Most of my family came from Ireland, although we’re still unearthing the details of what parts they hailed from. So far we know my paternal grandpa’s ancestors were Irish Catholics from Wexford (yes, just like the Kennedys), but that’s about it. The story that I’ve always gotten about my mom’s side of the family is that our records were destroyed in a church fire. I don’t see that as a dead end, though, because churches aren’t the only places where records are stored, and someday I’d like to work some of those other angles.
In the meantime, though, I enjoy studying the history of the Irish in America, and many years ago I bought Tom Deignan’s 2002 book, Irish Americans. This little volume has been gathering dust in a corner of my bookshelf, so I was curious to go back to it, and it moves with all the vim and verve of a sprightly Irish jig. Like any good tour guide, Deignan begins at the beginning, giving each period of history a healthy but not overly-detailed survey.
The Irish have been coming to America as long as the Brits have, but it wasn’t until the Great Potato Famine that emigration numbers exploded. The British government tried to import grain to alleviate the problem, but there weren’t enough mills. They also raised tariffs and prices on other crops, plus food that could have fed the poor Irish tenant farmers was exported to other countries. The landlords had no sympathy for those who couldn’t pay their rent and evictions abounded. That left starvation or emigration as the tenant family’s only choices.
Emigration might have seemed like the preferable choice, but it came on very hard terms for the poorest of the poor. The only passages they could afford were on ships that were so dangerous, filthy and disease-infested that they were nicknamed “coffin ships.” One witness wrote with horror about babies being dashed on rocks when a ship foundered.
New arrivals of any status didn’t get a warm welcome when they did make it to America. Many of them didn’t speak English as a first language (many spoke Gaelic instead), and the majority of the American public regarded them with distrust and scorn. Part of this was because there was a heavy anti-Catholic sentiment in America at that time, but it was also because people are naturally afraid of what’s different. Signs reading “No Irish Need Apply” were a common sight in shop and office windows. New York City parishes had to be protected by armed guards and gutsy priests, who didn’t take too kindly to hostile individuals wanting to burn down churches.
Some saw the Irish as a means to an end. Scam artists called runners would lie in wait for Irish immigrants to come into port, where right off the ship they would rob them or lure them into shady professions such as sweatshops or brothels. Irish were pressed into jobs considered too dangerous for slaves, like the digging of the Erie Canal, where they were nicknamed “Micks With Picks.”. The machine faction of the Democrat Party targeted these new citizens for votes (Not much has changed).
Still, the Irish asserted themselves, making healthy livings as household help, making enough money to be able to send some to their relatives. They also formed their own political factions across the United States and distinguished themselves as law enforcement, firefighters, and in the Armed Forces. There’s still a heavy Irish presence in these fields, which, as Deignan notes was evidenced by the large number of claddagh rings found at Ground Zero during the 9-11 cleanup.
Naturally, the Irish Catholics also formed little enclaves within urban, with schools and churches, and found they had a lot in common with the local Italian immigrants, with quite a few intermarrying. Nicholas Cage’s real last name might be Coppola, but he’s half Irish.
Deignan’s book is far from being a puff piece, and like any other people group, Irish Americans have had their share of corruption. Men in power flaunted their misdeeds because they thought they were untouchable, stealing taxpayer money to fund their pet projects and putting up so much red tape that construction jobs often cost five times what they ordinarily would.
Not all were scoundrels, though. Al Smith of New York City ran for President in 1928. His was a mixed background of Irish, German and Italian heritage, and while he was popular with the public, people said he would never get elected because he was Catholic.
That distinction, went, of course, to John F. Kennedy, whose famous family is heavily featured throughout Deignan’s book. In fact, Kennedy is the only Irish American to get a section all to himself. Deignan correctly assesses that JFK was able to go where Al Smith couldn’t because Smith paved the way. Plus Kennedy was a less strict Catholic, although still devout, and his all-around charisma and likeability sealed the deal for him.
Entertainment and culture get huge nods in Irish Americans, and there are so many of them that the book can only scratch the surface. Still, we get treated to a wide smattering of the Irish American landscape, with everyone from Bing Crosby to Riverdance to Gene Kelly to Maureen O’Hara and John Ford getting mentions. The latter two, of course, were involved in that love song to the ould sod, The Quiet Man, a perennial classic that features what many film buffs consider some of the best fight scenes ever filmed.
Nowadays, of course, the Irish are seen differently in America. They’re not only respected but celebrated, especially around St. Patrick’s Day. Deignan’s book is a fascinating look at a group of people who became enthusiastically American and a nation that has always been capable of learning from its mistakes.
Gill’s Christopher Lee Blogathon is coming up on Friday. Thanks for reading, all, and I hope to see you then…
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