Mike Pence's Grandfather Was an Immigrant Fleeing a Civil War

March 17th 2017

Ethan Simon

Friday is St. Patrick's Day, and around the country Americans are celebrating Irish-American heritage, whether by attending parades, eating sodabread, or cozying up to a good old pint of Guinness.

St. Patrick's Day Parade London 2012

But when the Irish first arrived in America in the mid-19th century they weren't greeted with rivers dyed green in their honor. They were refugees, and they were hated. Job postings reading "No Irish Need Apply" were commonplace, and America even went so far as to enact quotas on Irish immigrants to limit their numbers.

Chicago Green River St. Patrick's Day

But as The New York Times reported Friday, one particular Irish immigrant's journey to America is raising some eyebrows. Richard Michael Cawley arrived in the United States on April 11, 1923. His story's largely typical — like most Irish immigrants, he arrived in New York, and passed through Ellis Island, eventually heading west to the heavily Irish city of Chicago.

But one part of Cawley's story is unique: almost a century later, his grandson, Michael Richard Pence, would become the vice president of the United States.

Of the Trump administration's policy priorities, the ban on immigrants from Muslim-majority countries — which has been temporarily suspended by a federal judge — is perhaps the most famous. So the fact that Pence's grandfather was an immigrant himself is, well, a little ironic. The parallels between Cawley and today's Syrian refugees are striking.

Mike Pence

Cawley, like those fleeing Syria, was trying to escape the violence of a civil war and poverty. He arrived in America with "the equivalent of $23." Cawley, like Syrians today, practiced a foreign religion — Catholicism was once "otherized," according to The New York Times.

Attempting to draw a distinction between Syrians and the Irish of the 1920s, Pence's spokesperson, Marc Lotter told the Times, "Ireland is not compromised by terrorism." However, stereotypes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries did in fact paint the Irish as potential terrorists. Political cartoons of the era depicted Irishmen as "Wild Beasts" with bombs strapped to their waists.

Cawley was even deemed "not an anarchist" upon arrival, according to a ship manifest.

"He got off that boat an Irish lad, he died an American, and I am an American because of him," Pence said in a 2006 speech of his grandfather.

Time will tell if the dissonance between Pence's words and his policies ever gets resolved.