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Book Review — "The Irish Americans: A History" by Jay P.Dolan

In the parish I grew up in, most of us were Irish, including our priests. My friends and girlfriends knew no ethnicity. A few years ago in Irish town, I looked at the surnames on businesses around me. I was still surrounded by my friends' families from my old parish.

Jay Dolan's "The Irish Americans: A History" details not only the history of that great immigration of the Irish to America, but also demonstrates how Irish Americans changed this country's politics, religion, labor and nationalism. Those Irish created - or molded existing institutions - to reflect their beliefs and visions. Growing up, I took our schools, parishes and community for granted.

In the afterglow of St. Patrick's Day parades, flying (or carrying) Ireland flags and the special feeling of Irish community that it Day brings, Dolan's book is a nice counterpoint. As a family, we had our stories (the Irish are great for that) and some photos, but Dolan has placed those for me in the perspective of the entire Irish American community. You learn of the schools, churches and cathedrals they built, how they involved themselves in government and their community, how they built labor movements and operated powerful, influential city political machines

Dolan, a former history professor at Notre Dame taught a course at ND on the Irish in America, focusing on those four themes - politics, religion, labor and nationalism. Notre Dame is not mentioned in the book, but his titles "Here Come The Irish" (Chapter 1) and "The Fighting Irish" (Irish Brigades in the Civil War) brought a smile.

Irish Americans in the 1700s

Jay Dolan tells how Catholics and Presbyterians began leaving Ireland for America in the early 1700s after the English began a campaign of religious oppression, suppressing existing landowners' rights, plus rising rents, the decline of the linen trade and periodic famines. Those emigrants, mostly Protestant, settled in Maryland and Pennsylvania due to their religious tolerance, cheap and productive land, and which actively sought settlers to emigrate. Many of these were either highly educated or mercantile, who had an immediate impact in their new country.

Dolan the full story of great Irish American political leaders starting with Charles Carroll, who signed the Declaration of Independence. Carroll was one of eight Americans of Irish descent or who were born in Ireland.

After 1741, famine and a failing economy were the driving forces behind a new wave of Irish immigration. To supply a labor shortage in the colonies, many poor, predominantly Catholic Irish signed as indentured servants. In the 1740s, nine out of ten indentured servants in Pennsylvania were Irish. By 1800, twelve percent of Philadelphia's population were Irish born, most living in squalid conditions, and by 1850 eighteen percent of Philadelphia was Irish. However, due to brisk trade with Ireland and many immigrants coming from well-educated or well-connected merchants who emerged as leaders of the Irish community in Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, in New York, the Irish presence was growing in numbers and influence. George Clinton was elected governor of New York in 1777, serving six successive terms, and who received electoral votes for President in 1792. Clinton appointed James Duane, a lawyer, as mayor of New York. William Mooney founded the Tammany Society. Clinton later served as Vice-President under Jefferson.

As with many ethnic groups, the Irish encountered prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination from the "No Irish Need Apply" signs for employment to the John Adams' Federalists distrust, which led to Congressional passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. Federalist Congressman Harrison Gray Otis spoke for passage when he declared that he "did not wish to invite hordes of wild Irishmen, nor the turbulent and disorderly of all parts of the world to come here with a view to disturb our tranquility." Jefferson's Republican (later the Democratic) Party let the law expire in 1800 and repealed the Naturalization Law which had required fourteen years of residency for citizenship.

Labor and Religion

New York City with an exploding economy, huge harbor and population became a favorite destination for the Irish, so much so that by 1840 one out of every four New Yorkers was of Irish descent or from Ireland. Irish immigrants were often unskilled laborers used to earning living by hard work with their hands. Their labor helped build transportation like the Erie Canal and railroads as well as supply the growing need for building construction. The infamous Five Points neighborhood in New York was a slum known for its violence.

The large Irish working class and a penchant for fairness led them into the forefront of the labor movement in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Workers at that time could be paid $1.50 for a 12-15 hour day. Dolan tells us that between 1871 and 1905, the nation was rocked with an unprecedented number of strikes - 36,757 - involving six million workers, often turning violent. Many of the labor leaders were Irish and led to the formation of powerful worker unions. "Irish nationalism and the urge for social justice in America reinforced each other." Irish Americans so recently oppressed in Ireland would not be the object of similar economic oppression in America.

The most Irish town in America at that time was Butte, Montana, where so many Irish moved to become miners. Mike Mansfield, an Irish American, came from Butte to become the longest serving the longest-serving Majority Leader of the Senate, serving from 1961-1977.

Dolan takes us through the Irish's dual commitment to their religion, leading to the formation of large parishes, parish churches and large cathedrals like St. Patrick's, and parochial schools often led by priests and nuns who sometimes came from Ireland. Cardinals James Gibbons, Frances Spellman and John Francis O'Hara were three of the Irish American Cardinals who not only influenced the direction of the Church in the United States but had ties with American political leaders.

Dolan details the development of political governments and Democratic machines that could deliver jobs and votes for candidates from Boston and New York to Chicago and to San Francisco. He does not gloss over those he places in a rogues gallery of scoundrels who at times also enriched themselves.

Irish in Politics

Dolan attributes the success of the Irish in politics and government more than other immigrant groups to having been denied access to the political process in Ireland, to their familiarity with how Anglo-Saxon law and government worked, to their fortunate timing in their arrival in America when these institutions were evolving, to the lack of language barriers, to how both saloons as meeting places and the Church's involvement in politics facilitated this, and to their own personal ambitions.

From George Clinton's Vice Presidency, Al Smith's failed Presidential bid, Presidents John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan among others of Irish descent, Irish American politicians have lived by Tip O'Neill's famous saying: "All politics is local." O'Neill was active in Al Smith's campaign, was elected to the House for the seat vacated by John Kennedy in 1952, mentored by House Speaker John McCormack and served as Speaker of the House from 1977-1987.

Always Irish Americans have had their ties to Ireland, first in obtaining their indepencence from the British and which most recently helped in leading to an end to the violence in Northern Ireland. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Edward Kennedy, Tip O'Neill and NY Governor, Hugh Carey, worked together to facilitate the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, ending that violence. They were called "The Four Horsemen".

Dolan narrates with a colder eye, that of the historian, which does not shrink from identifying the negatives with the positives. We realize that for good or bad, we and our parishes, schools and churches and involvement in politics are the result of so many generations of Irish Americans.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book for those of you wishing a fuller knowledge of the history of Irish Americans. As for me, we moved to the suburbs away long ago and many new Irish bars have followed. Yet there is nothing like returning to my old parish and revisiting Kelly's for a toast to all those who preceded us and warm conversation. That's the Irish in me.