From Eire to America

The Irish Americans 
By Jay P. Dolan 
(Bloomsbury, 352 pages, $30)

By Peter Duffy

Irish people of Protestant affiliation first began settling in British America in significant numbers in the 1720s. By 1790 they represented a sixth of the population of the young United States. Such pioneers are impossible to extricate from the early history of the republic: Who would ever regard Daniel Boone, Lewis and Clark, and Andrew Jackson as hyphenated Americans? As Sen. James Webb of Virginia notes in “Born Fighting” (2004), his stand-tall history of the so-called Scots-Irish, this American subgroup would earn other names over the years: “Rednecks. Trailer-park trash. Racists. Cannon fodder. My people.”

The popular understanding of the history of the Irish in America begins, however, with another group from Éire that started entering the country in huge waves in the early decades of the 19th century. From 1820 to 1920, some six million Irish men, women and children, about 90% of them Catholic, passed through the Golden Door, fleeing an Ireland plagued by food shortages and endemic social inequality.

No matter how many times it is told, the story of these immigrants is awe-inspiring. Caricatured as uncouth, pope-loving hooligans — the word may have derived from the Gaelic word for a wild party, houlie — Irish Catholics quickly elbowed themselves to the forefront of American life. Within a few decades they had transformed trade unions, the Democratic Party and the American Catholic Church. By 1900, Irish Catholics had spent decades ruling city and state governments, dioceses and archdioceses, and union halls and factory floors. But it was only with the election of John F. Kennedy to the presidency in 1960 — the greatest triumph of Irish-American history, followed hard by its greatest tragedy — that Irish Catholics finally washed away any sense that they were not fully American.

In his history of the Irish presence in America, “The Irish Americans,” Jay P. Dolan tells this familiar story with the care and consideration befitting someone holding the title of professor emeritus of history at the University of Notre Dame — as Irish-American an institution as New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Mr. Dolan is nothing like the Irish storyteller (seanchaí) of old whose imagination, as Yeats wrote, is always “running off to Tír na nÓg,” the earthly paradise of Celtic mythology. He is judicious and accurate, unemotional and lucid. He is not much interested in the great Irish tradition of starting an argument. Indeed, you know that the history of the Irish in America has entered a twilight phase — more Irish are now returning to Ireland than are coming to the U.S. — when a major work on the subject strives to avoid giving offense.

But still, is no one of Irish extraction offended by Boston’s James Michael Curley (1874-1958), the rascal king who famously remained mayor while also serving time in a federal penitentiary? In his paragraph introducing the great rogue, Mr. Dolan writes that Curley — who in addition to his four terms as mayor served as governor of Massachusetts and as a member of Congress — employed “henchmen” to practice “dirty tricks” during campaigns. Usually when words like these are used in connection with a political figure, an author will conclude with at least a note of condemnation. Instead, Mr. Dolan blandly quotes Curley’s explanation: “Do others, or they will do you.” Somewhere Mayor Curley can’t believe his luck.

With few histories as violence-scarred as that of Ireland, it behooves writers of Irish history to pay special attention to the social costs of violent action. In his description of the Molly Maguires, a violent gang of Irish miners in Pennsylvania that targeted company officials during the 1860s and 1870s, Mr. Dolan rightly notes the pitiful conditions in the mines and the blatantly unfair trials that led to the hangings of several gang members. But he is unwilling to weigh the morality of the Mollies’ own actions, merely noting that they “turned to violence as the only remedy to gain justice in the mines.” In a world where the effects of terrorism are felt every day, this simply will not do.

Although hesitant to judge in certain instances, Mr. Dolan is compellingly forthright in others. He records the sorry history of Irish Catholic relations with other minority groups, particularly the Chinese and African-Americans. He describes how a populist political leader from San Francisco, the Cork-born Denis Kearney, led the charge for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which effectively banned Chinese immigration for decades. He describes Irish Catholic support for slavery, quoting one of the great heroes of Irish nationalism, John Mitchel, as calling “negro slavery the best state of existence for the negro, and the best for his master.” And he laments the bitter tensions that arose when blacks began to integrate traditionally Irish neighborhoods in the 1950s and ’60s.

This is a story, however, about success, and it would be foolhardy to attempt to diminish it. In the 1990 census, 44 million Americans claimed Irish ancestry. Since “such a number is much more than what would be expected” given immigration and natural population increase, Mr. Dolan writes, it is obvious that citizens with just a trace of Irish blood are prepared to tell the world that they are “Irish.” As the poet Seamus Heaney has said: “It is the manifestation of sheer, bloody genius. Ireland is chic.”

Mr. Duffy is the author of “The Killing of Major Denis Mahon: A Mystery of Old Ireland” (HarperCollins), which will be published in paperback in November.