Reading the Irish

In Amy Waldman’s celebrated recent novel The Submission (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), controversy ensues when a Muslim-American named Mohammad Khan is selected to design a memorial at ground zero to victims of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

One of Khan’s opponents is Sean Gallagher, whose brother, Patrick, was a firefighter killed that awful day.


Sean has found meaning in his crusade against Kahn—a non-observant architect who goes by the American-ized name “Mo”—and a not-so-subtle Islamophobia extends to Sean’s Irish-American family in Brooklyn. “It’s not enough to kill us,” one of Sean’s relatives says bitterly, “they have to humiliate us, too.”

Waldman deserves immense credit for the overall sensitivity of her portrait. But a simple fact cannot be ignored: such unsophisticated, even reactionary, Irish-American characters are remarkably prominent in American history and literature.

There are the violent mobs of the New York City draft riots and the violent mobs of the South Boston bussing riots; there’s Father Coughlin and Joe McCarthy; there’s Studs Lonigan and the “ferocious Irishmen” who assault Augie March’s pal in Saul Bellow’s classic and the oppressive Dunn family from the book (and film) Looking for Mr. Goodbar.

But wait: Aren’t the Irish also the freedom-fighting folks so closely associated with labor unions and the Democratic Party and anticolonialism?

And didn’t Irish Catholics endure severe privation and bigotry from the era of the Great Hunger all the way up to the 1910s and 20s, when the U.S. government spied on and imprisoned Irish nationalists and Al Smith faced burning crosses on the campaign trail?

Ken Burns’s latest documentary, “Prohibition,” as well as two recent books—One Hundred Percent American: The Rebirth and Decline of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s by Thomas R. Pegram and The Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 by Kelly J. Baker—attest to the pervasive anti-Irish, anti-Catholicism of the early 20th century.

So, were the Irish part of a dominant or of a disempowered culture? Were they the oppressors or the oppressed?

These and other thorny contradictions are tackled by James R. Barrett in his important new bookThe Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multi-Ethnic City (Penguin Press). Barrett argues that “nativist hostility toward the Irish created a defensiveness in their relations with later waves of migrant peoples.” He adds, “Excluded from much of the city’s public life, the Irish immigrants fell back upon their own communities and institutions,” including the church and the Democratic Party.

This (along with the ability to speak at least some English) helped a desperate people obtain some power in a hostile land, power that subsequent newcomers to urban centers—Jews, Italians, blacks, Poles—would find difficult to wrest from the Irish.

“Their most common impulse was to exclude,” Barrett writes, “to bar more recent immigrants, women, and people of color from jobs and unions, to discriminate against women and minorities, and to fight more radical groups in the labor movement.”

No less a radical than Daniel O’Connell, known as the Liberator, proclaimed that the Irish were a people naturally inclined to sympathize with the downtrodden—until they came to the United States, where they “learned to hate and despise the colored people,” as O’Connell put it.

They also, as Barrett adds, “often embraced a hyperbolic brand of American patriotism, as if wrapping themselves in the flag might bring them acceptance.”

Which, to a great degree, it did.

And yet, Barrett—who teaches history and African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—well knows that this is only half of the Irish-American story. For there are many instances of Irish American radicals and anticolonialists and labor leaders who embraced blacks and women and more recent immigrants.

Such tensions, in fact, have long been present within the Irish- American community and are evident in numerous other books released just in time for St. Patrick’s Day this year. In Peter Troy’s Famine-era novel May the Road Rise to Meet You (Doubleday), Sean McOwen is a Tammany Hall loyalist. Tammany—and most Irish—were not merely loyal Democrats. They viewed Lincoln and the Republicans as elitist, anti-Catholic scoundrels. And yet Sean’s ambitious, free-thinking brother Ethan is star-struck when he sees Honest Abe after his famous Cooper Union speech in 1860.

“You have my full support,” Ethan tells the future president, words that literally could have gotten him thumped in the nearby Five Points.

Meanwhile, in Kevin Fox’s thriller Until the Next Time (Algonquin), an F.B.I. agent flees the racial strife of 1970s America for Ireland after a shootout with a member of the Black Panthers. Hoping to find solace among family, the agent instead is dismissed as a bigot no better than Nixon or the Brits by some I.R.A. men he falls in with.

Finally, Gerard O’Neill’s Rogues and Redeemers: When Politics Was King in Irish Boston (Crown) vividly recalls when Irish Americans like Judge Arthur Garrity and Ted Kennedy had to be physically protected from angry, anti-bussing forces in traditionally Irish enclaves.

