The American Irish: A Political and Social Portrait
by William V. Shannon
Macmillan, 458 pp., $7.95
The American Irish is a contribution to American immigrant history more broadly based than a pioneering work like Handlin’s The Boston Community and less searching and professional with respect to demographic and sociological factors than John Archer Jackson’s recent monograph on a parallel subject, The Irish in Britain. At the same time it is a journalistic account of how the Irish of the famine and post-famine generations came to the United States and made their varied marks on American life, told largely by means of profiles of leading personalities active from about 1850 onwards in such fields as religion, politics, sport, literature, and the theater. The author takes a good deal of satisfaction in the spectacle of Irish upward mobility, but he also writes as an American Catholic liberal who believes in the open society and all the major social and economic reforms introduced into our national community since the New Deal. Interestingly enough, he makes a good case for the existence of a substantial Irish-American liberal tradition within the American Catholic establishment, citing Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop John Ireland, and the progressive economist Father John Ryan as its principal begetters and ornaments in the earlier part of this century. Unfortunately, Mr. Shannon’s liberal hopes for the Irish betray him into the book’s only serious distortion. Writing of the late President and his administration he says they bodied forth “the three main themes of the history of the Irish in this country: the poetry, the power and the liberalism,” seeming to forget that throughout his own book he has demonstrated—by balancing ultraconservative churchmen like McQuaid and O’Connell against liberals like Ryan and Ireland, the Coughlinites and McCarthyites against the New Deal Irish, a Curley against an Al Smith—that the relation of the Irish to liberal ideas and politics has been disturbingly dualistic.
Mr. Shannon writes extremely well and his plan of attack, which is to advance simultaneously on as many fronts of his vast subject as possible, is a good one. He starts by describing the nineteenth-century Irish peasant character—pessimistic, evasive, clannish, and pious—as a product of centuries of military defeat, foreign domination, and land expropriation and shows us how people capable of surviving under 125 years of the Penal Codes were able to make their way in the northeastern American cities. At first they drew upon old-country traditions of mutual support to organize the slum wards and exploited their knowledge of English by acting as petty political brokers, negotiating between other foreign groups and the native ruling class. After the Civil War an assault is launched on city hall, the era of the Machine begins, and a distinctive Irish style in politics emerges, stressing welfare services in exchange for voter loyalty at precinct level, involving an intricate, often corrupt system of quid-proquo patronage in the mayor’s chambers and the political clubhouses.
Here individual Irishmen acquire a face and name, and the book branches off in several directions, although politics is …