A distinguished columnist, editor and foreign correspondent, Wes Pruden has been a leading voice of conservative thought for more than three decades.
The jetliner that changed everything
COBH, Ireland -- The jet airplane has changed everything, and nothing has changed more than the means of escape from squalor and oppression. The pursuit of the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, pursuing freedom and opportunity in the city on the hill, can be a part-time job now. For that, we can thank Bill Boeing and Donald Douglas, the builders of the first transcontinental airliners.
For the earlier waves of immigrants to the United States, there was no going back. Once in the new land, the huddled masses were there to stay. The price of a return (a six-week passage in the hull of a stinking immigrant ship) was beyond the ability of nearly all. Having tempted fate and fortune once, few were willing to brave bucketing privation and constant peril again.
Coming up with the price of a return ticket on a scheduled airline, or risking survival in the back of a creaking truck or rattletrap jalopy across a border can be difficult, but not improbable. No one needs to stay in the new land if the dream of a better life turns to vapor. Governments all across the top half of the hemisphere are struggling now to deal with the consequences of casual citizenship.
A decision to leave the old country in the old days could not be taken lightly; saying goodbye to family and friends was usually goodbye for good. Once in the New World, it was assimilation, the adoption of a new language and new culture with new traditions _ or else.
The horrific passage of the early immigrants to North America is graphically told in two new museums in Cobh and Skibbereen on the south coast of County Cork. The exhibits document the passage of millions of Irish to North America, one of the greatest immigration waves in history. They were propelled by hunger and famine, transforming both old country and the new lands in ways big and small.
Between 1850 and 1860, as the potato famine emptied the isolated villages and lonely farms at the southwest tip of the auld sod, more than a million Irish men, women and children left Ireland, most from the small port town of Cobh _ called Queenstown then _ and many from Skibbereen. More than 5 million would follow over the following century. The voyage to North America, which could take up to six weeks, was made more horrific by shortage of food and water, spoilage and disease. A sudden attack of disease, usually dysentary, often ended with a few words of Christian consolation and a burial sack thrown into the sea.
A typical meal was a hard biscuit, a few grains of oatmeal or wheat flour and a handful of rice, together with any meat and tea the more fortunate travelers had brought with them. There were no cooking fires during the frequent storms and rough weather that roil the North Atlantic passage. Travelers could go weeks without hot food. Passage today on a big Boeing of Delta Air Lines, typically with ice cream and cake served at tea, sends a traveler from Dublin to North America in nine hours.
The leave-taking of old was a ceremony of both hope and regrets. An immigrant’s last night in the old country was a wake in the Irish tradition of waking, or watching, the dead before burial the next day. Since the departing emigrant, usually the oldest son and sometimes the older daughter, was not likely ever to be seen again, he or she was regarded as already dead to those left behind. When the singing, dancing and supping ended close to midnight, friends and relatives, a mother and father, would take their leave with one last long embrace.
The statistics of 19th century immigration demonstrate how the culture and traditions of America came to be. In the decade between 1850 and 1860, when just over a million Irish departed for North America, by far the most to the United States, almost as many Germans followed. So did nearly a half-million Englishmen, Scots and Welsh, to help shape the culture in the New World by adopting it with gratitude and enthusiasm.
With the arrival of the jet airliner the passage no longer took weeks, but hours, and it was no longer assimilation or else. Ties to the old country in South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East no longer be severed or even disrupted. The explorer Hernando Cortez landed in the New World with a famous order to his troops on the landing beach: “Burn the boats.” It was an example now discarded, and it’s the new immigrants paying the price.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.
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