California Literary Review

The Irish Americans: A History by Jay P. Dolan

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January 25th, 2009 at 11:00 am

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The Irish Americans: A History by Jay P. Dolan
The Irish Americans: A History
by Jay P. Dolan
Bloomsbury Press, 368 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★☆☆

The Irish Rising

When I was growing up just outside of Boston, I had a terrible crush on a boy named Patrick in my third grade class. He was undeniably an Irishman, from his Gaelic last name to his easy charm to the smattering of freckles over his nose.

Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time (I was too busy trying to figure out if his twinkling smile meant he might swing on the high bars with me), my early longings were part of a sea trend that had started sometime around the year that a bronzed young man stepped into the White House.

America’s love affair with all things Irish – with J.F.K. and seedy bars in “The Departed,” with pure toned women in glaring-green dresses and fire-engine curls, with tales of New York firemen, Boston policemen and roguish politicians (Joe Biden is the first of four in an Irish Catholic family, though I know not if he is roguish) – is the culmination of three hundred years of complicated, contradictory and sometimes bitter, history.

That history is told in Jay P. Dolan’s recent book, The Irish Americans. A survey account from the earliest settlers to the present day, Dolan’s book is well-researched and scattered with fascinating tidbits and facts, but it lacks what any Irishmen would tell you is key to a good night out. It lacks the joy of storytelling.

It’s not necessarily Dolan’s fault. The story of the Irish in America is actually many stories, with many voices, and it’s hard to spin a yarn when people keep interrupting. In the beginning, before the Revolutionary war, for instance, it may surprise some that the story of the Irish is about prosecuted Ulster Presbyterians rather than Catholics.

Later to be known as “Scotch Irish,” these hardy souls – “mobile, restless, and poor” – often came over as indentured servants (in the 1740s, 9 out of 10 in Pennsylvania were Irish) and worked their way west into the Appalachian regions. Though some Catholics did emigrate in the early days, colonial America, with its royal government, did not exactly welcome them with open arms.

The seismic quake of revolution in the late 18th century changed everything. Suddenly there was a new country called the United States, a France without a king, and an Ireland getting ideas. In 1791, a band of revolutionaries founded the Society of United Irishmen, and in 1798 there was a tremor of Irish revolt (Thomas Flanagan’s historical novel, The Year of the French, gives an excellent and entertaining insight into this doomed attempt).

The English repression that followed, and the demand of a growing population on land and resources, made that open country across the seas look mighty attractive, even if it did mean permanent separation from your family and mythology.

Waves of young Irish Catholic men and women, long before the mid-century famine, made the journey to the promised land, often settling in close-knit communities where they had relatives or friends. With the church, the saloons, and their memories to comfort them, they formed an insular home away from home.

New York was a particularly popular destination – as Dolan points out, in 1840, one out of every four New Yorkers was a foreign-born Irishmen – and certain neighborhoods became particularly Irish Catholic (cue the soundtrack of the “Gangs of New York” and a panoramic shot of the notorious slum called Five Points).

And when the famine did arrive, devastating the lives of Ireland’s agricultural tenant farmers, the waves of emigrants became a tsunami. Between 1851 and 1921, as many as 4.5 million people left Ireland, of which 3.7 million went to the United States. There were now two Irelands: one next to Scotland, and the other embedded in North America.

As one might expect, the huge influx of a strange people with a strange religion caused consternation amongst the predominantly Protestant middle and upper classes. To add to the chaos, most of the immigrants were poorly educated and trained only in manual labor.

Politicians were at a loss: they were happy to have cheap domestic help and the hard-working construction workers to build their new cities – “America ‘is the best poor-man’s country in the world,'” one Irishmen stated – but they feared these people’s “Popish” inclinations and their unshakeable attachment to their homeland. Money was frequently sent back to help families, and, throughout the 19th century, to Irish independence movements. (I can’t help thinking this sounds familiar).

Thus, like every arriving ethnic group jostling for space and resources, Irish Americans encountered a wall of hostility in their new home. At every corner they were confronted by signs such as “No Irish need apply,” excluded from the financial ladder by virtue of their religion, and stereotyped as “clannish, ignorant, pugnacious, superstitious, and gloomy, though they could also be warm, hospitable, jovial, intelligent, and industrious.” Even if they weren’t officially discriminated against, they could expect a great deal of patronizing. (My great great grandmother insisted on calling her County Dingle maid Marie, real name Catherine, since her Irish cook had the same name.)

