The Woodland League
CATHOLIC IRISH AMERICA: DRIFTING INTO THE MAINSTREAM
Lawrence J. McCaffrey, Loyola University of Chicago
Since "no-popery" was the cornerstone of early American nativism, Irish immigrants, the first large Catholic contingent to enter the country, received a hostile reception. Anglo-and Scots-Irish American Protestants found Irish Catholic social problems, the fruits of economic and cultural poverty as well as traumatic shifts from Old Country rural to New Country urban environments, disturbing and obnoxious but less repugnant than their religion. They wondered if subjects of Roman authoritarianism and superstition could adjust to an open society. Wouldn't they constitute a continual subversive threat to the liberal-democratic values and institutions of a nation founded on Protestant and Enlightenment principles? In the first case their answer was No! In the second, Yes!
Gradually Irish Catholic pioneers of American urban ghettos advanced from the unskilled to the skilled working class, improving their conduct and manners. Some even penetrated the lower middle class. But as the dominant leaders of an expanding and despised Catholic Church, or frequently corrupt city political machines, or of a growing organized labor movement threatening laissez faire capitalism, they continued to antagonize a Protestant majority.
By the 1920s, many Irish Catholics, experiencing economic, social, educational, and residential mobility, began to hope for, even believe in, the possibility of a respected place in America. Orderly, hard-working, and ambitious, they had demonstrated their patriotism in the trenches of World War I. The 1928 presidential campaign and election shattered much of this optimism. Despite the belief of many Catholics that religious prejudice victimized their champion, New York Governor Albert E. Smith, there really wasn't much chance that in the midst of prosperity, the incumbent Republican Party was going to lose a presidential election. However, anti-Catholicism did increase Herbert Hoover's majority and lost Smith the electoral votes of states usually Democratic.2
No doubt, anti-Catholic hysteria in 1928, much of it precipitated by a revitalized Ku Klux Klan, highly active in the South and Midwest, nourished Catholic anxieties about their American future. Sometimes these worries passed into paranoia. Feelings of alienation, as well as joblessness and its consequences during the Great Depression, which began in 1929 and persisted in various degrees until the start of World War II, provided a large Catholic audience for anti-Semitic and fascist tinged rants of Father Charles Coughlin, pastor of the Shrine of the Little Flower parish in Royal Oak, Michigan, just outside Detroit. On Sunday afternoons in the early 1930s, many Protestants as well as Catholics turned on radios to listen to the Roman collar demagogue.
Despite Depression miseries, Irish Catholics, as a group, survived in better shape than many Americans. Quite a few made decent if not luxurious livings employed on railroads, public transport (street cars, buses, subways), teaching in elementary and secondary schools, and serving in hospitals, post offices, and city bureaucracies that continued to operate and pay salaries. Of course, like other Americans, a large number were impoverished, but common suffering lessened religious tensions.
During the 1930s and 40s, many aspects of American life gave evidence of Irish Catholic influence and talent. Still active in urban politics, they also increased their Washington visibility. Expressing Catholic social justice and communal values and respect for the president, Irish congressmen and senators were instrumental in enacting Franklin D. Roosevelt's domestic and foreign policies. FDR consulted Irish Catholic leaders and placed two in his Cabinet, James J. Farley and Montana Senator Thomas Walsh. Farley, chair of the Democratic Party, was post-master general and Walsh attorney general. When Walsh died two days before FDR's inauguration, the president replaced him with Irish-Catholic Frank Murphy, Michigan governor. After serving two years as attorney general, Murphy joined the United States Supreme Court. Rewarding them for long-time party loyalty, Roosevelt's administration also appointed Catholics, usually Irish, to twenty-five percent of government jobs. 3 Irish presences also were prominent in the leadership of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, where their political talents and organizing skills achieved decent salaries, healthy work environments, and job security for workers.4
In general, Catholic bishops and priests came from working or lower middle-class families and were Democrats, if not from the pulpit, certainly in the polling both. 5 With few exceptions, they had negative reactions to Father Coughlin. He too had supported FDR's candidacy in the presidential campaign of 1932, but four years later turned against the man in the White House, losing considerable lay support.6
