Within what’s occasionally referred to in rural Ireland as “an ass’s roar” of my apartment in Portland is a very striking building.

The Maine Irish Heritage Center is a former church replete with kaleidoscopic stained-glass windows; intricate moldings and arches; a charming library; a basement level that stokes up pleasant memories of community dinners and after-school classes; and an organ mezzanine that, on the day I visited last week, somebody’s easel was pitched in.

The center, beautiful in loud ways and quiet, has just been allotted $3 million in federal funding for repairs to its roof and other structural interventions. Local TV news called it “a gift.” Previous grants large enough to make it onto the building’s Wikipedia entry came to $73,000 and $10,000 respectively.

PORTLAND, ME – MARCH 10: Maine Irish Heritage Center building on Friday, March 10, 2023. The center is celebrating its 20th anniversary and the 130-year-old church that houses it will be repaired with a recent $3 million federal grant.  Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The customary “big check” presentation was a festive affair, featuring live music, singing, dancing, a smattering of shamrock and a spread of tea, brown bread and scones.

“The only thing they brought with them was their faith,” director Vinny O’Malley told attendees, speaking about his parents – and, indeed, up to 4.5 million other Irish immigrants between 1820 and 1930. Upon arriving in Maine 100 years ago this decade, O’Malley’s mother got to work as a domestic, his father as a longshoreman. They steadily built a life in Portland.

Local singer Joe Markley performed an original song about how the Irish established themselves in the city, referring to “refugees from starving famine land” (the line went on to rhyme with a reference to the community’s “gentle, caring hand”).


“This is a building about immigration,” said Rep. Chellie Pingree, responsible for securing the community project funding, who closed her short remarks by highlighting efforts to reform asylum seeker work authorization policies and eventually quoted from Reagan’s final speech as president, in which he called America “forever bursting with energy and new ideas.”

“Reagan warned that ‘if we ever closed the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.’ Immigrants are what make this country great,” Pingree said.

The status of “the door” is being argued about around Maine and well beyond.

Lately that includes Ireland where, despite being secure in the understanding that millions of desperate forebears have been driven across the globe at varying velocities throughout the past 200 years, a significant number of Irish people are now hard at work promoting a laughable message: “Ireland is full.”

Though born in the U.S. in the late 1980s to Irish parents (the term “anchor baby” would not appear in print until 1996), I grew up in Ireland. The walls of the Maine Irish Heritage Center are plastered with names that are very familiar to me: Healys, Murphys, McDonaghs, Brennans, more. The basic dimensions of the old church are very familiar to me. The library is full of books about things I know and care about. On Friday morning in Portland, I could hear St Patrick’s Day bagpipes from my living room.

At the rate we’re going, it seems to me unlikely that today’s immigrants will ever be feted in the same way.


Some of that comes down to the fact that circumstances didn’t work against immigrants – when life was far less regulated and communities were far less atomized – the way they work against them now. Mostly I think it comes down to a ruinous lack of will.

For months, Portland has been sounding the alarm about being maxed out, incapable of accommodating the number of asylum seekers arriving here.

The situation seems to have culminated in a March 9 letter by Sen. Susan Collins calling on the Department of Homeland Security to stop accepting asylees bound for Portland. In it, Collins refers to “constant pressure” and “communities being strained far beyond their capacity.”

That the city is up against it is in no doubt. But the fact of the matter is that there is some slack in the system. And all that is needed here is some.

There’s an historic state surplus. There’s federal cash for things like organic farming, pedestrian safety, outdoor recreation, regional airports, and – greeted with enthusiasm last week – roof slates.

The Irish story contrasts very starkly with what’s going on today. It suggests to me that space can expand in proportion to courage and that, then as now, people have ways of figuring things out. We would do well to celebrate and act on that more often.

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