The American Irish, Kevin Kenny. (Longman, £68.95) ISBN 058227818X Encyclopaedia of the Irish in America, Michael Glazier (ed.). (University of Notre Dame Press, £94.95) ISBN 0268027552

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Spring 2001), Reviews, Volume 9

Forty-five million people in the United States of America claim some degree of Irish heritage. Yet Irish America is often little understood on this side of the Atlantic. Too often Irish Americans are stereotyped as either romantics, nostalgic about a country they have never seen, or as uniformly racist, prone to supporting causes they do not really understand. There is also often a presumption that all Irish Americans are Catholic and that all of them take an intense interest in the affairs of this country. These two  works point instead to the diversity of the Irish experience in America. In many ways they compliment each other, as Kenny’s narrative throws up persons and events that can be pursued further in Glazier’s Encyclopaedia.
The last general histories of Irish America were produced in the 1960s so Kenny’s work fills a major gap. The book is structured chronologically, with the history of Irish America divided into six periods, from colonial to late twentieth century. One of the book’s strengths is that while each chapter provides an overview of the historiography of the period in question, it is still accessible to the general reader. It also manages to introduce subtle nuances in previously accepted interpretations which make it a very valuable work indeed.
First, we learn that mass Irish migration to America began as early as 1720. While there certainly was Catholic emigration, (and forced migration to the West Indies a century earlier) in this period the typical Irish emigrant to America was an Ulster Presbyterian. Before the 1830s Irish America was largely Protestant in composition. Many settled in Pennsylvania, but an important area of settlement was in the south from Georgia westward to Tennessee. Kenny considers the development of a ‘Scotch-Irish’ identity and its impact on religion and politics. Interestingly he notes that not all the Scots-Irish supported the American Revolution, and their response to it was often governed by sectarian and regional considerations. While after 1830 it was the Catholic Irish who come to dominate the narrative, Scotch Irish influence on American history has been considerable. Fifteen presidents, from John Adams to Bill Clinton come (at least in part) from Ulster-Scots heritage, as did as mixed a bunch as General ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, Davy Crockett and Frank and Jesse James! Perhaps surprisingly, today Irish Americans of Protestant descent are considerably lower on the social scale than Catholic Irish Americans. Kenny hopes that this aspect of the Irish experience will become more incorporated in general studies of Irish America.
While Catholic emigration to the US was growing substantially by the 1830s it was the Famine that was central to the vast exodus of Irish men and women after 1845. The Famine era produced the greatest outflow of emigrants in Irish history, and the experiences of this ‘Famine generation’ in the US are relevant to a broad range of questions about Irish America: settlement—overwhelmingly on the east coast; religion—the Irish transformed the American Catholic Church and were vital at every level to its growth; and poverty—initially the Irish were the worst off of all Euro-Americans. That poverty, allied to an intense Nativist and religious backlash against Irish immigration in the post-Famine period provides a clue to understanding the hostility between the Irish and African Americans from the 1850s onwards. Kenny argues that the majority of the Irish opposed even mild forms of Abolitionism
(despite the fact that no  Irish immigrant in the Northern  states owned any slaves), and shows how the Catholic Church became a defender of slavery. In part it was because the most radical Abolitionists were also Nativists, deeply suspicious of foreign Catholicism. But largely it was because the Irish, working in the lowest occupational sectors, feared competition from freed slaves. Despite the famed Irish participation in the Union army during the Civil War, it was also during this period that the Irish led the worst anti-Black violence in New York City’s history, the anti-draft riots of 1863. Indeed participation on either the Union or Confederate side had more to do with what region of the divide you lived in, rather than ideology, and the majority of Catholic Irish lived in the north east.
A major strength of Kenny’s book is that he shows that throughout there has never been a uniform ‘Irish America’. As the Catholic Irish were gradually accepted or forced their way into the mainstream of American life, they produced not only corrupt machine politicians but also reformers; conservative clerics but also radical trade unionists; policemen but also gangsters. He traces the story of Irish women, who made up the majority of emigrants during the nineteenth century and shows how they came to dominate areas of labour such as domestic service and later school teaching. Kenny argues convincingly that previous interpretations, which have stressed life in America as a ‘liberation’ for these women have overstated the case.