Irish literary talent had not yet flourished but three distinguished novelists and short story writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John O'Hara, and James T. Farrell, and probably America's greatest playwright, Eugene O'Neill, were of Irish-Catholic stock. Fitzgerald was indifferent to both his religious and ethnic heritages, and O'Hara often was ashamed of them, wishing he was an upper-class Anglo-Saxon Protestant with a Yale degree. Like Fitzgerald and O'Hara, Farrell and O'Neill moved away from Catholicism but considered themselves within the Irish literary and cultural traditions. O'Neill insisted Irishness shaped his work. Social realism dominated Farrell's depictions of Chicago's Irish and the positive and negative aspects of Catholicism on their lives.7
Much of early Irish-American literature came from skilled journalists. In the 1930s and 40s some of the country's best newspaper writing came from Irish minds and hands, especially in sports pages, a result of a long ethnic participation and fan interest in athletics. But Irish economic and social mobility reduced their once dominant prominence in boxing and baseball, until along came James J. Braddock. Hand injuries had led to his fading reputation in the ring. To feed his family during the Depression, he worked part-time on New Jersey docks as a longshoreman and was on relief rolls. Starting in June 1934, Braddock defeated three favored contenders for the heavyweight championship, and on June 13, 1935, as a ten to one underdog, he triumphed over the title holder, Max Baer. Braddock, labeled the "Cinderella Man," became a national hero, representative of Great Depression victims and survivors. 8 But to Irish Americans, Braddock was more than a symbol of under-pressure fortitude; he was one of them, the man who wore a bright green shamrock on his boxing trunks. In addition to Braddock, in the late 1930s and early 40s, the Irish took pride in Pittsburgh's Billy Conn, one of the all-time great light-heavyweight champions, and the man who in June 1941 came close to defeating the magnificent Joe Louis for the heavyweight crown.
Before and after World War II, ethnic, racial, and religious allegiances and animosities continued to figure in individual and team sport-fan loyalties, not only in boxing and baseball, the national game, but in college football, once associated with Ivy League schools. In the 1920s, Notre Dame's "Fighting Irish" became a dominant force, and other Catholic colleges and universities, with large Irish enrollments, such as Fordham in New York City and St. Mary's in Moraga, California, also became gridiron powers.
Entertainment, as well as sports, featured Irish talent. Bing Crosby, the nation's most popular singer and movie box-office hit, won hearts and spawned imitators. Fred Allen (John Florence Sullivan) and Gracie Allen, partner and wife of George Burns, and Jim and Marion Jordan (Fibber McGee and Molly) were successful radio comedians; and Spencer Tracy, Irene Dunne, Barbara Stanwyck (Ruby Stevens), Rosalind Russell, Pat O'Brien, and James Cagney were among a flock of Hollywood stars with Irish backgrounds. Cagney portrayed rough, tough criminals. But at a time when people were down and out, resenting government and business, Cagney's screen wit, bravery, application of street justice, sense of humor, and a spit-in-your eye approach to the establishment won audience approval as an anti-hero. 9 And of course gunmen in the West and gangsters in cities have always fascinated Americans.
Irish America contributed directors as well as actors to films, most notably John Ford (Sean Aloysius Feeney), Raoul Walsh, and Robert J. Flaherty, master of documentaries. A considerable number of experts consider Ford the greatest director. Irish elements are obvious in his films, even Westerns, and in his 1940 version of John Steinbeck's novel, Grapes of Wrath, there are similarities between Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl during the Depression and Irish emigrants escaping the Great Famine of the 1840s.10
If common suffering during the Depression decreased tensions between various ethnic and religious groups, shared patriotism in World War II was even more significant in unifying the nation. In European and Pacific theatres, Catholic soldiers, sailors, marines, and merchant seamen shed doubts about their love of country and willingness to risk lives on its behalf. In the 1942 movie, Yankee Doodle Dandy, when conferring the Congressional Medal on George M. Cohan, composer of songs lifting American spirits in both World Wars, President Roosevelt remarks: "That's one thing I've always admired about you Irish-Americans. You carry your love of country like a flag, right out in the open. It's a great quality." 11
Obviously, Hollywood did much to enhance the Irish-American image. When such popular film actors as Spencer Tracy, Pat O'Brien, and Bing Crosby portrayed manly, athletic Irish-American priests, more as social workers than sacramental dispensers, they persuaded many non-Catholic movie goers that the religion they either despised or distrusted had positive, very American aspects. In 1944, Going My Way, featuring Crosby as Father Chuck O'Malley, won seven Academy Awards, and set box office records. The next year, The Bells of St. Mary's, with Crosby again as Father O'Malley, drew even larger audiences.12