Is there any way to resolve these seeming contradictions? Professor Barrett’s The Irish Way attempts to do just that. The book is broken up into six chapters, with titles like “The Street,” “The Parish” and “The Machine.” Having argued that the Irish exhibited great “tension between inclusiveness and exclusiveness, between cosmopolitanism and parochialism,” Barrett sets out to focus roughly on the years 1880 to 1920, when the children of the Famine were assimilating, when more Irish were still pouring into the United States and when immigrants from other nations began settling in heavily Irish cities.

“By carving the city into distinct ethnic turfs and relentlessly defending their own, Irish gangs developed a strong sense of territoriality that they transmitted to later immigrants,” Barrett writes, a process he terms “coercive Americanization.”

To use language popularized by David Roediger, a scholar Barrett quotes and with whom he has collaborated, once the Irish “became white,” they encouraged later immigrants to do the same—at the expense of more marginalized newcomers to the city.

Barrett takes a particularly interesting look at tensions among different 19th-century Catholic ethnic groups. (One Polish-American dubbed Protestants and the Irish as “two prongs of the same nativist fork.”)

But Barrett stresses that Catholi-cism also “taught social justice and especially racial and ethnic tolerance.”

The political machine, vaudeville stage and union hall could be similarly schizophrenic. Which raises the question: If you look at any group of people, wouldn’t you find both progressive and conservative elements? Is it merely the fact that the Irish came in such great numbers that explains their intellectual and political inconsistency? And is this even inconsistency? Or merely diversity?

Barrett’s observations about Irish interaction with other immigrants are keen, and his focus on the tenuously assimilated second generation is valuable. But one group that is generally absent from Barrett’s analysis is what, these days, we call “the one percent,” the power elite, who were all too happy to look on as America’s ethnics went at each other’s throats in the wards and alleyways, battling over small slivers of the social pie.

It should be added that Barrett is hardly the first to express understandable frustration with the ways Irish America flexed its hard-earned muscle. Consider Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous assessment from Beyond the Melting Pot: “The very parochialism and bureaucracy that enabled [the Irish] to succeed in local politics prevented them from doing much else.... In a sense, the Irish didn’t know what to do with power once they got it.… They never thought of politics as an instrument of social change.”

The trouble is, when you’ve faced starvation, disease and death, survival very much counts as a kind of social change.

Whether they did it as reactionaries or progressives, no one can deny that the Irish survived. Perhaps they could have done more or done it differently. But given their starting point, survival is an understandable aspiration.

St. Patrick’s Day 2012 finds a Kenyan-American president in the White House, whose maternal roots just happen to go back to Moneygall, County Offally, to which the president made a triumphant visit last summer. Two of the leading figures in New York City’s 2013 mayoral race are named Kelly and Quinn, and if they win they will have to do battle with union leaders named Lynch, Cassidy and Mulgrew, in a diocese that just sent its 10th consecutive Irish American archbishop since 1842 to Rome as a cardinal.

On the other hand, the virulently anti-Irish, anti-Catholic cartoonist Thomas Nast was recently honored as a candidate for The New Jersey State Hall of Fame. And there was no public outcry whatsoever when a witness discussed the problem of “Irishmen who are drunks and…get into bar fights” during recent hearings aimed at (wait for it!) diversity in the New York City Fire Department.

And so it goes....

In the end, the Irish survived by any means necessary. It was not always pretty. But the Irish did not only complicate things for those below them. Their very presence also compelled those higher up the social ladder to accept some social change, albeit grudgingly. Otherwise, things might actually have been much worse for later immigrants and others.

Imagine if more children of Erin followed the bitter, fatherly dictate offered in the ballad “Paddy’s Lament”: “Here’s to you boys, now take my advice./ To America I’ll have ye’s not be going.” Whatever else they did, the Irish—to paraphrase Langston Hughes—forced “America to be America.” Or at least to try.

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Richard Booth
2 years 3 months ago
I realize my comment comes late, but I just happened to see the article in America's archives. Your essay is, in my view, extremely well written and betrays a wealth of understanding that so many in our society do not possess. I am familiar with the historical strictness of the Irish Catholic Church in the homeland, as well as the many battles fought against the British for Irish independence. It is with this tradition, as well as the tradition of poverty, that the Irish came to America's shores. Once here, I believe many were overly zealous for the attainment of power and identity denied them by Great Britain. The former homeland's anti-British sentiments transferred to those who opposed American Irish assimilation here. In defense, many created an almost tribal in-group psychology. Holding their traditions intact, remembering earlier struggles with Britain, and the battles to become accepted in America probably went too far before things normalized. As you mention, the Irish constituted only one of the immigrant groups struggling for what they thought was "the American dream." I think we see similar, though not identical, behaviors today as other "different" people arrive here.


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