JFK to Mitch McConnell: How Irish Americans went from reliable Democrats to leading the GOP
In 1601, soon after “Padre Ricardo Arturo” became pastor of Spanish Florida’s St. Augustine Church, he organized what some historians consider the first St. Patrick’s Day parade in the New World. Like most of the millions of Irish who migrated to America, the Irish-born Father Richard Arthur found a way to adapt to his new home while celebrating his Celtic heritage.
During the centuries that followed, the Murphys and Kellys, the O’Briens and Ryans who flooded into America’s cities became firemen and policemen, teachers and bartenders. To protect their foothold in the American Dream, they joined unions that created a system of political machines led by powerful Irish American bosses.
Edwin O’Connor’s novel The Last Hurrah, published in 1956 and turned into a movie starring Spencer Tracy two years later, seemed a fitting elegy to that era. The story of an aging Irish mayor waging one last campaign was loosely based on Boston’s “Purple Shamrock,” James Michael Curley, who dominated politics in the Bay State during the first half of the 20th century and is now commemorated by two bronze statues across from Boston’s City Hall. But The Last Hurrah carries echoes of other memorable big-city mayors, including the Irish bosses of New York City’s Tammany Hall, Jersey City’s Frank Hague (known for his supposed declaration “I am the law”) and Chicago’s pugnacious Richard J. Daley.
Some Irish Americans assumed that the real last hurrah, symbolizing our escape from the limits of urban politics, was the triumph of our prince, John F. Kennedy, in the 1960 presidential election.
Some Irish Americans assumed that the real last hurrah, symbolizing our escape from the limits of urban politics, was the triumph of our prince, John F. Kennedy, in the 1960 presidential election. Except for L.B.J. and Donald Trump, every president after Kennedy has boasted of some Irish ancestry. Richard Nixon and both Bushes pointed to distant relatives who had migrated from the Emerald Isle. And Barack Obama, referring to the small village in County Offaly where his great-great-great-grandfather came from, famously announced to a crowd in Dublin in 2011, “My name is Barack Obama, of the Moneygall Obamas, and I’ve come home to find the apostrophe we lost somewhere along the way.”
Even J.F.K.’s death seemed distinctively Irish. When he was assassinated, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the future senator from New York, reportedly said, “There’s no point in being Irish if you don’t know the world is going to break your heart eventually…. I guess we thought we had a little more time.’’
Today’s political scene, meanwhile, makes me think of a quote from William Faulkner, a Southern writer who probably had some Scots-Irish ancestry himself: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
It does, however, evolve in curious ways. With Kevin McCarthy’s election as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, the president and the Republican leaders of both the Senate and House are people with Irish roots, something I doubt my grandfather who came to Jersey City from County Limerick could have ever imagined.
The Republican leaders of both the Senate and House are people with Irish roots, something I doubt my grandfather who came to Jersey City from County Limerick could have ever imagined.
Joe Biden’s Irish Catholicism, with its roots in County Mayo and County Louth, is a key part of his identity. In both philosophy and style, he resembles the populist, genial, handshaking, back-slapping and often-underestimated Irish bosses of the past. What is surprising is that so many Irish American politicians now represent Americans who fear change and are suspicious of newcomers, just like the people who blocked our ancestors’ aspirations. While often conservative in some of their values (e.g., abortion, the relationship of church and state), the Irish formed a backbone of the Democratic Party from the massive immigration in the 19th century onward. As late as 1964, 76 percent of U.S. Catholics voted for Lyndon Johnson, but in recent elections most non-Hispanic Catholics have voted for the Republican Party, which has become more and more restrictionist in immigration policy.
Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell reflect the centripetal force of American culture as it pulls the pluribus into unum, and our economic success in this land of plenty has pushed the 31.5 million people who claimed Irish descent in the 2020 census in a more conservative direction, less willing to risk supporting policies that might open the country to new immigrants or expand broad social services. We may love those wistful rebel songs that evoke the centuries our ancestors struggled against a superpower attempting to impose its language and values on our people, but many of us seem less sympathetic to sharing our now-comfortable status with others.
We may love those wistful rebel songs that evoke the centuries in which our ancestors struggled, but many of us seem less sympathetic to sharing our now-comfortable status with others.
While I recognize that change, I also know that no one back in my Jersey City youth could have imagined someone named Kevin McCarthy as either a Baptist or an ally of anti-immigrant activists like Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene, a woman who once said that Satan controlled the Catholic Church. Yet today few are surprised that the speaker, the great-grandson of an Irish Catholic immigrant from County Cork and the first Republican in his family, reportedly attends Valley Baptist Church in Bakersfield, Calif.
At the same time, Mr. McConnell’s membership in Louisville Southeast Christian Church, an evangelical megachurch, follows logically from his family’s Presbyterian, Scots-Irish roots. Although his family also came from Ireland’s southernmost county, Cork, they joined the first great immigration from Ulster or Northern Ireland to the original 13 American colonies. While a few adapted to the Anglo-Germanic-Quaker culture of Middle Colonies like Pennsylvania, most moved to Appalachia and the South.
Their greatest influence was in Arkansas and in Appalachian states like Tennessee and Kentucky, which Senator McConnell now represents. As they settled in the mountainous regions of Appalachia and the Ozarks, they often named at least one of their sons after their hero, King William III of England, who defeated the largely Catholic army of the deposed King James II. Members of Ulster’s Orange Order continue to celebrate King Billy’s victory in their own parade each July 12, donning bowler hats, white gloves and orange sashes each to demonstrate their loyalty to the United Kingdom.
That Ulster tradition has carried over to the Orangemen’s descendants in the United States, as anyone watching the University of Tennessee’s athletic teams knows. And King Billy’s name has continued to echo through the sons of Scots-Irish descendants in Appalachia, including Bill Clinton. At one time the name was so common that the same Northerners whose ancestors limited opportunities for urban Irish Catholics began mocking these admirers of King William in the mountains as “hillbillies,” as did some of the urban Irish Catholics themselves.
The past may never be past, but even our greatest historians understand that the future is unpredictable. Irish immigrants and their descendants, once a reliable pillar of the Democratic Party, have splintered. Just as most immigrants have experienced that centripetal homogenizing force of language and culture that helps them and their children identify as Americans, their descendants often embrace the parallel centrifugal force that leads to the pluralism, freedom and individualism American citizenship promises. We have come to epitomize William Butler Yeats’s prophecy that centers rarely hold.
Even if we no longer share fundamental political values, whether we support Joe Biden’s traditional liberalism, Mitch McConnell’s pragmatic conservatism or Kevin McCarthy’s increasingly MAGA philosophy, the over 30 million of us who traced our roots to Ireland in the latest census share at least one tradition that has endured since 1601. This St. Patrick’s Day everyone who claims even an ounce of Irish blood will celebrate a land and heritage as rich and frustrating, complicated and contradictory as the one we have forged in this new land.