Patrick Cooper Hunt: A Refugee's Story

Patrick Cooper Hunt left Westport in County Mayo, Ireland in 1849 at the height of the Great Famine.

Gorta Mór killed a million Irish and sent a million more fleeing across the seas in search of something better.
Many died never touching shore. Packed as they were aboard the coffin ships, two-fifths died at sea of disease and starvation.
He was lucky to have had family in Lambertville, NJ and so he sailed for the port of Philadelphia. He was about 18 years old.
In America he found work for his uncles who had sponsored him. He found opportunities he would never have had in an Ireland occupied and oppressed by England.
Yet by 1850, more than a quarter of the population of Philadelphia was Irish and the flow of Irish Catholic refugees created resentment and discrimination as well. "No Irish Need Apply" was a familiar sign by 1851 -- a door slammed in a man's face, when he sought only pay for a day's work and food for an empty belly.

Secret societies and an entire political party emerged in opposition to Irish immigration. The Irish were the "wrong religion" because they were Catholic. Nativists believed their religion was incompatible with American Values. Sound familiar? The Know Nothings used fears of Irish immigration and conspiracy theories of Papal armies to gain power in statehouses and Congress in the 1850s electing governors, over 100 congressmen and running a Presidential candidate that got 20 percent of the vote. They enacted laws to restrict voting rights of the Irish. Mobs of Know-Nothings dragged priests out of churches and attacked immigrants with deadly violence as they became emboldened by their rising political power. 

As Christopher Klein writes,
Abraham Lincoln was among the many Americans disturbed at the rise of the nativist movement as he explained in an 1855 letter: “As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”
The civil war over slavery overshadowed the nativist political rise, but it has always remained in the background. As the Irish gained political power, they gained pride and marched in the streets. St Patrick's day celebrations that we know and love are born out of a stubborn resistance to nativist forces that tried to exclude and oppress the immigrants of the Emerald Isle.  The first parade was in New York, not Ireland. The Friendly Sons of St Patrick Society was formed in Philadelphia in the 1700s to provide aid to Irish immigrants. 
"Yes, the Irish transformed the United States, just as the United States transformed the Irish. But the worst fears of the nativists were not fulfilled. The refugees from the Great Hunger and the 32 million Americans with predominantly Irish roots today strengthened the United States, not destroyed it. A country that once reviled the Irish now wears green on St. Patrick’s Day."
In America Patrick Cooper Hunt found a girl named Mary Malone. She too had emigrated from County Mayo. She too had seen the Great Hunger of Gorta Mór and survived. Together they made a life. They had five children and went on to become upstanding Americans. 

Patrick Cooper Hunt and his children did well in the US. His grandson served in World War I, worked on the rail roads, became a transportation engineer and taught college in New Jersey.

 His great - grandson worked for NASA on Apollo and Skylab as well as for the military designing things that go into space, and things that go boom. My father John Hunt designed a lot of other things too, of course. He even designed that grocery checkout scanner that you find in every store.

And of course, his great great grandson is writing his story today. 
So on this St. Patrick's day dress in your green and lift your glass, but take a moment too to remember those refugees that America took in. Those men and women fleeing political and economic oppression who found a new life in this land of opportunity and hope -- and made the country better by their presence. 
Because that is what St. Patrick's day is all about. It is a story of refugees coming to America because they could no longer survive in their beloved homeland. 
It is a celebration of immigration and an act of defiance by the immigrants and refugees that could not know freedom until they came to America.

Required Reading: The Irish Refuge Crisis

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