Are you ready for a little more fire service history and tradition? I have already talked about the Maltese Cross. There is another symbol that is seen quite often in the fire service--the shamrock. Did you ever wonder why the shamrock is so prevalent in the fire service? The present day fire service is home to Emerald Societies, the bagpipers and many big city rosters are full of Irish surnames. Is it a coincidence or is there more to the story?
In 1845 the Great Potato Famine struck Ireland and led to mass immigration of the Irish into America. During the famine years, nearly a million Irish arrived in America. As you may know, the Irish settlers were not exactly welcomed to the US. Many of the settlers were mocked and faced hard times in America. During this period there were a limited number of unskilled jobs available and many Americans were worried that the Irish immigrants would be willing to work for lower wages and undercut them for jobs. This led to an increase in anti-Irish sentiment in cities like New York and Boston. Many employers posted “No Irish Need Apply” signs to keep these unwanted guests from taking American jobs. The only jobs these Irish immigrants could get were the dirty and dangerous civil service jobs that no one else wanted. As a result many Irish immigrants became firefighters and police officers.
As the Irish-American presence in the fire service grew, they began to affix images of the shamrock to their apparatus and uniforms as a way to show their Irish pride. The shamrock also became a subtle message to their fellow Irishmen that the fire service was a place where they would not be discriminated against. Through the years, the number of Irish-Americans in the fire service continued to grow and the shamrock became another image synonymous with the fire service. It is not uncommon to see shamrock decals on helmets, trucks or incorporated into company logos. As I mentioned last month, the Brooklyn Fire Department’s badge was a shamrock up until the Brooklyn and New York Fire Departments merged.
As the Irish population took hold in the fire service, so did the Irish culture and tradition. Like the shamrock, the bagpipe was another Irish tradition that took root in the fire service culture. The bagpipes were often played at Celtic weddings and funerals, so naturally this tradition carried over to the fire service. The pipes and drums are now a staple of many fire service ceremonies and honor guards.
Another group that emerged with the increase in Irish-Americans in the fire service are Emerald Societies. Emerald Societies are social organizations created to promote the fraternal spirit of firefighters of Irish ancestry. Emerald Societies typically work to celebrate the Irish heritage and provide a positive influence in the communities where their members serve.
The fire service provided an opportunity for many of these immigrants to seek work and make a difference. The different cultures brought many of their cultural traditions with them and they became staples of fire service tradition. When you see a shamrock on a helmet or the bagpipers perform at a ceremony, take a minute to reflect on where those traditions came from. Having some Irish heritage in my family tree myself, it makes me proud to know that my brothers before me opened their doors and offered opportunities to the Irish immigrants that could not find work anywhere else. Carry these traditions forward with pride, and honor those who came before us.