Many wartime movies featured Irish Americans as heroes. The Fighting Sullivans (1944) paid tribute to five Waterloo, Iowa, brothers who enlisted in the Navy following Pearl Harbor and died in the Pacific when the Japanese sank their cruiser, the Juneau. Producers, directors, and screen writers liked to depict courageous military and naval chaplains as Irish Americans. In The Fighting 69th (1940), Father Francis Duffy (Pat O'Brien) elevated the spirits and inspired the courage of New York Irish soldiers in World War I; in Guadalcanal Diary (1943), Father Ignatius Donnelly (Preston Foster) did the same for marines in World war II. Duffy and Donnelly were based on lives of real clerics.13
Movies even dressed up Irish political bosses in admirable and sometimes lovable fashion. For example, Spencer Tracy's Frank Skeffington in John Ford's The Last Hurrah (1958), based on Edwin O'Connor's 1956 novel, is a romanticized version of Boston's Mayor James Michael Curley. Skeffington defended ethnic constituents against the powerful, ruthless, and greedy Anglo-Protestant establishment. A Joseph M Curran indicates in Hibernian Green on the Silver Screen (1989) that, by the 1950s, movie audiences found the Irish entertaining and likeable ethnics. Screen idols Grace and Gene Kelly came to represent not only their own Irishness but positive qualities in all Americans.14
In the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, Irish Americans were a presence on television as well as movie screens. Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden, a bus driver, and Art Carney as Ed Norton, a sewer worker, created classic TV humor in TheHoneymooners. Msgr. Fulton J. Sheehan's radio sermons on the Catholic Hour in the 1930s and 40s attracted millions of listeners. In the 1950s, articulate, charismatic, dramatic, flamboyant, often intellectually superficial Sheehan, now a bishop, increased his fan-base by moving to TV. His weekly talks on religion, morality, philosophy, and especially the evils of communism successfully competed with other prime-time offerings.
In addition to providing Catholic Irish Americans with patriotic exposure, World War II loosened their ties with Ireland. Many resented Ireland's neutrality while developing an admiration and appreciation for Britain, their country's trusted ally against the Axis powers and later in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. A decline in Irish immigration, the result of World War I, congressional legislation in the 1920s, the Depression, and World War II also reduced Irish American interest in and connection with Ireland. So did the fratricidal Civil War between Free Staters and Republicans.
Emigration continued as a troubling problem for both Free State and Republic. Political sovereignty for twenty-six of Ireland's thirty-two counties failed to solve the country's multiple economic and social problems. 15 The vast majority of those leaving Ireland settled in British urban centers but quite a few managed to arrive in the United States. As émigrés from an introverted, gloomy, impoverished, priest ridden Catholic confessional state, they contradicted a romanticized Ireland residing in many Irish-American imaginations.
With attention turned away from Ireland, during the 1940s and 1950s the Irish in the United States concentrated on American interests and opportunities. Not until the 1960s, when a growing interest in Irish music, stimulated by the performances and records of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, the beginnings of Irish studies programs in colleges and universities, and significant press and TV coverage of the Northern Ireland Troubles, did an Irish-American focus return to Ireland.
Following World War II a social revolution began to radically alter the social profile of Irish America. Many of its war veterans, usually from the working- and lower-middle class families, took advantage of the 1944 Serviceman's Readjustment Act (G.I. Bill) to enroll in colleges and universities. After B.A. and B.S. degrees, quite a large number attended graduate or professional schools, finishing as lawyers, physicians, dentists, professors, research scientists, and high-salaried businessmen, completing Irish-America's long journey from poverty to prosperity, and from inner-city Catholic parish-centered neighborhoods to ethnically and religiously diverse suburbs. Their ghettos bursting at the seams, African Americans began to penetrate white ethnic enclaves. Bigotry, the fear and reality of crime, and worry over declining property values increased the Irish-American trek from city to suburbs. 16 Although it is correct to describe post-World War II Catholic Irish America as increasingly middle-class, it also featured regional differences. Westerners and Midwesterners achieved economic and social mobility quicker than Easterners and tended to exist in more open and friendly environments.
Despite economic, social, and educational advances, ghettos of mind persist longer than those of place, in many instances preserving Irish-Catholic doubts concerning status and suspicions of American culture and values. Those more economically and socially integrated into diverse communities tended to be more liberal and tolerant. Nevertheless, despite positive screen images, economic, social, and residential mobility, and a lessening of anti-Catholicism, Irish Americans in general lacked a complete sense of security. Many thought back on the 1928 presidential campaign and its vicious attacks on their religion, and passed on these bitter memories to children and grandchildren.
