A letter to Paddy on St. Paddy’s

Dear Paddy,

I trust you, Mary and the kids are well, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day as we can in this pandemic. I have treasured our pen pal relationship the past few years since you folks reached out to me — actually, we should call ourselves “messagepals.” Our missives are too brief. So I decided to write a letter, as I have been thinking a lot lately about immigration in the context of my own family story. My roots are in Kilkenny, and you are my connection to that past. 

My great-grandfather Patrick Mulroney came from Kilkenny with his brother Kieran to the prairie and marshes of Northwest Iowa following the Potato Famine. They ran a mail route from the post at Fort Dodge to the pioneer interlopers, who were encountering the last of the Dakota people not yet driven north to Minnesota for execution. The brothers nearly froze to death when their wagon marooned in a creek in Palo Alto County, Iowa, during an epic blizzard. Kieran declared himself the main authority in his domain until others with legal vestment usurped him. I had heard that the original Kieran, Ireland’s first native-born saint, may have been reared by wolves, so I named my son after him: Kieran Patrick. 

I understand that Mulroneys still farm at Ballykeefe near you. Someday I will get there. I hope to meet them. It was my dad’s dream but he never made it. Owning a small newspaper is like having a dairy herd — you can never leave the farm. 

Growing up, the Cullen boys went to sleep each night in a bedroom with framed pictures of JFK and the Sacred Heart of Jesus knocking on your door shrouded in thorns, hoping to come in. We were taught by nuns sent from Ireland to a beachhead on the Mississippi at Dubuque with a mission to bring letters and civility to lead miners and farmers. Imagine, then, my relief when Joe Biden was inaugurated as president. An Irish Catholic New Dealer, what’s not to love? Hey, man, all kidding aside, the son of Scranton is talking a fair deal. He is calling the dogs off immigrants. He quotes Seamus Heaney — that’s how young Joe conquered stuttering, by reciting the Irish poets every morning in the mirror. He is preaching unity while pressing for civil rights, self-determination and independence for everyone. 

You and I can scarcely imagine how Latinos feel a burden lifted from the terror of the Trump administration. About 90 percent of our town’s school children come from immigrant families, many undocumented. For all I know, my ancestors were undocumented but gifted negotiators. 

The Mulroney story echoes to the Irish diaspora in America. Celebrated are the legends of the Fighting 69th Irish Brigade of New York, regaled on me in a recent Zoom chat with Irish Senate Chair Mark Daly of Kerry. First organized to go home and fight the British, the militia instead dove into battle valiantly for President Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War. Thomas Meagher, an Irish Brigade leader, somehow ended up as governor of Montana, drowning mysteriously in the Missouri River; did he fall or was he shoved? 

Sen. Daly’s great uncle, Father John O’Connor, was dispatched by the Irish church to Pisgah, Iowa, not far from Omaha where the Irish set out to meet the Chinese railroad gandy dancers at Provo, Utah. The priest served two hitches as a U.S. Army chaplain in the Pacific Theatre during World War II. He retired home to County Kerry to equip the boys with hurling gear and be buried at Kenmare. While here, he held forth amid German Missouri Synod Lutherans in peace. 

“He was a long way from home, and alone,” Daly said. 

Sen. Daly claims relations with the Mayor Daley clan in Chicago. He has all sorts of other relatives from Boston to California. I know you did a young man’s tour knocking around Alaska working odd jobs. There are many like you who chose to stay beyond their visas — 50,000 undocumented Irish in the USA today. Nobody gets too worked up about them. Everyone wants to be a little Irish. We are not so sentimental about Syrians or Guatemalans. 

After thinking about the Mulroney brothers, Father O’Connor, your cousin Kevin in California, Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan, my great-grandmother watching Chicago burn as an indentured servant to Marhsall Field (naturally, they blamed the fire on an Irishwoman), how can any Irish American not share fraternity with that refugee at El Paso? Beto O’Rourke, great-grandson of an Irish rail conductor who had the good fortune of landing in Texas by way of Nebraska, wonders the same thing. 

Especially when you consider that among the first U.S. casualties of the Persian Gulf war on March 21, 2003, was an undocumented refugee or phan from Guatemala who enlisted in the Marines and died at age 20, Jose Guittierez. 

My ancestors rode on the boat with the cattle to get here. They forded up the Mississippi from New Orleans. Phil Sheridan on mom’s side was a general for the Union Army. They were caricatured as monkeys by Know Nothings, the same crowd that imagines Latinos or Asians or Muslims as something to fear. Our mother drilled that into our heads: Never forget what they went through. Joe Biden got the same lesson, I think. It is just one of Ireland’s great gifts to America, a nation of immigrants. Someday I hope to thank you and Sen. Daly for it, in person. 


Art Cullen


Art Cullen is publisher and editor of The Storm Lake Times. He won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 2017.

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