We’ve had Bugs Bunny and Boris Karloff, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. We’ve had athletes and artists, politicians and scientists, assorted noteworthy events, landscapes, birds, flowers and fruits. We’ve had everything, it seems, that defines, depicts or describes some important aspect of U.S. history or culture. We have everything, that is, but a tribute to the waves of destitute Irish who began arriving here in the middle of the last century and began transforming America in profound ways. Until now.
After almost four years of lobbying and more than a few setbacks, Irish-American activists have succeeded in winning approval of a postage stamp honoring the sacrifices and contributions of both Irish Americans and their ancestors who sought refuge here during the Great Famine of the 1840s.
U.S. Postmaster General William J. Henderson last week approved the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee recommendation that such a stamp be issued. The committee had previously rejected the Famine stamp idea three times, apparently sensing – incorrectly, it must be said – that it was driven by anti-British sentiment. Clearly, there was concern that the issuing of such a stamp could become a political hot potato. Better to stick to safer subjects.
In the end, of course, it was politics of another sort that prevailed. Last November, Sens. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Dick Durbin of Illinois wrote a letter signed by 11 of their colleagues urging that the CSAC reconsider its previous rejection. A similar appeal, led by Rep. Bill Lipinski of Illinois, came from the House of Representatives. The lawmakers cited the role of the Famine Irish in building the early infrastructure of this country, in settling its cities, in fighting its wars. “We believe a stamp commemorating the Famine would be a fitting tribute to the vast contributions made to this country by those Irish immigrants and their descendants over the last 150 years,” the senators wrote.
Though a bipartisan political effort ultimately got the job done, the stamp would never have been issued had it not been for the perseverance of thousands of Irish Americans. Since early 1995, organizations from coast to coast, spearheaded by the umbrella group the Ad Hoc Famine Stamp Committee, urged their members to write their political representatives and the U.S. Postal Service in support of the idea. The political support was simply the most visible manifestation of a textbook grassroots campaign, one that resembled the more high-profile effort to secure a visa for Sinn FTin President Gerry Adams.
Kudos to everyone who had a hand in persuading the CSAC to reverse it decision. The design of the stamp and its issuance date have yet to be determined. No doubt the ad hoc group will choose to remain in existence a while longer.
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