In numerous ways Catholic foundations of their identity isolated the American Irish from the nation's essentially Protestant cultural mainstream. From pulpits and in classrooms, Catholic leaders, mostly Irish, denounced "materialism and pragmatism" contaminating secular education as well as business and entertainment. In a country where post-World War II sexual mores and marital relations had become more flexible, they also opposed contraception, divorce, and pornography. Irish Catholics were prominent in film censorship best represented by the Hays Office and Legion of Decency.17
Defensiveness bred and/or nourished cruel and socially unhealthy Irish-American responses to social problems, adding to their sad and disgraceful history of anti-Semitism and anti-black racism. In the 1950s, they were highly visible in efforts to block integrated housing and public education. In his 1996 book, Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter With Race in the Twentieth-Century American Urban North, John T. McGreevy describes how city parishes, once shelters from hostile American nativism, became defensive fortresses, resisting civil liberties and social justice for later victims of intolerance.18 .
While the fanatic anti-communism expressed by a vast number of Irish-Americans represented the position of their Church, it also expressed insecurities. For many conservative non-Catholics, considerable Irish support for the supposedly communist hunting, anti-civil libertarian Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, indicated they were good Americans, but to numerous liberals it suggested they were basically anti-democratic. Still, not all of the American Irish embraced McCarthyism. A number of Catholic political and religious leaders denounced the Wisconsin senator. Minnesota Congressman Eugene McCarthy debated Joseph McCarthy on television. Bishop Sheil of Chicago, who opposed Father Coughlin in the 1930s, in contrast to Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York, condemned the Wisconsin senator's ruthless tactics. Although he was a Midwesterner, McCarthy's most fervent admirers tended to be Easterners, including members of the Joseph Kennedy family as well as bishops and priests. Not only did often hysterical, indiscriminating Catholic anti-communism jeopardize individual freedoms, it also factored in the United States' long, frustrating, unwise, and ultimately failed intervention in Vietnam.
Although American Catholics were experiencing economic, social, and residential mobility, Monsignor John Tracy Ellis, distinguished professor of church history at the Catholic University of America, was not impressed with their material gains. In American Catholics and the Intellectual Life (1956), he complained that his co-religionists failed to match them with intellectual achievements. He quoted a 1941 statement by Denis Brogan, a British expert on American history and culture: "In no Western society is the intellectual prestige of Catholicism lower than in the country where, in such respects as wealth, numbers, and strength or organization it is so powerful." 19 For this disparity, Ellis blamed Catholic absorption of American materialism and the Church's failure to realize its immigrant days were over, and that now was the time for its educational institutions to move beyond apologetics to creative thought and expression. His booklet provoked a vigorous debate concerning the merits of Catholic schooling, especially on its highest levels. Much of the dialogue concentrated on the authoritarian, rote memory methods of class room instruction. And since the Irish were the most numerous lay and religious administrators and teachers in Catholic education, most of the blame landed on them.20
Not everything was bleak on the Irish-American cultural landscape. In a comprehensive and perceptive The Irish Voice in America: 250 Years of Irish American Fiction (2000), Charles Fanning discusses a number of 1940s Irish-American novels, featuring family life, relations with outsiders and, of course, religion. Three of the very best were Mary Deasy's The Hour of Spring (1948), Mary Doyle Curran's The Parish on the Hill (1948), and Edward McSorley's Our Own Kind (1946). 21 Both Deasy, writing about Cincinnati, Ohio, and Curran about Holyoake, Massachusetts, pay considerable attention to generational differences in reactions to Ireland and life in the United States, the mobility between shanty and lace curtain classes, and conflicts between the two. McSorley's work deserves consideration as one of the richest portraits of early 20th-century Irish America. His elegantly crafted and perceptive glimpse of working-class life in Providence, Rhode Island, is a tribute to Irish endurance in time of stress and misfortune, an understanding of their love of Ireland that lives as much in myth as in accurate memory, and their adjustments and loyalty to the United States. Of course, Curran, Deasy, and McSorley paid attention to the importance of Catholicism and its parish religious and social activities as cultural cohesion for the Irish-American community. Not noted for expressing the Irish-Catholic portion of her ethnicity, Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957) pays tribute to classroom nuns, crediting them with providing a sense of "history and mystery," inspiring her fiction and criticism.
