The Ramonat Seminar #2: The Power of Paint and Prejudice

These past two weeks in the Ramonat seminar, we’ve focused on the European origin story of the various Catholic groups we are going to study, that end up in Chicago. Our main groups have been the Italians and the story of their eventual unification into the peninsula we know today, and that of the Irish pre- and post- potato famine.

What has struck me about the whole thing has largely been the similarities in the stories of these internal refugees or and political factions within their home country, who then look outward and within for some semblance of a more universal community.

While I could go into the readings and the trip we took last week (all of which can be found on the main blog for our cohort), Professor Roberts has challenged us to look at a mediums beyond the written word, and to focus on the Irish in particular.

Mick Moloney, a singer and professor, will be visiting us later in the month for the beginning of our seminar series. While I sadly can’t attend, I was happy to hear his rendition of a song around this period of mass immigration from Ireland entitled “The Green Fields of America”. Two lines stood out to me, but the first is a good lead way into a particular Irish practice, that feeds into the images I’ve chosen to study this week.

“For me mother is old and me father quite feeble…Oh, the tears down their cheeks in great drops they are rolling, To think I must die upon some foreign shore”

Thomas Hovenden’s Breaking Home Ties (1890), the image for this post, features a young man seemingly being sent away from his home. He’s dressed very nicely, young and fresh faced if not ghostly pale, while his family and pet surround him in muted colors with forlorn faces. While eclipsing the time period of focus, it hearkens back to a practice called the wake in which Irish families celebrated the lose of their sons to the so-called “green fields of America”. Much like the song lyric above evokes a generational split, one in which the young leave the older generation grieves, so too does this painting speak to that reality.

Patrick Fitzgerald and Brian Lambkin in their book Migration in Irish History, 1607-2007 chart out the three-stage process of Irish immigration (Leaving, Crossing, and Arriving), and of particular interest the scenes of migration between 1845-1850 onward, pre- and post famine. One practice the stood out before the journey was that of the wake. N.A. Woods, An Irish Wake (1819) below shows the chaotic scene of what we usually associate with a wake—death. The scene is in blacks, whites, and grays. The moonlight shines in as people pour in, drunk, angry, sobbing, praying, as the dead man lays in white with a heavy cross. The wake was unique to Ireland where “…even in southern Italy and southern Spain which were the only other regions of Europe where traces of pre-Christian funeral customs survived into the twentieth century” (Fitzgerald and Lambkin 17).


While the disorder might not be familiar, the scene of death evokes familiarity. That’s why I was so surprised to learn what a wake constituted when it came to leaving for greener shores—it was a celebration filled with prayers for guidance and safety from the clergy to a young man like  Aloysius O’Kelly, Mass in a Connemara Cabin (c.1883) below. This was potentially gate-keeping-esque in nature as they would most likely end up in largely Protestant lands. A massive party from friends and family was held, and calls to keep ties through letters and part of their salary as they went away.


Maybe it’s the reputation the ships had of being sailing coffins, coined by a man named Thomas D’Arcy McGee (Fitzgerald and Lambkin, 173), more likely because once one was able to cross, baring the family coming later, they would most likely never be seeing their sons again. Why then, would they send them in the first place?

Leslie Moch in her book Moving Europeans: Migration in Western Europe Since 1650 explains the processes by which this massive immigration had to take place.

“Changing rural economies forced people to find new itineraries for cash earning…[a]s long-standing, more protective social systems gave way to capitalist employers who left care in off-season, illness, and old age to the individual worker, the neat categories of seasonal and temporary labor migration overflowed as rural laborers sought work wherever and whenever the could find it” (Mock 113).

Mono-culture like the potato crop in Ireland’s failure ensured a humanitarian disaster. But, long before that, the double whammy of urbanization and industrialization made it so seasonal labor was largely replaced by wage labor…and that labor was found in the cities not the country side and subsistence farming practices. This cities were coined as “[t]he Textile City, [t]he City of Heavy Industry, and [t]he Commercial and Service City” (132-143), all with a different purpose, make up, and retention rate. With all these factors combined, and existing tensions, a mass exodus was potentially inevitable past the potato crop failure. Mostly I say were push factors, some pull (the lure of money and a fresh start), but all lead to them leaving Ireland’s shores.

Ambivalence and alienation often times goes hand in hand. There’s no place like home but when home is ripped away, one has no choice but to construct an almost mythical version of the past and or the present. I return now to another lyric from Moloney’s piece that illustrates this.

“For ten dollars a week is not very bad pay, With no taxes or tithes to devour up your wages, When you’re on the green fields of America”

A new nationalism and community must be constructed, imagined, in a new world, especially in the face of the massive prejudice some Irish claim as they faced when they landed on new shores. While there’s little historical evidence to back up the bulk of their claims, anyone who knows about five points in New York, seen Gangs of New York, or has any idea of the longstanding perception that the Irish are drunks and or brawlers by nature understand the expression and shambles by which the man represented below feels. Torn from country, people, and safety, how does one construct a new identity?

Now as many migrants flood into Old Europe, the places where the urban and rural poor fled so many years ago, I am struck by the parallels. Does everything have to be a zero-sum game of sorts where there are only clear winners and losers, a loss for a gain? I don’t think so but I feel as though this particular picture (unrelated but in some ways connected to the Irish question of long ago) shows the nativism that often takes hold in the face of a sea change/paradigm shift.

A boy attends a protest against Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's immigration policy proposals in central Budapest, Hungary, May 19, 2015. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

  • Mick Moloney “The Green Fields of America”, Far From the Shamrock Shore: The Story of Irish-American Immigration Through Song (2002), pg.9
  • Leslie Page Moch, Moving Europeans: Migration in Western Europe Since 1650 (1992), chapter 4: “Migration in an Age of Urbanization and Industrialization,” 102-160.
  • Patrick Fitzgerald and Brian Lambkin, Migration in Irish History, 1607-2007 (2007), chapter 2 (“A Three-Stage Process: Leaving, Crossing, Arriving”), 16-33, and chapter 10 (“Irish Migration, 1845-1855”), 165-181.

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