Guest commentator, Helen Walsh Folsom
Celebrate the Irish influence and heritage in the United States with a Mickey Finn or a trip around the world in a currach to find the land of Tir na nOg.
It was printed so often in the newspapers and on Help Wanted posters that employers simply condensed it to NINA: No Irish Need Apply.
A bad reputation
The masculine immigrants driven from Ireland by the Great Hunger in the mid 1800s had created a reputation for being drunk, tough street fighters and violent troublemakers. Respectable businesses wanted nothing to do with them. Their womenfolk made fine, hard working housemaids and nannies. However, there were no jobs in the cities for uneducated, iron-fisted, frustrated, desperate Irishmen.
Gradually they found employment. The railroad builders were glad to hire them for “gandy-dancers,” pounding iron spikes into railroad ties and planting hair-trigger dynamite deep into tunnels under mountains. Their broad backs and burly arms also dug the Erie Canal. At any job that required stubborn determination, lots of sweat and danger, the Irish were welcomed.
By the turn into the 20th century, good Irishmen were filling the need for policemen and firemen, welcomed to positions where fearlessness and bull-headed honesty was required. The Irish cop on the beat was depended upon for strict enforcement of the law and friendly assistance, even if he did help himself to an apple off the vendor’s wagon now and then.
Before long the Irish got smart. They began to appear in high political offices like Tammany Hall and movie actors in the exciting new “talkies,” James Cagney, Ralph Bellamy, Pat O’Brien and Maureen O’Hara to name only a few. Nine signers of the Declaration of Independence were Irish and did they not produce sixteen of the finest presidents of the United States of America?
A Mickey Finn
Mickey was a sleazy little pickpocket who operated in Chicago in 1890. He was known by police to wander into pubs and spot a well dressed man at the bar. When the drinker apparently had had too much to drink Mickey would help him to get out into the night air.
The next morning the gentleman would wake up in an alley with empty pockets.
Mickey Finn prospered and was soon able to open his own pub, The Lone Star Saloon. Somehow the customers very often imbibed too much and went unconscious. The good host, Mr. Finn, would be kind and take them into his back room to recover. The next morning the man would find himself somewhere on the streets, without his money.
The police finally became aware that too many fellows were being found groggy and fleeced and they traced them to visiting the Lone Star the night before. By watching closely, incognito, they caught Mickey slipping a certain powder into their drinks and they would quickly keel over.
By 1915 the newspapers had labeled the powerful sleeping powder a Mickey Finn. For the past 100 years the name has been part of the vernacular in English-speaking countries. Everyone from Humphrey Bogart to Lucille Ball has had occasion to wail, “They slipped me a Mickey!”
St. Brendan and the island
In the long ago year of 556 A.D. a certain monk in Eireann was called Brendan the Navigator because he loved to sail the sea and explore new places in the world.
He had a fine currach, a boat made of leather stretched over cow’s ribs and a good crew.
Soon Brendan had a vision and decided to take a crew of fellow monks and look for Tir na nOg. It was the legendary land of Eternal Youth on the far side of the wide water that we know as the Atlantic Ocean. Those were the days when people believed that sailors would fall off the corner of the earth.
Off they went, following the Gulf Stream north and westerly, passing under Greenland and Iceland until they found a coastland that they had never seen. They beached their boat and camped in the beautiful country filled with fruit and trees and wild creatures.
Some folks have lately found in New England messages chipped into flat stones that proved to be Ogham stones, similar to those in Ireland dated at that time.
After seven years in the heavenly land the group of monks decided to go back home to Ireland. The trip home was taking a long time. Cooped up in the currach they became hungry for cooked food and a chance to move their cramped legs.
They saw an island! It was a very small island without a tree or grass, but they climbed out of the boat onto it. Gratefully stretching their legs they set to work building a small fire to cook something.
As soon as the fire began to burn the island began to shake! Terrified of an earthquake the sailors ran back to the boat. They watched in fear as the great island began to move.
Finally the fire sizzled out as the whale plunged into the sea.
“For the Great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad
For all their wars are merry
And all their songs are sad”
G. K. Chesterton
Helen Walsh Folsom is the author of St. Patrick’s Secrets, Ah, Those Irish Colleens!, and Fianna, The Dark Web of the Brotherhood
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