Other Irish-American writers were not as kindly disposed as Curran, McSorley, and Deasy to the Catholic-cultural base of their identity. In 1947, Harry Sylvester's Moon Gaffney made a considerable splash in Irish-American circles. Polemically the novel indicts Brooklyn's Irish middle-class of anti-Semitism and racial bigotry, which a number of their priests share and promote. In addition to a shortage of charity, their Catholicism was anti-intellectual and perversely puritanical. Deservedly, J.F. Powers is rated one of America's great masters of the short story and a talented novelist. In both forms, priests are his principal subjects. In two collections, The Prince of Darkness (1947) and The Presence of Grace (1956), Powers in a satirical, lightly humorous vein criticizes clerics who confine their intellectual pursuits to the Reader's Digest, and concentrate their attention on rectory comforts, quality automobiles, and golf at the country club to the neglect of pastoral care. Quite a few liberal readers, impatient and frustrated with the Catholic Church, thought Powers was on their side. But he loved his religion and its liturgy. He just wished that more of the clergy lived up to their vocational obligations.22
Thomas J. Fleming, a successful novelist of America's wars from the Revolution through Vietnam, also wrote about the Jersey City Irish, covering their politics and Catholic life styles. 23 His political novels, less romanticized and more nuanced than O'Connor's The Last Hurrah, feature father and son, Ben and Jake O'Connor. As a young man Ben chose politics because, except for the priesthood and the labor movement, it was the only opening for Irish Catholics seeking power and influence. Although a lieutenant in the corrupt Blair machine, Ben as leader of the 13th Ward, like Frank Skeffington, responds to constituent needs. Jake, a law school product of the G. I. Bill, evolves into a more principled politician than his father. But his liberalism, in true Irish-American fashion, is more pragmatic than theoretical.
Fleming concedes that Catholicism once consoled and guarded its flock from nativism, but now that the United States has opened inclusive doors of opportunity, it has become a liability. Catholicism's social and educational separateness and preservation of medieval perspectives blocked full participation in America's rich experience. In his opinion, the Church's unflinching position on contraception chilled marriages and reduced women to baby factories. Like Sylvester, Fleming introduces readers to a bevy of sexually neurotic priests whose influence over the laity has done considerable psychological harm.
John Gregory Dunne's True Confession (1970), set in post-World War II Los Angeles, features the Spellacy brothers, sons of a deceased ditch digger and an Alzheimer's afflicted mother. Detective-Lieutenant Tom had been a bag-man for Jack Amsterdam, former vice-lord, now owner of a construction company and a pillar of the Church. Monsignor Desmond is archdiocesan chancellor, soon to be a member of the hierarchy. In many ways a good priest, but ambitious for power, he compromises his principles while pleasing his cardinal by contracting Amsterdam, who uses shoddy materials to cheaply build churches and schools for a rapidly expanding post-war Catholic population. Furious that the Church honors such a hypocritical scoundrel, Tom arrests Amsterdam for a notorious murder of a young prostitute, a crime he didn't commit. Publicized connections with Amsterdam scuttles Desmond's career. Instead of becoming a bishop, he ends up as pastor of an impoverished Hispanic parish in the dessert. Although Tom apologizes to Desmond for short-circuiting his march to the episcopacy, his brother brushes off the expression of regret with a thank you for saving his soul. This perceptive, if critical, view of urban middle-class Irish life and values and the fallibility of its police, politicians, and priests became a 1980 movie, which Dunne and his wife, Joan Didion, scripted.
Playwrights as well as novelists and short story writers exposed Irish-American character flaws. Written in 1940 and first staged sixteen years later, Eugene O'Neill's A Long Day's Journey into Night, probably America's most brilliant play, depicts a dysfunctional family, the Tyrones. They address each other more frequently in drink-triggered anger than in love. As in Eugene O'Neill's work and James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan and Danny O'Neill novels of the 1930s, coldness and an inability to communicate are also present in Frank D. Gilroy's The Subject Was Roses, staged in 1965, filmed in 1968. Discharged World War II soldier, Timmy Cleary, returns to the apartment of his parents, Nettie and John. Their constant bickering spoils plans for a joyous homecoming. Nettie had married a young, seemingly happy-go-lucky Irishman, but Jack's bitter Great Depression memories and an ethnic incapacity to express emotions and feelings and her sexual frigidity have erected walls of silence, resulting in a tense family atmosphere.24
As sensitive searchers of truth, rather than cheerleaders, a number of talented Irish-American authors, like so many other creators of ethnic literature, tend to emphasize interesting negatives rather than often boring positives. However, in viewing the present or looking back, many failed to notice changes, sometimes subtle, indicating that post-World War II Irish America was in motion rather than static. Slowly but definitely, it was becoming culturally more American. Veterans had served and/or fought and made friends with non-Irish, non-Catholic comrades, making it easier for them in multi-ethnic and multi-religious post-war environments and situations to relate to those not of their own kind. Unlike old city neighborhoods, in suburbs, where many now lived, parishes no longer were centers of social as well as religious life, replaced by a variety of organizations and country clubs. Economic, social, and residential mobility altered political commitments, lessening traditional loyalties to the Democratic Party. Defending what they considered middle-class economic interests, and rejecting attitudes that some liberals expressed concerning morality and civil liberties, increasing numbers marked Republican ballots, giving a considerable number of votes to Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and majority support in 1956.
