I am convinced that who we are, what we believe, our likes and dislikes, even how we make decisions, is all based on our previous life experiences. I grew up in western New York. My neighbors were from just about everywhere you could imagine. My schools were on the other side of “Little Italy.” My church was surrounded by Italians. I’m Irish. At that time, they were the latest large group of immigrants in the area. My family came from an earlier wave of immigrants. In fact, I only knew one person who was not an immigrant. Mrs. Rattan lived across the street. A sweet older lady. Her daughter was about my mother’s age. Mrs. Rattan was a full-blooded Sioux.
My ancestors came to North America sometime after 1700. I know of one who immigrated from County Tyrone in Ulster in about 1730. Two others came from County Galway in 1830 and 1860. Immigrated might not be correct. It implies a voluntary action, and that might not be true.
Four million, seven-hundred thousand immigrated from Ireland from 1800 to 1990. One-and-a-half million came during the infamous potato famine from 1830 to 1850. Beginning in 1600 and lasting through about 1950, over 17 million Irish men, women and children left Ireland for British colonies in North America, the Caribbean, South America and Australia under various circumstances.
The British solution to the Irish problem was simple: imprison and/or export. To accomplish this, Parliament passed very broad vagrancy laws. This period of oppression began during the reign of King Edward II (1307-1327) with the seizure of Irish property followed by the enactment of the Penal Laws beginning in 1690 and lasting in some instances into the 1960s in Northern Ireland.
Before I get into what laws did, there’s an interesting little thing. I was watching a television program “Who Do You Think You Are?” And one of the people they were doing was an ancestor of Edward III. And they found out that Edward III was informed that his father had passed away. Now normally, you don’t become king until after your predecessor has passed away. Edward II was hated so much that he was one of the first British kings to be deposed. His reign ended in January of 1327. His life ended in September, and nobody is really sure exactly sure how he died.
Back the Penal Laws. Under these laws, an Irish Catholic was forbidden certain things, like an education:
He could not enter a profession;
He could not hold public office;
He could not engage in commerce or a trade;
He could not live in a corporate town or within five miles of one;
He could not own a horse valued at more than five pounds;
He could not own or lease land;
He could not accept a mortgage on land as security for a loan;
He could not vote;
He could not keep arms for his own protection;
He could not hold a life annuity;
He could not buy land from a Protestant;
He could not receive a gift of land from a Protestant;
He could not inherit land from a Protestant and later he could not inherit anything from a Protestant;
He could not rent land worth more than 30 shillings a year;
He was forbidden to reap from this land any profit exceeding one-third of the rent;
He could not be a guardian for a child;
Upon his death, he could not leave a child under 5 years of age under Catholic guardianship;
He could not attend Catholic services but was required by law to attend Protestant services;
He could not send his children to a Catholic teacher;
He could not hire a Catholic teacher for his children;
He could not send his children abroad to be educated.
Under the Penal Laws, Catholics were not considered to be Christians.
These laws were enforced to various degrees and at various times throughout the British Isles and the British Empire. Many were enacted before the American Revolution. And although our Bill of Rights excluded many of them, the prejudices that caused them to be enacted were still prevalent among the elite in the United States in the 1880s, when our organization was founded.
I overheard a comment several weeks ago. A woman said she was tired of hearing people say they were owed something because their ancestors had been brought here against their will and had been slaves. I think the Penal Laws pretty well enslaved the Irish. She commented that her ancestors had suffered at least 400 years of oppression just because of their ancestry and religious beliefs. Their service here in colonial America amounted to slavery. In 1705, the Virginia General Assembly declared that all imported servants not considered a Christian in their own country were in fact slaves. Catholics were not considered Christians in Ireland. Many did not wish to leave their homeland but had no other choice. Some survived long enough to earn their freedom; most were not that fortunate. Her family did not believe they were owed anything. Instead, they believed they earned everything they owned.
Imagine the psychological impact of 400 years or persecution. We all know that all the acts of Congress cannot erase centuries of belief, fear and prejudice. This is the background and these are the experiences that molded our founders’ thoughts and beliefs.