Why My Family Moved from Ireland to America
WRITTEN BY: Joel McAfee
Bowling Green, Kentucky is a fairly typical southern American city, but with a unique and fairly recent immigration story. About a generation ago, in the mid-90s, Bowling Green was designated a refugee city for Bosnian refugees fleeing the conflict in Bosnia & Herzegovina (known as the Bosnian War). It was a civil war between cultural factions in the wake of the Yugoslavian government’s breakup characterized as an ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims. It is estimated that around 100,000 were killed during the war and approximately 2.2 million people were displaced. The families that escaped sought a new life for themselves and their children in a strange city with a foreign language (nevermind the Kentucky accent) but they hoped for a better life and future.
Fast forward a quarter-century and nearly 10% of the population of Bowling Green is of Bosnian descent. When I moved to Bowling Green in 2005 for college, it was apparent there was a diverse population present despite being in a landlocked state. Specifically, we regularly had Bosnians & Cubans joining our Soccer or Ultimate Frisbee pickup games (they were far better than us), I made friends with a Bosnian bank teller (technically, we were on a first-name basis so I think that counts as being friends), and I have enjoyed Bosnian cuisine a time or two locally - but besides that, I never put much thought into why they were here and in such large numbers.
My family is originally from southern Indiana, though I grew up in the River Valley area in mid-west Arkansas. When I moved to Kentucky to attend WKU, I started looking into the McAfee family ancestry as I had been told by family that we were originally from Kentucky - and had Scots-Irish roots. As it turns out, the McAfee’s were among the first to settle Kentucky following Daniel Boone’s journey through the Cumberland Gap. James McAfee, the family Patriarch, immigrated to America with his wife Jane and their boys shortly before the Revolutionary War. They came from Armagh, Ireland where the family had been for several generations. Needless to say - I was surprised to find our roots ran so deep in Kentucky (and now like to brag to my neighbors about our heritage). But even more so, I was curious about our Irish heritage - what would have caused them to leave such a lush and magical place full of lucky charms and river dancing?
Today, according to the census bureau, around 33 million people in America claim Irish ancestry, or roughly 10% of the country’s population. That is a staggering number and probably is echoed by sales figures of “Kiss Me I’m Irish” t-shirts every St. Patrick’s Day. Though I’m not going to fact check anyone’s t-shirt sales reports, from my perspective it is easy to see the influence of the Irish on American culture - whether it’s through mascots like “The Fighting Irish” of Notre Dame or the popularity of the probably authentic emerald isle scented Irish Spring soap. Like the Bosnians in Bowling Green, the Irish came and quickly made a life for themselves, despite difficult circumstances. Though the Bosnians were fleeing a war-zone, Irish came for many different reasons - lasting many decades.
During 1845-1849 a potato blight caused the Great Famine, causing around 1 million deaths and leading at least 1.5 million people to flee the island to avoid starvation. In the 70 years that followed, as many as 3.7 million Irish would emigrate to the US. Though they were not wartime refugees, it is said that oppression from the British likely created the dire situation. More than enough food was grown on Irish soil, but British-controlled supply chains continued to ship supplies elsewhere. Political dynamics certainly were a factor besides mother nature herself (nevermind the effects of globalization - today it’s believed the fungus that caused the blight arrived on ships from the Americas). Even though the famine itself was not an intended outcome of Ireland’s oppressors, the devastation that fell upon the island was certainly accelerated by the British - adding intense frustration to the many years of disdain already felt from the occupying powers. Once potato crops fizzled out, many farmers had been forced off of land they had leased from British landowners and their Irish Catholic beliefs didn’t help - they were not even allowed to own land. This Protestant vs Catholic battle was hundreds of years old and would continue on in Ireland beyond their achievement of independence in the 1920s with the Troubles that plagued the country, particularly Northern Ireland in the 1960s-1990s. (The dynamics of the struggles in Ireland are far deeper than I intend to get into in this blog post...)
But America promised opportunity - and tolerance for those Irish Catholics that braved the 12-16 week journey across the sea. Though there was plenty of resistance and violence early on against these Irish Catholics (the American colonies were predominantly founded by Protestant Europeans - including plenty of Scots-Irish descent, my family included), the law of the land including the foundation of religious freedom, as well as a common disdain of the British allowed for a new life as Irish communities popped up in major cities. Despite political resistance from the Know Nothing Party, burning of cathedrals, and aggressive stereotyping against these new arrivals, Irish populations flourished in cities like Boston, New York, Chicago, as well as the copper mines of Butte, Montana (of all places). At the time, before statehood, Montana Territory was considered to be “New Ireland” and Butte specifically is considered by some to be “Ireland’s Fifth Province.” At the turn of the century in 1900, around a quarter of Butte’s population were deemed to be of Irish descent - more than any other US City, even Boston. It would seem in America these Irish immigrants found a type of freedom that seemed to evade the Irish in their own homeland for generations.