While the Irish remained active in Democratic urban politics, other Catholic ethnics and Jews were challenging and sometimes replacing Irish political dominance in a number of cities. Although their metropolitan power bases were eroding, Irish Catholics in the 1940s and 50s played even more significant roles in Washington as members of the House, Senate, and Supreme Court than they did in the 1930s. During his first administration (1952-56), Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed two Irish Catholics, Martin Durkin and James Mitchell, secretaries of labor. In 1956 he named William J. Brennan Jr., the son of Roscommon Irish immigrants, to the Supreme Court. Brennan was to have more impact on the liberalization of public policy than many presidents or members of Congress.
Economic, social, and residential changes also affected religion. Most Irish-Americans remained staunchly practicing Catholics, furnishing scores of priests and nuns to the Church and contributing much of their earnings to its religious, educational, and charitable causes and institutions. But the increasingly well-educated laity was more questioning when it came to doctrine and clerical authority. Determined to maintain their improved situation, which meant educating their children in expensive colleges and universities, necessitating family planning, quite a few ignored the Church's condemnation of artificial birth control and insisted that Rome remove the ban on contraceptives. Apparent progressive attitudes expressed by churchmen during Vatican II deliberations (1962-65) gave rise to expectations that hopes would become reality. In many cases they turned out to be illusions.
Often disappointed with their Church, American Catholics had reason to be pleased with their continued progress in climbing the ladders of acceptability and respectability. At the same time that Monsignor Ellis was lamenting the sad state of Catholic intellectualism, educational products of the G.I. Bill were beginning to establish themselves not only in the legal and medical professions and business, but also as university professors, research scientists, and valuable contributors to the visual, literary, theatre, and cinema arts. However, pockets of "no-popery" survived, including the supposedly liberal groves of academia. New Ph.D.s, especially in history and some of the social sciences, discovered that "no Catholics need apply" governed hiring practices at many state supported and private colleges and universities.
In 1956, Massachusetts' Senator John F. Kennedy made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination. Four years later, overcoming a considerable amount of anti-Catholicism and defeating Eisenhower's vice president, Richard Nixon, he won the highest office in the land. During his administration, he wasn't the only Irish Catholic to command national power and respect: John McCormack, Massachusetts, served as Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mike Mansfield, Montana, was Senate Majority Leader, John Bailey was chair of the Democratic National Committee, and George Meany presided over the unified American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations.
While 1950s'newspaper articles often reported Irish Americans rallying around racist causes, a larger number were applying Catholic social justice principles to end anti-black and other minority discriminations and alleviate burdens of poverty. Their efforts anticipated 1960s marches for peace and civil rights, which involved priests, nuns, and students from Catholic colleges and universities. When Irish-American bishops attended Vatican II, they had little influence on theological discussions, but their relative liberalism did persuade the Church to adopt friendlier attitudes toward democratic governments, the separation of Church and State, and religious pluralism.
With Kennedy's 1960 election, and increasing national and international popularity, Irish Americans could relax, table their anxieties, and breath easy. It was clear they had finally arrived. Doors of American opportunity opened wide to their ambitions and talents. But their advance wasn't as sudden and spectacular as it seemed. It was a steady if slow march from their 19th century days as unwanted, impoverished, mostly ignorant immigrants. Events, especially between 1930 and 1960, transfigured Irish America, speeding its journey from mental and psychological ghettos into the American cultural mainstream. However, many things, positive and negative, were lost on the way.
Since their American arrival, acceptability and respectability have been Irish Catholic objectives. But once achieved, they have posed a threat to their unique identity. According to census data, between 1990 and 2000, 238,000 less people defined themselves as Irish in New England, 35,000 in Massachusetts, and 12,000 in Boston. 25Of course there are a number of reasons to explain these declining numbers, but it is obvious that a number of Americans have decided to abandon ancestral ties and stress their love of the Red, White, and Blue. Perhaps this trend will result in a more harmonious nation, but diversity in the United States has stimulated intellectual energy reflected in art, literature, music, and scholarship.
