an amazing 44 percent of immigrants in that period were Irish.

They worked whatever jobs they could find and were routinely exploited. That exploitation was partially based on their poverty and willingness to accept whatever wages they could get. A more shocking element was religious bigotry. The majority of the immigrants were Roman Catholic and anti-Papist sentiments boiled up in tandem with economic concerns in this same period. Newspapers of the period are full of examples of anti-Catholic/Irish sentiment, including cartoons depicting them as savages and animals.

Many of the Irish found their way to Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region where they encountered some of the worst exploitation and hatred. Wayne Broehl in his excellent The Molly Maguires says “All the past hatreds and slights came welling up again, and the mining patches were quickly divided, physically and socially, along ethnic lines. Soon the Irish turned to protective societies.”

Among these societies were the Molly Maguires, still controversial today with many refusing to believe the organization existed or was guilty of the alleged crimes. It's probable more atrocities were attributed to them than did exist. But the organization’s existence is documented and people do have a tendency to strike back at oppression.

In the 1870s, an expanding economic depression pitted mine owners and their laborers, particularly the Irish, in conflict over wages and working conditions. This situation spawned a wave of violence that was not limited to the Irish. The Molly Maguires became a scapegoat for those in authority.

It’s against this backdrop I’ve set my novel Watch The Hour in a fictional patch called Masonville. Why fictional and not an actual patch? Simply because the fictional setting did not limit me to a known set of circumstances. I was able to depict my characters and their actions in a historically-accurate setting but controlled by my imagination.

Benjamin Franklin Yeager is a coal company police officer. He does his best to follow orders while trying to be fair to the workers whose lot he sees as little different from his own. Despite his efforts at fairness, Yeager’s job makes him the enemy of the Irish. And that’s the crux of his troubles. For Ben is in love with an Irish girl.

The love interest is central to the story (I prefer to call it the Romeo and Juliet element). But, as one recent reviewer noted, “There are numerous other interesting characters and entertaining subplots that not only make Ben’s life and decisions more difficult, but create tragedy and sorrow for those already suffering under the oppression of an American feudal system meant to take advantage of the masses by the rich and powerful.”

That clearly spells out the early Irish experience and not just in the coal region.

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