- 19 Aug 19
While the plight of Irishman Keith Byrne earned deserved sympathy at home, the fact remains that the Irish in America enjoy a status not bestowed on other immigrants.
There was warm sympathy across the Irish media for Cork man Keith Byrne when he was targetted for deportation from the US last month.
Mr. Byrne, a builder, had entered the US in 2007 and stayed on after his 90-day visa expired. He met, fell in love with and married Keren, a nurse. They and their three children – one of them Keren’s from a previous relationship – lived quietly in a Philadelphia suburb until July 10, when Keith was arrested by Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE) agents on his way to work. He was put in handcuffs and shackles, taken to Pike County prison, lodged in a cell and told to prepare for deportation.
He had applied for a Green Card in 2009 on the basis of marriage to a US citizen. He had been open about a 14-year-old conviction in Ireland for possession of a tiny amount of marijuana. His case for legal status dragged on until his detention.
Keith and Keren’s co-workers have launched a campaign against his deportation. Coverage in local media has been uniformly positive, depicting Mr. Byrne, accurately, as a hard-working family man and an asset to the community.
Mr. Byrne and his family are entitled to feel badly done by. Then again, they haven’t been as ill-used as Hispanic people on the Southern border. Had Keith been Mexican, he’d have been booted out before his shackled feet had touched the ground.
MOST POWERFUL CATHOLIC PRELATE
Consider, by way of contrast, Irish-American involvement in the case of Eric Garner who was seized in July 2014 on the street in Staten Island and choked to death by a New York police officer. Phone footage shows Garner, an African American, being held to the ground with a cop’s arm across his throat. He is heard to moan “I can’t breathe” 11 times.
The death was ruled a homicide by the NY City medical examiner. The incident galvanised the Black Lives Matter movement. “I Can’t Breathe” became a common slogan on protest placards.
A conclusion of sorts seemed to have been reached in early July, when a judge ordered NY police commissioner James P. O’Neill to sack the officer concerned, Daniel Pantaleo. At the time of writing Pantaleo remains on the payroll.
The chief of the NY Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, Patrick J. Lynch, denounced the judge’s order as “political insanity… It would paralyse the NYPD for years to come.”
Trump has weighed in from Washington to describe Pantaleo’s predicament as “heart-breaking.”
Last March, Commissioner O’Neill was inducted into the Irish American Hall of Fame by New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan. This was a seriously big deal in Irish-American papers and county associations.
Lynch describes himself as an “Irish patriot”. He has described Black Lives Matter as “subversive”. When two police officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liud, were shot dead in December 2014 by a deranged man who had earlier killed his girlfriend and went on immediately to kill himself, Lynch called for a “militarised” police force. He has publicly raged against mayor Bill de Blasio for giving mild support to Black Lives Matter.
The Irish in America are at least as likely to be dishing out ill-treatment to minorities as to be on the receiving end.
Hispanics without a visa are “illegal”. The Irish are “undocumented”.
The disparity in status can be traced back to the efforts of Tyrone-born John Joseph Hughes. He had arrived in America to work as a gardener in the 1830s before becoming a seminarian, then a priest, a bishop and, by the late 1850s, archbishop of New York and the most powerful Catholic prelate in the land.
Hughes plunged into politics, lobbying in Washington, becoming a regular at the White House, arguing for full legal acceptance of the Irish as American and for effective control by a dependable Church over the formation of Catholic children.
WELCOME ON THE MAT
The Irish were already better-placed for advancement than most other ethnic groups. In his revelatory book, Famine Irish And The American Racial State, Peter O’Neill of the University of Georgia takes as his starting point that the first-ever US citizenship law, the Naturalisation Act of 1790, lays down that, “any alien, being a free white person,” became eligible for citizenship after two years’ residency. Thus the Irish, relatively soon after arrival, acquired a status they’d never known under British rule in Ireland – a status not available to black, brown or yellow people.
The Irish poured into service of the State. “If you’re Irish come into the parlour/ There’s a welcome there for you/ If your name is Timothy or Pat/ So long as you come from Ireland/ There’s a welcome on the mat.”
At one point, every fire fighter in San Francisco was Irish. Some New York police precincts were overwhelmingly Irish. The boys of the NYPD choir singing ‘Galway Bay’. The Church supervising the process had a large element of Irishry, too: almost every priest in black-and-white movies was called “Fr. O’Brien”.
Irish-Americans can remain fiercely anti-British while refusing to countenance hostility to the US.
I recall visiting the US to speak of civil rights in the North and discovering to my initial bewilderment that the organisers of my trip referred casually to African Americans as n----s and thought the Vietnam War the finest play under the sun.
Famine Irish is the best book about the Irish in America ever written and crucial to understanding the case of Keith Byrne.