Unwilling to cede their religion to their ambition, Irish-Americans turned to their parish and local politics for power. Women could gain an education and vocation training to be a nun or a teacher; men could gain power and influence by becoming a local boss – first of their street or ward, and then, eventually, city.

These colorful characters, blessed with the Hibernian gift of the gab, infiltrated statehouse corridors by a combination of benevolence and backhanded favors. As Martin Lomasney, a famous boss of Boston said:

The great mass of people are interested in only three things – food, clothing, and shelter. A politician in a district such as mine sees to it that his people get these things. If he does, then he doesn’t have to worry about their loyalty and support.

In tandem with their interest in politics came the influence of Irish Americans on the growth of the labor movement. In addition to city fire and police departments, Irishmen were heavily involved in working on the railroads and in the mines. Union workers shared not only a cultural history and a felicity with English, but also a fierce determination.

Take the most famous example of labor unrest, for instance, the murky Molly Maguires. A secret gang in the Pennsylvania coalfields, this group was alleged to have kidnapped and killed a number of men working on the side of the owners. (And in the process they apparently bumped off one of my thrice great grandfathers, a mine supervisor who was, family lore has it, from Ulster). One hundred-odd years on, debates about their guilt or innocence still have the ability to incite Gaelic tempers.

At the start of the 20th century, the concept of being an Irish American began a metamorphosis. Though they continued to support the IRA and Independence movements with cash, guns, and safe havens, second and third generation youngsters had a different view on life. They no longer longed to return home. Some had moved up into the middle class, many had firmly established jobs and communities, and many were ambitious to break the ceiling.

Al Smith, for instance, was an ambitious New Yorker who had come to fame by reforming sweatshops after the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, in which many young women were killed. Fired up by his supporters, he made a bid for the presidency in 1928. An anti-prohibitionist, an Irish Catholic, and a New Yorker, he didn’t have a chance:

A vote for Al is a vote for rum
A vote to empower America’s scum.
A vote for intolerance and bigotry,
In a land of tolerance and of the free.

But he remained an example for another candidate thirty-odd years later. Conscious of Smith’s failure, Kennedy tackled the issue of his Catholicism head-on.

World War II and the nationalist fervor that seized the country continued to weaken the bonds of Irish Americans to the Emerald Isle, though the church remained as strong as ever. Priests and bishops were prominent spokespersons on the radio – Dolan quotes Alan Brinkley’s account that listeners of the popular Father Coughlin could walk down a street of open windows and never miss a word – and Irish Catholics were key players in the Legion of Decency.

Though the emigrants continued to come (including my second mother, a post-war immigrant who came over with her English husband and ran a daycare from her home, filling my ears with musical prose), the flood was over.

Instead, America began to embrace its Irish roots and, as Dolan points out, revel in a new period of pride in its ethnic heritage. Suddenly, being Irish meant being cool. Being Irish meant being part of a giant nationwide community. Being Irish could even mean being very rich. In 2006, 10% of Forbes’s 400 wealthiest billionaires had Irish names.

And if we’re not Irish, we search for some connection, some family links to tie us to the experience. Like my third grade self, we’ve fallen in love with Paddy.

Now all of these facts and more can be gleaned from Dolan’s book, and one could argue that such wealth merits a five star review. Yet in the age of Wikipedia and information on demand, historians have a much bigger challenge to face than before.

Facts and biographies aren’t enough anymore. Greedy readers today demand that a history provide them with a vision, an account that can mix personal details with judicious perspective, a sense of being swept up in the world as it was.

And as I finished looking at my notes, I noticed that Dolan had hardly touched on the cultural characters – the artists, musicians, and actors, the architects and industrial designers, the strange fools and madmen – who had a hand in shaping this country.

And I wondered, too, about Dolan’s point of view. An Irish American himself, did he agree with the stereotypes given to his countrymen and women? How much do we Americans define our identities by such labels? What did he think of the dark side of the Irish experience (how does an Irish mob differ from an Italian mafia) and how does he view the Irish American experience in the context of other immigrant groups (Eastern European Jews, Hispanics, Chinese)? We aren’t told, and I would have liked to hear.

These omissions aren’t fatal flaws, but they’re important ones. Dolan’s account of social forces, of immigration, politics, labor, and the church, is thorough and those who go looking for information on these areas will find a volume jam-packed with detail. But for those looking for a grand eccentric tale, I recommend the pub.

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