Columnist Jim Cahillane: Sin to close our eyes to larger world

  • Demonstrators display signs during a rally against President Trump's order that restricts travel to the U.S., on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017, in Boston.  AP FILE PHOTO

Published: 2/21/2017 7:47:07 PM

Donald Trump’s order banning refugees from entering America until he “figures out what’s going on” reminds me of a song: “I know a little bit about a lot of things, but I don’t know enough about you.”

When it comes to 2017 refugees from far corners of the world, I feel under-educated about their suffering and why they had to pull up stakes.

Trump seems to have not read much history or he would be, like many of us, seeing comparisons between the world of today and that of prewar and postwar America. Millions of American families have their own stories. I know what I know about my father being one of 23,445 Irish to emigrate in 1930, one short year ahead of the Depression that had America putting up a stop sign. By 1933 only 338 arrived from Ireland.

In a near-death experience, supposedly your life flashes before your eyes. I have photos to bolster my view of an American family coming to life. The first is a shaky snapshot of a group leaving from our dad’s hometown of Killorglin, County Kerry. James, 20, appears as a tall drink of water on the edge of a gaggle of girls. His boyish body has not yet filled out. The month is April 1930 and his ship the German liner, Dresden.

A photograph from 50 or 150 years ago is valuable for what it reveals to later generations. Matthew Brady’s Civil War photos place us in campsites with the soldiers. Generals and even President Lincoln appear, but the stacked rifles and tents remind us that brother was too often fighting brother to achieve opposite goals.

When dad left home, he carried a last photo of his parents. They stood shoulder to shoulder in their Sunday best. Eighty years onward their eldest grandson paused to wonder at James’ lone keepsake:

“Now framed in this photo with their prayers.

Eire’s working farmers bestow strong arms

And backs to sons who would try the world.

No good argument could or would keep him.”

How many millions of mothers and fathers today are saying goodbye to sons and daughters not knowing if they will ever meet again? The entire world watched boatloads of Syrian refugees arrive in Italy from Turkey — alive and dead. A drowned child’s body sent the world a heartbreaking message.

We Americans of every ethnic background have ancestors who left poverty or hunger or threat to wash up on these welcoming shores. Once blessed with opportunity as I am, as you are, it has to be a sin to close our eyes to the larger world and our unmet neighbors. The parable of the Good Samaritan forever teaches humanity that the “Golden Rule” requires action to address hurting refugees on life’s road with us.

In the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, our family expanded because America never said no to my Irish grandfather, uncles, aunts, cousins and my English fiancée. What’s amazing is that in my innocence the question of admittance to America never crossed my mind.

At first, dad sponsored those from his large family. To be Irish in Northampton was no longer a challenge to the established order. Given time and hard work, progress was made. Dad’s entry papers listed him as a laborer. He was, but unafraid of work he went into business, became interested in politics, which led to his running for and being elected Northampton’s tercentennial mayor. He smiled a lot.

More impressive is that our Irish community, now five generations stronger and wending its way toward St. Patrick’s Day hasn’t forgotten where they came from. The immigrants who took any job to build America produce educators, lawyers, doctors, business owners and a sheriff too. When local Irish step out to “go parading” each year, it’s because the blood of the “land of Saints and Scholars” courses through their veins.

Our expanding family story is proof that given a chance, America is still the country where people get ahead when they take chances and reach out to others. Most of us here in the Valley are children and grandchildren of a relative’s brave travels – dreamers who dared to leave Poland, Italy, Russia, Canada, Ireland, France and Germany for America’s promise. We remember also our homegrown sojourners fleeing slavery or Jim Crow.

This much I do know about you and me. As citizens we face America’s choice: selfies or samaritans?

Writer and poet Jim Cahillane, of Williamsburg, writes a monthly column.




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