We certainly have rose-tinted goggles about our Irish heritage in America - despite vast numbers of Irish and fastly growing communities, being Irish hasn’t always been popular or celebrated. Even if you aren’t really Irish, you probably claim it or celebrate it somehow or another. I certainly do, and I'm really more Scots-Irish (although I do have straight-up Irish roots on my mother's side, albeit faint. My Grandmother’s first name is Fairy - so I’ll just assume that’s legit). Though Hollywood often romanticized Irish in cinema in the first half of the 1900s (Irish Catholics specifically - even Bing Crosby played an Irish Catholic priest), it really wasn’t until after the election of JFK that America’s general perceptions of Irish Catholics were proven to have changed for good. Still, it was certainly an uphill battle for the country's first Irish-Catholic President. Not until the 1990s when the surging popularity of Riverdance and groups like the Chieftains, House of Pain, or Celtic punk group Flogging Molly did Americans of all kinds finally begin to don their “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” screen-printed tees for all to see and celebrate an American holiday that isn’t even all that Irish, to begin with.
I’ll be honest, I’m no expert on my Bosnian neighbors and their history - outside of an average understanding of the food I’ve eaten at their restaurants, of course. Sasha Mandrapa, a chef and local business owner, moved to Bowling Green in 1996 when he was 17 during the war. He now has 4 successful local restaurants. (that’s 3 more Bosnian-owned restaurants than Irish Pubs in Bowling Green). I’ve personally never been afraid of this immigrant community or the fact that there are thousands of them here, but sadly, I’m sure that some in this city are.
Today, as always, it’s evident that our country is split on how to view immigration issues like those crossing our southern border - and the myriad of complications that arise from situations like this are certainly beyond my complete understanding as well. As an American - and the descendant of an immigrant, as basically all of us are - it is difficult for me to learn the history of our Irish American population and not come away with some sense of hope that the ideals we stand for matter and when shared properly can provide hope for people from all kinds of backgrounds and circumstances. It is unclear what role today’s immigrants might play in the future of our country - but I am certain that their destinies will fulfill significant contributions to the nation, as evidenced by so many great examples of yesterday’s immigrants.
In 1846, during the height of the famine in Ireland, a rising star in the Irish cause for independence gave a speech during a banquet in honor of the crew of American relief ship USS Jamestown that brought aid to the ailing Irish (America’s first disaster relief effort). The speaker, Thomas Francis Meagher, would eventually be exiled for life to Tasmania, only to escape and make a life for himself in America. To much celebration & expectation by his fellow Irish Americans, Meagher became a Brigadier General in the Union Army during the Civil War (for a time leading an all Irish Brigade) and was later appointed the acting territorial Governor of Montana, “New Ireland” herself. Meaghers' eloquent words from that banquet offer insight into what happens to a person when the values America was built on are put into action. (No offense to the British intended... not entirely, anyway)
“The flag of the Victor decorates this hail — decorates our harbour — not, indeed, in triumph, but in sympathy — not to commemorate the defeat, but to predict the resurrection, of a fallen people! One thing is certain — we are sincere upon this occasion. There is truth in this compliment. For the first time in her career, Ireland has reason to be grateful to a foreign power. Foreign power, sir! Why should I designate that country a "foreign power," which has proved itself our sister country? England, they sometimes say, is our sister country. We deny the relationship — we discard it. We claim America as our sister, and claiming her as such, we have assembled here this night. Should a stranger, viewing this brilliant scene inquire of me, why it is that, amid the desolation of this day — whilst famine is in the land — whilst the hearse-plumes darken the summer scenery of the island, whilst death sows his harvest, and the earth teems not with the seeds of life, but with the seeds of corruption — should he inquire of me, why it is, that, amid this desolation, we hold high festival, hang out our banners, and thus carouse — I should reply, "Sir, the citizens of Dublin have met to pay a compliment to a plain citizen of America, which they would not pay — 'no, not for all the gold in Venice' — to the minister of England."”
To learn more about Irish-American culture and heritage, watch Season 2, Episode 3 of Reconnecting Roots: Irish Immigrants: Emerald Isle to Ellis Island, on your local listings. Or, watch anytime, anywhere, for free, athttps://www.pbs.org/show/reconnecting-roots/