The Irish were once controversial immigrants, too.

That’s the message the Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny brought to the White House on Thursday during the annual visit by the Irish head of state to the United States. This year, Kenny focused on how the ties between Ireland and the US have been strengthened by a history mass immigration from the former to the latter.

“Here in America, your great country, 35 million people claim Irish heritage and the Irish have contributed to the economic, social, political, and cultural life of this great country over the last 200 years,” Kenny said.

The prime minister gave his speech on immigration standing right next to US President Donald Trump, who has made much of his short presidency about slowing or stopping immigration from Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East as well as countries south of the US border.

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Immigrants seeking refuge in the US today are often in danger, fleeing war, poverty, oppression, and scarcity. The Irish, too, came to America because of oppression by a foreign government, famine, and lack of opportunity.

They just did it 150 years ago.

“Ireland came to America because, deprived of liberty, deprived of opportunity, of safety, or even food itself the Irish believed, and four decades before Lady Liberty lifted her lamp, we were the wretched refuse on the teeming shore, we believed in the shelter of America, the compassion of America, the opportunity of America,” he said.

Today, some of the top members of the Trump administration are Irish Americans, including Vice President Mike Pence (whose grandfather immigrated in 1923), Kellyanne Conway, Steve Bannon, and House Speaker Paul Ryan.

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In 2017, countries including Yemen, Somalia, and South Sudan are teetering on the brink of famine, like Ireland once was. Countries like Syria are wracked by war. Citizens of those countries still turn to the US as a place of hope.

Kenny said that it was “fitting” that leaders from Ireland gather in the US capitol each year to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day since he, too, was an immigrant and is the patron saint of immigrants around the world.

And though Americans today fear waves of immigrants that could shift the country’s demographics or religious beliefs, once it was the Irish who came in massive waves, making the population more Irish and more Catholic than it had ever been but also quickly assimilating and becoming patriotic Americans.

He cited Irish-American John F. Kennedy, who of course became president, but the list of Irish-Americans who have contributed to US culture is almost never-ending: President Barack Obama was part-Irish, as well as Vice President Joe Biden. Henry Ford’s father immigrated from Ireland, as did Bill Gates’ ancestors.

Even Jack Dorsey, the inventor of the platform Donald Trump loves to Tweet from, traces his heritage to Irish immigrants.

“We came and we became Americans,” Kenny said Thursday. “We lived the words of John F. Kennedy long before he uttered them. We asked not what America could do for us but what we could do for America.”

Then, he added, “And we still do.”


Demand Equity

Irish PM Gets Real With Donald Trump About Legacy of Irish Immigrants in America

By Colleen Curry