By the 1920s men from Irish backgrounds held powerful positions in the eastern cities of the US, and the urban Democratic Party was often dominated by Irish Americans. These political ‘machines’, most famously Tammany Hall in New York City, distributed patronage largely to their Irish followers, but also to newer immigrants. While undoubtedly corrupt, they did provide real benefits for their constituency. During this period, however, there was often Irish hostility to the newest waves of foreign emigrants, primarily Italians and Jews, as the Irish took the opportunity to assert their own ‘native’ credentials. By the 1930s in New York these ‘new ethnic’ groups had managed to elect their own mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, on an anti-corruption ticket, and the Irish machine was removed from power for twelve years. Similar processes began to occur in other northern cities but took place gradually over several decades. Nevertheless the intensely hostile reaction to the presidential campaign of Al Smith in 1928 also showed that the Catholic Irish were not yet accepted as fully American by much of US society. It was to be another thirty-two years before a Catholic from an Irish background was electable as President.
The 1930s provide two contrasting examples of Irish American experiences. During the Depression the anti-semitic and pro-fascist Fr Charles Coughlin gained a mass audience through his popular radio show. Gangs of Coughlinites, largely (but not exclusively) Irish American, attacked Jewish neighbourhoods and individuals and vandalised Jewish property. On the other hand anti-Treaty IRA veterans led by Kerryman Mike Quill succeeded, with Communist assistance, in building a powerful transit workers union in New York. However Kenny neglects to mention how the union under Quill, although heavily Irish, campaigned against anti-semitism and racism.
The 1920s had also seen the high point of Irish American support for Irish republicanism. Despite widespread misconceptions about the level of support militant republicanism receives from the US, since the Irish Civil War it has only been an active minority who have maintained this tradition, although support has obviously fluctuated with events in Ireland, such as Bloody Sunday or the hunger strikes. As immigration from Ireland declined during the 1930s, more and more Americans of Irish descent began to define themselves as ‘American’ first and foremost. During the Second World War for example, the Free State’s neutrality was deeply unpopular among Irish Americans, who enthusiastically backed their country’s war effort.
Between the 1940s and 1980s there was comparatively little emigration from Ireland to the US. Irish Americans began to follow a general trend of prosperity among white Americans, which saw them move from long established immigrant neighbourhoods to the suburbs. The 1960s also saw the beginning of a drift away from the Democrats by Irish American voters, at least partly in response to the party’s perceived liberalism on racial issues. The Reagan era saw the Republicans gain the majority of American Catholic votes for the first time. That development calls into questions the widely held perception that US politicians’ positions on Irish affairs are influenced by a desire to capture the Irish American vote. Reagan, for example, supported British policy on Northern Ireland but did not lose substantial Irish American support as a result. In the recent presidential election Al Gore did not seem to benefit from Clinton’s involvement in the Peace Process, with even prominent Democrats such as Boston’s Ray Flynn calling for a vote for Bush.
It would also be too simplistic to paint a picture of universal Irish American success. Areas of Irish south Boston for example, remain impoverished. The new wave of immigration during the 1980s mean that New York neighbourhoods like Woodside in Queens, retain a very distinctively Irish flavour. Despite a common perception of 1980s emigrants as part of a graduate ‘brain drain’, large numbers continued to find jobs in construction, bar and restaurant work, or as nannies in private homes. These new immigrants had to rely on older Irish American networks to find them jobs. The interaction between the younger Irish and their Irish-American elders often produced considerable tension, as neither side conformed to the others definition of Irishness. The strength of Kenny’s book is that it manages to capture this great diversity.
In contrast to Kenny’s relatively slim volume the Encyclopaedia is a vast work, attempting to cover the entire range of the Irish experience in the US. There are sections on the history of Irish relations with other ethnic groups for example, and separate entries on the history of the Irish in every state. Every facet of Irish American life, from politics to sport seems to have been covered to a greater or lesser degree. This is both a strength, in that it shows the vast range of the Irish experience, but can also contribute to a certain weakness. Some of the entries, especially those on individual states, are written in a folksy style which jars with the more scholarly nature of most contributions. Perhaps this is to be expected in a volume which is inclusive enough to include both the Communist organiser Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and the baseball player Mark McGwire! It would surely have been worth mentioning in the entry on Ronald Reagan that his visit to Ireland in 1984 saw little Irish enthusiasm and quite substantial protest. Compare this to the reception John F Kennedy received and the recent Clinton visits and we may learn something about a relatively under researched area, the perception of Irish America in Ireland itself. However the Encyclopaedia works extremely well both as a reference book and as something a general reader can dip into and almost always pick up an interesting snippet of information. Both works are wholeheartedly recommended to all with an interest in this fascinating area of Irish, and American, history.

Brian Hanley


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568