Resistance Genealogy

The current issue of The New Yorker has a lovely article about Jennifer Mendelsohn, an American genealogist who has taken to researching the immigrant ancestors of US politicians and pundits who make anti-immigration pronouncements. Time after time, she’s come up with ancestors who personify the supposed failings being denounced. I especially like her response to Fox News commentator Tomi Lahren who finger-wagged: “Respect our laws and we welcome you. If not, bye”. Tomi’s great-great-grandfather was indicted for forging citizenship papers.

The indictment. Disappointingly, he was acquitted.

America is obviously ripe for this kind of thing – as she says herself, “Unless you’re Native American or you descend from slaves who were brought here against their will, you are an immigrant in this country, or you’re a descendant of an immigrant in this country.” On the other hand, I doubt what she’s doing will have much effect. Respect for the truth is not a conspicuous characteristic of those she’s challenging. I’m sure the massed ranks of Fox News commentators are laughing at her naivety as they tuck in to their breakfast of broiled baby immigrant.

Is there any equivalent in Ireland? The only example I can thing of is Catherine Corless wading through Tuam death records to bring to light the evidence of  Mother and Baby Home abuses.  I’d be very interested in suggestions.

Then, of course, there’s the Irish contribution to the current state of the US. Or, as an article on the History News Network has it, “ Why are all the conservative loudmouths Irish-American?

26 thoughts on “Resistance Genealogy”

  1. I disagree. Just because one’s grandparent was a scoundrel does not preclude today’s citizen from criticizing today’s scoundrels. The sins of the father are not held against the progeny. Ben Afleck’s ancestor owned slaves. What does that have to do with the man he is? Nothing. Maybe America should embrace open borders but it should never do so because of the situation of one’s ancestors. 1918 and 2018 are very different places.

  2. I agree that you’re not responsible for your ancestors, but I do think that you should think about the circumstances that may have made them emigrants/immigrants and bear in mind that many of today’s migrants find themselves in the same, often desperate circumstances. I am always amazed the way many Irish-Americans bad mouth present-day immigrants in exactly the same way as their own ancestors were bad mouthed in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
    And you hear the same unpleasant things being said here in Ireland as well.
    We never learn, do we?

  3. Respect for the truth, you say. So the truth about our Irish ancestor you is not pristine. My ggfather was murdered in the last shoot out in our town in 1894, but was an egnima in Ireland. I think he was part of the Fineans and di not want anyone to know his past. All property in the US was in his wife’s name, so he could not be traced. He deserted from the US Marines and maybe from the Irish Volunteer Merchant Services. But, when he came here he became the only lawman in our little town and upheld it’s laws to the extent he lost his life defending those laws. His past is shady and the other side of the family owned slaves. None of this matters now. But, what does matter, is the growing number of immigrants who come here to be on our welfare rolls, join numerous violent gangs, and not give back to our great country!!! It used to be that to come here you had to have a skill or profession we needed. No more. The lottery system means that criminals, low life’s, etc can come here, get lost in a “sanctuary city” and never contribute. So, go ahead Tomi and tell commentators about the scoundrel ancestors which we all have. I means nothing to any of us today except to know those ancestors were a product of their time. I have been to Ireland four times, the last one being 7 months ago. All of this to find out more about the “flawed” ancestors!!!

  4. When my grand-parents immigrated to the USA from Ireland in the early 1900’s they needed to prove they were healthy and would not need government assistance prior to stepping on our shores. Where they would live and with whom was documented before leaving Ireland.

    As an Irish citizen by descent moving to Ireland from the USA, I’d have many requirements proving habitual residency prior to receiving Social Welfare payments.

    1. Nicely said, Shelia. I’m sure many of us have an ancestor or two that may have skirted the law and got into this country but was it right? Of course not and it’s not right today. There is a definition for illegal and there are correct ways to citizenship. For me they are all welcome if they follow the law. I’m sure there were whiners back then and there are plenty now. If any of mine did it “shame on them”

  5. Thank you John for another thought-provoking article.
    I myself identify with the Ireland of James Connolly and the Irish America
    of ‘Mother Jones'(born in Cork), Finn, Hayden and the Berrigan brothers.
    I think of myself as Irish and a human being before I think of myself as white.
    I’m rooting for Joe Kennedy as US. president in 2020.
    Siochan leat

    1. I’d disagree. “Let those without sin cast the first stone.” Immigrants are what have made America great.

      And, BTW, I’m SLIGHTLY embarrassed that the obnoxious conservative loudmouths are Irish in descent. (I just realized that all my replies are bunched together though they are responses to others’ posts. Oh, well.)