For a considerable number of Irish Americans, economic, social, and residential mobility has resulted in a cultural journey from "Someplace to Noplace." 26 Others claim an Irishness that is green ties and too much to drink on St. Patrick's Day and attendance at a U2 rock concert is superficial identity. In examining his own Irishness, John Gregory Dunne described "four different stages of the Irish-American experience-immigrant, outcast, assimilated, deracinated." 27 In Edward Hannibal's Chocolate Days, Popsicle Weeks, John Fitzpatrick from Sommerville, Massachusetts, represents fading Irish identity. By working in a plant making ice-cream, hence the novel's title, Fitzie finances his Boston College Jesuit education. Following graduation, he marries a nurse, his longtime girlfriend, Janice. He then fulfills his ROTC obligation as an officer in post-World War II Germany. Instead of becoming a teacher, lawyer, or insurance agent, usual occupations for the college educated Irish, after his discharge Fitzie enters the competitive world of New York advertising. He is a big success and the Fitzpatricks, husband, wife, and children, end up in Merrimac, a posh suburb. Its hedonistic life style almost destroys the Fitzie-Janice marriage. His excessive drinking, sexual guilt, and hostility to Anglo-Protestants indicates a negative and insubstantial Irishness, but Fitzie cuts ties to his Sommerville background, and is highly critical of post-Vatican II Catholicism. Increasingly, Fitzpatrick's commitments are to the suburban life style rather than to his religious or ethnic roots.28
With the disappearance of ethnic parish-centered urban neighborhoods, decline in numbers and significance of parochial schools, dimming prestige of the Catholic Church and its clergy, and socializing between Irish Catholics and people of other ethnicities and religions in suburbia and college and university classrooms, dormitories, and social situations, often leading to marriages, old Irish urban lifestyles are no longer sustainable. However, not all is doom and gloom on the Irish ethnic front. On the cultural level, what remains of Irish-American identity seems more promising than the sentimental romanticism of the past. It is based less on Catholicism and more on history, literature, music, social studies, and theatre. Irish and other Americans have made significant contributions to the creation and study of these subjects. Classrooms in many colleges and universities are filled with students, not all Irish, eager to learn the realities of Ireland and Irish America. As indicated in the opening quote, Thomas Flanagan, scholar and novelist, attributed the character and quality of his work to the blend and multiple challenges of being both Irish and American. Charles Fanning agrees with Flanagan, insisting that traces of the Irish rural and early Irish-American urban experiences, combined with accommodations to mainstream America, have resulted in a creative "Liberating Doubleness" that distinguishes recent Irish-American fiction.
Since the 1960s, many, if not all, Irish Americans who have drifted into the American mainstream have lost the perversely comfortable yet psychologically isolating mental ghetto, exchanging it for the refreshing and intellectually stimulating diversity of the United States. As a result they have continued and increased valuable and unique contributions to their country's political, social, religious, and cultural landscapes.
Lawrence J. McCaffrey is Professor of History (emeritus) at Loyola University of Chicago. He is the author of a number of books and essays on Ireland and Irish America, including Ireland from Colony to Nation State (1979), The Irish Question: Two Centuries of Conflict (1995), Textures of Irish America (1992), and The Irish Catholic Diaspora in America (1997). McCaffrey co-cofounded The American Conference for Irish Studies in 1960. In 1982, St. Ambrose University awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Humanities. In 1987 he received an Honorary Doctor of Literature from the National University of Ireland.
Jill Brady Hampton read portions of this essay at the University of Notre Dame during the annual meeting of the American Conference for Irish Studies, April 14, 2005
1 Thomas Flanagan "One American Irish Identity," There You Are: Writings on Irish & American Literature and History,Ed. Christopher Cahill (New York: New York Review of Books, 2004), p. 484.
2 Christopher M. Finan, Alfred E. Smith, (New York: Hill and Wang, 202), pp. 187-230. Robert Slayton's Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith (New York: Free Press, 2001) is another fine biography of the first Catholic candidate for president.
3 In American Catholics and the Roosevelt Presidency (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1968), pp.50, 55, 98-99, 230, 234, 237, George Q. Flynn details the FDR administration's awards to Catholics for Party loyalty.
4 For a brief summary of Irish America's role in the American labor movement see Lawrence J. McCaffrey, Textures of Irish America (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1992), pp.33-34, 39.
5 In 1947, speaking to the 1947 convention, Boston's Archbishop Richard Cushing proudly remarked that every American Catholic bishop and archbishop came from working - class families . Morris op.cit, p. 267.
6 Alan Brinkley, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin and the Great Depression (New York, 1982), pp. 128-133; and Charles Tull, Father Coughlin and the New Deal (Syracuse, 1965), pp. 202-204 discuss negative Catholic reactions to Coughlin.
