The American Irish: A Political and Social Portrait
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 never dropped for very long. We are regaled once again with the saga of John L. Sullivan and, quite inexplicably, with the exploits of a Virginia-born Texas Ranger of Irish descent named McNelly. An extremely interesting discussion of a bitter struggle between progressives and reactionaries in the Catholic Church continuing over several decades comes in, and there are a full sixty pages devoted to bright Irish-American literary lights like Fitzgerald, Farrell, O’Neill, and O’Hara. Mr. Shannon writes well about novels and plays and yet he seems to me to overplay the Irish element in every writer he treats except O’Neill and Farrell. By the same token, the success of all his profiles depends very much on the reader’s being able to see genuine connections between the pattern of an individual career and the larger patterns of Irish-American group experience. These connections scarcely exist for such New Deal brain-trusters as Tommy Corcoran and Frank Murphy or for the Broadway playwright Phillip Barry.
One pleasure in reviewing this kind of book comes in cavilling about omissions—if John L. then why not a Sharkey or two, and how about the Battling Twin Sullivans of Cambridge, Mass.? A work with room for a McNelly should certainly have included treatment of major figures from organized labor like Daniel Tobin and Joseph Curran. It might well have included some discussion of gangsters, educators, and women—a page on Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and a few paragraphs on the unsinkable Molly Brown hardly exhaust the latter subject—and it might, above all, have told the story of those Irishmen in the U.S. from 1850 on who remained closely tied to Ireland as active revolutionary rebels. The American Sinn Feiners organized an abortive military assault on Canada, harbored fugitives like O’Donovan Rossa, and in the end the tradition produced that most successful and durable of all American-Irish politicians, Eamon De Valera. Even after the establishment of full Irish independence the outlawed Republican Army received a large part of its financial support from the United States, and at the beginning of World War II it was from America that its gaunt expert on explosives, Sean Russell, made his way to Germany with the intention of helping the Abwehr develop an Irish invasion plan in return for guarantees about ending Partition.
Rather than trying to hint that Mr. J. Edgar Hoover should investigate the question of Irish-American loyalty I am only trying to ruffle Mr. Shannon’s somewhat bland surface. Of course what he mainly has to write is a success story but there should be room in a book so generously proportioned to celebrate, however briefly, those who never stopped looking backwards and all those third-and fourth-generation Irish still living in the tenements of South Boston, Brooklyn, and Hoboken whose families in a hundred years have never made it farther up the American littoral than the high-tide line. And what by the way are the facts, as opposed to comfortable assumptions, about the religious loyalties of the generation of middle-class Irish-Americans which has grown up since the beginning of the last war? Do all those well-spoken, Ivy League-educated and suited Irish-American account supervisors and motivational researchers who train out of New York each night into the Connecticut and New Jersey suburbs manage to make it to Mass every Sunday morning? Or are some of them making do with the Quakers, liberal Presbyterianism, or, perish the thought, with large vodka martinis on the very stroke of Sunday noon?
But enough of cavilling. The finest thing in the book is a long, detailed, beautifully poised comparison between the political and social situation of the Irish in New York and Boston that is brought to a sharp focus in an expert, exhaustive account of the careers of Al Smith and James Michael Curley. The Boston drama was the Yankee-Irish deadlock played out in a declining port that lay within a declining manufacturing region. Curley, a sort of Marlovian Faustus figure, could singe gelid Yankee chin whiskers with oratorical sparks and threaten to flood the vaults of a Boston bank with city water but he could not prevent himself from corrupting the civic instincts of a whole generation of ordinary Bostonians; although he could make the gestures and noises which go with leadership, he could not lead. Smith, more fortunately placed in the fluid, dynamic environment of New York, effected, in the author’s words, a pragmatic synthesis between “what was best and strongest in the immigrant community from which he came and the best traditions of the larger society into which he moved.” The Curley type runs to seed in the appalling opportunism and self-isolating egotism of a McCarthy. John Kennedy, in his combination of shrewd political realism with the talents and ambitions of a statesman, was in the line of direct descent from Smith, even though fate, at long last turning a favoring face on the Bay State, gave him grass roots in Boston rather than New York.
Inevitably, the crowning chapter of The American Irish is devoted to President Kennedy, whose career obviously seemed to Mr. Shannon, as it most certainly seemed to many of the Irish in Ireland, a virtual guarantee that after a century of population decline and economic stagnation in the homeland, of prowling the outer corridors of power and affluence in the United States, the great day for the Irish was dawning at last. No doubt if President Kennedy had survived he would have tolerated these harmless illusions with characteristic good grace and good sense, while continuing to shoulder the burden of his responsibility and hopes for a whole nation and a peaceful world.