      Ronnie Raygun (another Irish-American) created the “Welfare Queen” myth & it’s still with us. Immigrants don’t come here to get on welfare, they come for opportunities. And very often, they make them & make an honest living–often serving the wants & needs of those in the middle class. Not unlike 150+ years ago.

      John Mac, well said.

      1. I’m the granddaughter of Irish immigrants who came to America in 1912. Moreover, my mother also immigrated here in 1950 from England to marry my father, so I have nothing against immigrants. I do, however, have a problem with people who come here illegally, unlike my ancestors who did everything by the book. Why do liberals refuse to acknowledge this extremely important difference?

  6. Thank you John. Learning our own family stories/history should give us empathy and compassion for others. When I see the landscaper from Mexico, or the young Dreamer joining the Army out of pride for their new country, I see my own great-grandfather. When I hear of drownings from flimsy ocean rafts floating toward a chance at a better life, I think of him crossing the Atlantic on a famine ship.
    We are all one family.
    I’m reminded of the words of the song, “Long Journey Home” by Elvis Costello and Paddy Maloney:
    “But as you ascend the ladder
    Look out below where you tread
    For the colors bled as they overflowed
    Red, white and blue,
    Green, white and gold.”

  7. I’m with Robert Hepburn. That’s my identity too. Do those who insist on controversial right views come from particular areas of Ireland or particular clan groups? My grandfather who emigrated from Sligo listened to Msgr Coughlin the fascist radio priest in WW II days. All his other descendant lines are still twenty-first century devotional RC practitioners and political followers of the right. Was it our line’s original Y Munster origins that have allowed us to become dedicated progressive socialists who still live for equality and freedom for all. It’s troubled me for a long while, this split in world view in my two main ancestral lines. Has any one else come up with an understanding of the two types of Irishmen? Or share the same conundrum?

    1. It tends to be a class thing. Families from the old lower classes are egalitarian in outlook, while the old Gaelic nobility classes still hold the snobbishness and prejudice though they don’t have the proverbial pot!!!

      Not an absolute rule, but a good rule of thumb!

  8. I’m with Robert Hepburn. That’s my identity too. Do those who insist on controversial right views come from particular areas of Ireland or particular clan groups? My grandfather who emigrated from Sligo listened to Msgr Coughlin the fascist radio priest in WW II days. All his other descendant lines are still twenty-first century devotional RC practitioners and political followers of the right. Was it our line’s original Y Munster origins that have allowed us to become dedicated progressive socialists who still live for equality and freedom for all. It has troubled me for a long while, this split in world view in my two main ancestral lines. Has any one else come up with an understanding of the two types of Irishmen?

  9. First, thanks for the link to that article about right wing pundits and their ancestry. Found it good reading and have shared. My parents came here in the 1950s and I was an anchor baby. Both came from rural Mayo but met in Chicago. My dad is mid-90s now and the holy hour in the house is when he watches Rachel Maddow. But we have relations all over, US and Ireland, none any older than him anymore but plenty younger on both sides of the political divide. There is more to it than geography. As for the sins of the fathers, of course we don’t visit those onto the children but we can call out the children who act as if their own past has no such transgressions. Holding their family to the standards they espouse for others seems fair; sauce for the goose style, if only to make a point about how complicated things can get.

  10. I’,, afraid I’ve signed onto something I wish I had not. It sounds like just some more of that political dialogue we are subjected to every day by the so called news media.

  11. John G.,
    A very timely post. Thank you for the chance to hear & be heard. It’s interesting to me that we in the US have had an issue with nativism since shortly after we began. Immigration will likely be a more prevalent issue around the world as we face more failed states across the globe.