7 Literary comments in this essay owe a great deal to Charles Fanning's The Irish Voice in America: 250 Years of Irish-American Fiction (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2000); and Thomas Flanagan, There You Are: Writings on Irish & American Literature and History, ed. Christopher Cahill. Flanagan's work includes essays on O'Neill, Fitzgerald, and O'Hara.
8 Jeremy Schaap, Cinderella Man: James J. Braddock, Max Baer, and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005). The Ron Howard directed 2005 movie, Cinderella Man, has triggered considerable interest in the Braddock story.
9 Joseph M. Curran's Hibernian Green on the Silver Screen: The Irish and American Movies (Westport CN: Greenwood Press, 1989) is an excellent summary of the Irish impact on American films. Curran discusses Cagney pages 39-48. Another book that presents an interesting look at the role movies played in improving the Irish image is Charles R. Morris's American Catholic; The Saints and Sinners Who Built America's Most Powerful Church (New York: Random House, 1997), pp. 196-200,.
10 Flanagan interpreted John Ford in There You Are, pp. 3-40. Curran discusses Ford pages 73-85.
11 Curran, p.87.
12 Lawrence J. McCaffrey, "Going My Way and Irish American Catholicism: Myth and Reality, New Hibernian Review 4:3 (Autumn 2000), pp.119-127.
13 In "Wartime Revisions of Irish American Catholicism: Stars, Stripes, and Shamrocks," U.S. Catholic Historian (22:3 ,Summer, 2004), pp. 75-96, Mathew J. O'Brien effectively and interestingly argues how World War II enhanced Irish-American Catholic progress. He also mentions how Ireland's neutrality offended many Irish Americans. However, O'Brien's essay doesn't take into consideration the psychological barriers that continued to limit the community.
14Curran, pp. 105-106.
For a recent and comprehensive examination of the economic and social problems in 1930, 40s, and 50s Ireland see Diarmaid Ferriter, The Transformation of Ireland Woodstock & New York: The Overlook Press, 2005), pp. 338-535.
15 A most perceptive examination of an Irish neighborhood centered around a parish that became African American, despite the pastor's effort at integration is Eileen McMahon's What Parish Are You From: A Chicago Irish Community and Race Relations (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1995). The parish was St. Sabina's on Chicago' South Side. It remains active and flourishing.
16 Curran, pp. 48-52, 111-112; Morris, pp. 200-209. The official name of the Hays office was Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. Will Hays, its head, was a Catholic Republican politician and once a member of the Harding administration.
17 John T. McGreevy, Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Experience with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North (Chicago, IL, University of Chicago Press, 1996).
18 John Tracy Ellis, American Catholics and the Intellectual Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), pp. 15-16, from D. W. Brogan, U.S.A.: An Outline of the Country, Its People and Institutions (London 1941), p. 65.
19 Ellis' position received strong support from Thomas O'Dea's American Catholic Dilemma: A Sociologist Challenges the Attitude of His Fellow Catholics toward the Intellectual in Today's Society (New York: Sheed & Ward Inc., 1958). O'Dea refers more to the Irish influence than does Ellis.
20 Fanning, pp.298-310 discusses Deasy, Curran, McSorley and other writers he describes as "Regional Realists."
21 In a 1967 conversation in Bray, County Wicklow, Ireland, Powers, who detested the liturgical changes stemming from Vatican II, was shocked when someone suggested that his short stories, especially Prince of Darkness, were partly responsible for the results of Vatican II.
22 Fleming's political novels are All Good Men, 1961; King of the Hill, 1965; and Rulers of the City, 1977. His Catholic culture novels include The God of Love, 1965; Romans, Countrymen, and Lovers, 1969; The Sandbox Tree, 1970; The Good Shepherd, 1974); and Promises to Keep, 1978.
23 In addition to Charles Fanning's The Irish Voice in America: 250 Years of Irish American Fiction for discussions of Irish-American literature see Daniel J. Casey & Robert E. Rhodes, eds. Irish-American Fiction: Essays in Criticism (New York, NY, 1979; and Lawrence J. McCaffrey, "Fictional Images of Irish America," The Writer as Witness, ed. Tom Dunne, (Cork: Cork University Press, 1987).
24 Boston Globe, Feb. 28, 2004.
25 This pessimistic view is presented in Lawrence J. McCaffrey, The Irish Diaspora in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976), pp. 152-178.
26 John Gregory Dunne, Harp New York: Simon and Shuster, 1989), p. 184.
27 Edward Hannibal, Chocolate Days and Popsicle Weeks (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1970).
28 Fanning, op. cit, pp. 358-391.