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‘Fir Na Tine’: Honoring our Irish American ‘Men of Fire’

Being an Irish American firefighter means so much more than simply wearing a shamrock decal on a helmet or listening to Dropkick Murphys

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“Being an Irish American firefighter means so much more to me than simply wearing a shamrock decal on my helmet or listening to Dropkick Murphys while checking trucks in the morning,” Freier writes.

Julie Jacobson/AP

By Kevin Freier

In the spring of 1845, Ireland saw the sudden emergence of a destructive fungus that forever changed not only the Emerald Isle but the United States as well. Phytophthora infestans, or more commonly known as Potato Blight, is an all-consuming vegetative mold that sickened and killed thousands of potato crops across Ireland, launching one of the worst famines in human history.

Lasting from 1845 to 1852, the Irish Potato Famine, or better known locally as the Great Hunger, cut Ireland’s entire population by nearly 25%. The blight, an overreliance on potatoes and oppressive colonial rule caused widespread poverty and hunger across the island. During these 7 years, nearly a million Irish died and another million or so were forced to seek refuge in foreign countries – countries like Canada, Australia and the United States.

Nearly 2 million Irish immigrants settled in the United States over the course of the famine. Making up nearly 50% of all American migrants at the time, they flooded into big cities like New York, Chicago, Boston and Baltimore. But despite their strength in numbers, these newly ordained Irish Americans initially met significant resistance. Widespread anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice led to extensive discrimination, especially in terms of housing and employment. Many were forced to congregate in dilapidated slums and take jobs that were low paying and notoriously dangerous – jobs like coal mining, railroading, construction, law enforcement and firefighting. Because of this, these professions soon swelled with Irish Americans, and before we knew it, nearly every coal mine, construction site and police/fire department was teeming with Murphys, McCarthys, O’Briens, and O’Connells.

Since then, generation after generation of Irish Americans have flocked to these professions, not only out of necessity but familial tradition as well. Out of all of them, though, few hold the same significance in Irish American culture quite like firefighting. The Fir Na Tine, which is Gaelic for “Men of Fire,” make up one of the largest ethnic groups in the modern American fire service, so much so that many departments even still maintain bagpiping corps and Irish fraternal organizations in celebration of their members. And to me, a third-generation first responder of Irish descent, this tradition means everything.

Sometime during the Great Famine, my great-great-great grandparents immigrated to the United States from Ballingarry, Ireland, a small coal mining community in County Tipperary. They came through Ellis Island and settled in the hills of Kentucky before finding a permanent home in the slum of Kilgubbin, a predominantly Irish area in Chicago now known as Goose Island. Here they laid their roots for generations to come, and since then, their lineages have produced dozens of proud public servants – public servants that have served their communities as teachers, nurses, soldiers, cops and, of course, firefighters.

But being an Irish American firefighter means so much more to me than simply wearing a shamrock decal on my helmet or listening to Dropkick Murphys while checking trucks in the morning.

It means doing a job that I can be proud of – a job that won’t necessarily make me rich but one for which I have tremendous pride.

It means helping those that are most vulnerable, like my great-great-great grandparents who moved to this country with little more than the clothes on their back.

It means doing something that few others are capable of. I mean, how many of our non-firefighter friends would be able to hump 300 feet of 2-inch up a flight of stairs in blackout conditions?

But most importantly, it means honoring those that came before me because my ancestors suffered tremendously in the hopes of giving me and my family a better life. And though I know I will never be able to adequately repay them for the sacrifices they made, I would like to think that carrying on their legacy is the least that I can do.

So no matter whether you are Irish American, raise a glass and be proud of who you are and where you came from because so many times in life it is our past that helps make up our future.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day and Sláinte!

About the author

Kevin Freier serves as a full-time career firefighter/EMT with Albemarle County Fire Rescue and as a volunteer with the Barboursville Volunteer Fire Company in Virginia. A third-generation firefighter, Freier is a member of the Albemarle hazmat team and peer support group.