  12. Well, ok, some of us loud-mouthed Irish-Americans oppose Pres. Trump and his immigration policies. I am close enough to the Mexican border to see and work with Mexican immigrants all the time. I wonder sometimes if my Irish ancestor was as humble and hard working as some of them. Maybe not as humble, but my ancestor was very hard-working. Actually, when he came in the 1830’s, there were no requirements other than a willingness to work hard. My ancestor died soon after arrival, but his extended family certainly endured years of anti-Irish prejudice and violence. Absolutely, we can learn from what those Irish endured then. The Germans also saw some bias, but nothing like what was thrown at the Irish in 1850’s America.

  13. I really appreciate this post. Irish-American right-wing nuttiness really drives me nuts, and makes me feel somehow implicated, makes me feel guilty by association, I guess.

    Look, if your Irish ancestors emigrated to America in the nineteenth century, they were “the Mexicans” of the day, they were “the unwashed horde,” they were the unwanted immigrants. A bit of reflection, a bit of compassion, and the then-versus-now analogy becomes crystal-clear.

  14. Immigration is a far more complex issue than presented here. John, you do such great work. Can’t we leave politics out of this, yours or anyone else’s? There are already many forums to argue the pros and cons of this issue.

  15. Part of doing geneaologu is forcing a better understanding of our forebears and the difficulties they faced. As a second generation Irish American whose grandparents had 12 children, I hope that I can give compassion and understanding to others seeking a new life. No one is advocating opening the doors to everyone with no filters, but I believe we can implement policies that are more compassionate and fair. By all means, investigate each applicant, and, perhaps give preference to those coming from unsafe countries and others who have family here. If you are convicted of a significant crime in the first 5 years, you’re out. If you are already in the U.S., either because your parents brought you or you came of your own accord and you are a productive member of society, what good does it serve to send you back to your native country? Some of the recent deportations are people who have been here 30 years, with absolutely no problems, with loving families. Aside from causing grief and hardship to these families, we may lose bright minds who might make significant contributions to the U.S. Characterizing all immigrants all lowlifes who commit crimes and join gangs is doing a grave disservice to the majority of immigrants. Not much different from when all the Irish were considered beneath contempt and rhetoric was tossed about concerning the gangs of that era and the crimes committed. While we cannot say we should admit everyone because we are all descended from immigrants, we should not forget our history so that we can consider facts, not inflammatory comments, and treat others with the compassion that, for many of us, our claimed Christian values demand.

  16. Thank you for reprinting this article, John. It is an important discussion and belongs everywhere – not just on the news. People who can’t understand the issue haven’t thought about the problem and put themselves in the shoes of “Dreamers” or others wanting to emigrate to America. They have swallowed, whole hog, Trump and his enablers’ claims that people who want to become American are criminals, rapists, and lazy. I studied history in school and listened to my father talk about the discrimination of the Irish and of the “No Irish Need Apply” signs on many stores and businesses in Worcester, Massachusetts, his home city. I was appalled then and still am that so many Irish-Americans don’t know the history of their own ancestors. As Trump would say, “Sad.”

  17. A your really touched a sore spot there John!
    But don’t let that put you off…..
    I always enjoy your witty and erudite articles.
    Keep up the good work and thank you for sharing your knowledge.
    Helen Duggan

  18. This has to be one of your worst posts ever. Resistance genealogy? More like &$ genealogy. Who cares what some two-bit whining “genealogist” aka freelance journalist has to say? Why should we care what someone who can’t accept or get over the fact that her candidate lost again has to say? I love to see someone research her family tree. Wouldn’t it be amazing to see that if her family tree wasn’t as pure as the wind driven snow? I claim NO responsibility for anything my ancestors may or may not have done. So what if someone’s ancestor forged a document? This post did nothing to advance genealogy.

    1. Right on Tom. Talk about cherry picking, using an obscure interview doesn’t prove anything. Besides how do we know the Genealogist is even correct in her findings which still doesn’t prove anything. The left makes every aspect of life political. Also for all those that think only hardworking Mexicans come across the boarder go ahead and hire one or give then a safe haven and see what happens. The media won’t report on the numerous crimes committed by these so called dreamers. I have dreams too and they don’t include being killed by a repeat offender that isn’t even here legally.

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