Archive for the ‘History’ Category

The Irish Memorial (in Philadelphia)

June 13, 2009

In Philadelphia, downtown near Penn’s Landing, there is now “The Irish Memorial”, in memory of the Irish who arrived during the great famine of 1845 to 1850 (some say it lasted into 1852).  The Irish phrase is An Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger.  I don’t agree with those who say: don’t call it a famine, it was man-made.  Yes, it was largely man-made — as most famines in human history are man-made.  Food becomes scarce, prices rise, the poor starve — that is “famine”,  as in the French “j’ai faim”, meaning “I am hungry”.  What was unusual in Ireland was the very large percentage of the very poor, and the oppressive landlord system which made and kept them poor.

Recently I read Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind”, which contains the following statement:

The ‘Hungry Forties’ were not in truth peculiarly hungry:  the population was better fed than it had been in the ‘thirties, or the ‘twenties, and the ‘fifties were better fed still, as a general prosperity penetrated to the lower strata of society—at the same time staving off the agricultural depression which the Old Tories had been sure would follow on the heels of Corn Law repeal.

Was Russell Kirk perhaps a mite Anglocentric in his outlook?

Next post:  a poem from those indeed hungry forties, which I translated from the Irish.



2 Churches in Philadelphia

June 12, 2009

Besides Christ Church (Episcopalian) and the Free Quaker church complex (across the street from our Holiday Inn), we visited two important Catholic churches.  Old St. Joseph’s dates from 1733.   It kept a very low profile (entrance from an alley):  even the Quakers with their principles of tolerance hesitated to allow a Jesuit church to open!  The Catholics stood up for themselves, saying they wanted not mere tolerance but full freedom of worship– and they got it.

There was also Old St. Mary’s, built in 1743.  In 1779 St. Mary’s was selected for the official celebration of July 4th, with the new gov’t and foreign ambassadors in attendance for a Mass and Te Deum.  Perhaps the fact that so many Catholics had joined in the fight for independence, as well as the needed support of Catholic France and Spain, helped to overcome the anti-Catholic prejudices of British America.

In the St. Mary’s graveyard is buried John Barry, the “Father of the US Navy”; as well as a signer of the Declaration of Independence whose name I don’t recall right now.  There’s a plaque honoring Barry in the front wall:


Note that the tablet is from the “Wexford 98” society of his countrymen– referring to the great rebellion of 1798, which was centered in Barry’s native county.  It’s said that at least 20% of Washington’s army was Irish-born, and (like John Barry) they were never slow to rise against England whenever given the chance.

We did not visit St. Augustine’s, another old Catholic church (dating from 1796).  It was burned to the ground by an anti-Catholic mob in 1844; and the mob also destroyed “one of the finest theological libraries in the United States, containing 3,000 volumes”, according to the church’s web site.  However “The Augustinian Church sued in court and rebuilt the church with the funds awarded”, thus redeeming Philadelphia’s reputation for tolerance.

During the revolutionary period our new country was lucky to benefit from the Enlightenment ideals of tolerance and human perfectibility, not yet contaminated by the fanatical (and anti-religious) spirit of the French revolution which soon followed.

Regarding Catholic churches:  I think that the architecture and atmosphere in those early ones is more “classical”– quite different from the appearance and emotional tone of the newer churches that served later waves of Catholic immigrants.  More restraint, less holy water– that might sum it up.  Catholics as well as Protestants had a more restrained style of worship in the earlier time.  (Another church in the same mold:  St. John’s in Frederick, Md).

And of course those later Catholic immigrants– particularly the Irish refugees from hunger in the 1840’s onward– provoked a strong animus and much bigotry. Perhaps there are some similarities to our current illegal immigration problem today?

Next time I’ll deal with “The Irish Memorial”, honoring those Irish newcomers of the famine years.