By Peter F. Stevens
“Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).
Those oft-quoted words from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass” ring especially apt in the Era of Donald Trump and ascending right-wing nationalist movements throughout Europe. Ironically, the Republic of Ireland, so long a conservative Roman Catholic “Fortress of Solitude,” has turned its collective back on the anti-immigrant, anti-freedom of the press, anti-gay, anti-Nativist, and anti-choice tenets so near and dear to President Trump and his administration writ large.
For a century or more, many Americans—including many Irish Americans—berated or lamented an Ireland seemingly ensnared in the religious, cultural, social, and historical dogma of the Vatican. Now, however, in the past year alone, as America grapples with a hard-right turn, the Irish have turned left.
The shift resonated back in May of this year, when Ireland voted on the issue of abortion. As Trump and his enforcer, Sen. Mitch McConnell have been packing the federal bench and the Supreme Court itself with jurists poised to strike down Roe v. Wade, Ireland’s majority recoiled from the nation’s stern abortion laws. Ed O’Loughlin, of The New York Times, wrote, “Ireland voted decisively to repeal one of the world’s more restrictive abortion bans, sweeping aside generations of conservative patriarchy and dealing the latest in a series of stinging rebukes to the Roman Catholic Church.” He added that the vote “cemented the nation’s liberal shift at a time when right-wing populism is on the rise in Europe and the Trump administration is imposing curbs on abortion rights in the United States.”
There’s much more testament to Ireland’s dramatic shift in ways that are likely stunning to the many Conservative Irish Americans among our nation’s some 40 million people with Hibernian bloodlines. Ireland’s current Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, elected to the office in June 2017, is openly gay and the son of an immigrant father from Mumbai, India. It should come as no surprise that Ireland voted in a referendum to allow same-sex marriage. Not so long ago, either development would have been unthinkable in the Emerald Isle. Unless our own nation’s history books have missed something, no openly gay man or woman has ever served as president.
On the issue of “birthright citizenship,” Ireland was on a Trumpian page in 2004, when 79 percent of the nation’s voters supported a referendum to strike down the Constitutional provision that bestowed citizenship on anyone born in Ireland. That same debate rages in America today, with the administration working to find a way around the 14th Amendment, which, among other things, grants citizenship to children born to illegal immigrants in the US. Some ten days ago, Ireland’s Senate voted to consider a proposed edict to guarantee birthright citizenship. The Senate’s move came in the immediate wake of a Sunday Times of London (Irish edition) poll asserting that 71 percent of respondents supported birthright citizenship, with a scant 19 percent against it and 10 percent undecided.
In the May 24, 2018, New York Times, O’Loughlin noted that “this remarkable swing in public opinion, at a time when President Trump has called for ending birthright citizenship in the United States, follows a high-profile case in which Eric Zhi Ying Xue, a 9-year-old boy who was born in Ireland, was threatened last month with deportation along with his Chinese mother.” As in the US, though, entrenched political forces in the Irish government remain hardliners against so-called “anchor babies.”
All of this reflects the political upheavals on both sides of the Atlantic. Come January 2019, America will learn if the Democrats’ takeover—yes, it was a wave—of the US House portends an actual check upon the executive branch. As Lewis Carroll wrote, “Curiouser and Curiouser”—especially with regard to the US and Ireland’s evolving role reversals.
This month has not always been “the most wonderful time of the year”—for the Boston Irish. As the 2018 Christmas season rushes in, a look back in time reveals that from 1800 to 1850 or so, Irish immigrants could scarcely have picked a worse site than Boston to celebrate the holiday. The city’s main founders, the Puritans, had loathed “Popish” Yuletide rituals so much that, in 1659, the Massachusetts General Court had enacted long-lasting laws against honoring the day. Anyone caught toasting the occasion suffered a steep five-shilling fine.
Above all, for the Mathers and other Puritan luminaries, Christmas celebrations symbolized “Papists” and their church. So entrenched did Bostonians’ antipathy toward Catholicism become that the city’s public schools were open on Christmas Day until 1870.
In such a climate, Boston’s Irish marked the holiday in muted fashion until their political clout swelled late in the 19th century. Christmas on the “old sod” had largely revolved around Mass and family, not the raucous celebrations of any feverish Puritan or, later, Yankee imaginations, so the early Irish of Boston spent the day simply, many families keeping children home from school.
Christmas Masses were held at St. Augustine’s, in South Boston, and later at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, always under close watch by some Bostonians for any excessive celebrations. As German Catholic immigrants arrived and began attending the local “Irish” churches, the newcomers introduced the city to Christmas trees and greeting cards as a thaw in the region’s traditional, Puritan-steeped Christmas notions slowly became evident.
By the dawn of the 20th century, the Boston Irish were celebrating Christmas as openly as they desired, with family parties and dinners, parish socials, and Midnight Mass turning the Yuletide season into a genuine holiday. In “Boston Catholics,” the late Thomas H. O’Connor wrote that they “participated in a perpetual calendar of familiar religious devotions that…bound them more firmly together as members of their own distinctive parishes.”
Such scenes would have been virtually unthinkable for Boston’s earliest Irish immigrants who lived in a city where Puritans had once banned the holiday and had punished transgressors with a fine or an agonizing stint in the public stocks.