Monthly Archives: March 2014

Irish America, Tammany Hall (and the beginning of the Irish Jewish New York Relationship)

I was very lucky to have been posted twice to the United States, to the Embassy Washington in the early 1990s and to the Consulate General New York at the close of the decade.  There I developed a love for Irish America, its history and its community today.   The story of the Irish in America is a truly epic one, really biblical in its scope, complexity and significance.

As a young diplomatic officer, I was privileged to be part of the Embassy’s involvement in the high point of the St Patrick’s Day celebration of Irish America, namely the Taoiseach’s presentation of shamrock to the President in the White House, followed by the President’s attendance at the Speaker of the House’s St. Patrick’s Day luncheon.  (The only other time of the year that the President goes to Congress is for the State of the Union Address.)  But it is the St Patrick’s Day parades, large and small, across all fifty States that reveal the true reach of the Irish in America.

If the Great Famine of 1845-1851 shaped Ireland today, those who fled it to the US profoundly altered the course of America politically, socially and culturally.  Tremendous work has been done to tell that story but I am not convinced it has been fully told yet.

That is partly to do with the sheer scale of the impact of the Irish in America.  It begins in earnest with the Protestant ‘Scots-Irish”, the unsettled settlers from Ireland, (and prior to that Scotland), who began to arrive in the American colonies the mid-1700s, restlessly moved westward, helped form the ideology of the American revolution and stirred the early agitation against British suzerainty.  The bifurcation between them and the masses of starving Catholic native Irish fleeing the Great Famine a century later disrupts the historical narrative of the Irish in America.

The full story also suffers, I suspect, partially from the fact that the Irish arriving en masse in the 19th century were a “disruptive” energy that challenged the Anglo-American establishment, an establishment that still retains much influence through its formative shaping of the American historical narrative of itself.

The situation has not been helped by the characterization of the Irish in America; consider how quickly certain cultural tropes spring to mind when mention is made of ‘Irish America’; the fighting Irish, the roguish gangster, the tough cop, the ambitious white-laced mother, the morose blue collar father, the alcoholic writer and the stern priest presiding if not ruling over his unruly flock. It is probably the fate of all newly arrived immigrant groups to quickly garner stereotypes that are hard to shake off and which occlude a proper assessment of their contribution and role in society.

Tammany Hall looms large in the formation of the notions about the Irish as purveyors of a unique style of political manipulation and graft.  It is great, therefore, to see its history subject to historical revision in Terry Golway’s Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Making of Modern American Politics.  Let the debate begin.

In the interests in full disclosure, I am happy to say that in my time in New York I came to know Terry and to enjoy his company, which is witty, erudite and passionate about Irish America.  His has written extensively on Irish America: Irish Rebel: John Devoy and America’s Fight for Ireland’s Freedom (St Martin’s Griffin, 1999); a history of the New York Fire Department in which the Irish contribution looms so large, So Other Might Live, A History of New York’s Bravest, the FDNY from 1700 to the Present (Basic Books, 2003); and For the Cause of Liberty, a Thousand Years of Ireland’s Heroes, (Simon and Schuster 2012).

In his latest work, Terry tells me that “the book really is the first attempt to look at Tammany as a profoundly Irish institution, with roots in the Emancipation movement and the elections of 1826 and 1828. I was in Dublin several years ago researching those elections in the papers of Thomas Wyse and Daniel O’Connell. But I also show how the trans-Atlantic Anglo-American community used Tammany as an argument against Irish home rule, and used Irish politics as an argument against Tammany. The overall point: The Irish could not rule themselves.”

His analysis of Tammany Hall is really an exploration of the Irish approach to politics which was grounded in the imperatives of the society that they had come from; colonial and oppressed, the native Irish operated beneath the radar of British rule and put a high emphasis on personal reciprocity as means of support and survival.  Concealment and gaming the rules of the British system were necessities for survival and therefore considered virtues.

If this was true of life in Ireland it was all the more so true for emigrants arriving in the alien environment of urban America; here they needed support to get started, particularly when faced with the hostility of Anglo-Protestant establishment and the ‘Know-Nothings’.

The idea of politics as a reciprocal arrangement between the voters and those whom they elect was the founding notion of Tammany Hall and the ‘machine’ politics that would do so much to influence and ultimately forge the Democratic Party.  It injected into public discourse the idea that Government was meant to be about the care of the citizen and not simply the regulation of the markets and the preservation of stability in the name of the elites.

I asked Terry about the Irish Jewish relationship in New York and he wrote “I have quite a lot on Tammany’s relationship with the city’s Jewish community, another forgotten part of the story. It really begins with the imminent election of the city’s first Irish-Catholic mayor, W.R. Grace, in 1880. When he was attacked because of his religion….Jews on the Lower East Side held a rally for Grace, during which a lawyer named Albert Cardozo, father of a future US Supreme Court justice, said that if Catholics were attacked like this, Jews would be next, so they should stand together. In the early 20th Century, Tammany’s Irish leaders developed close relations with the city’s Jewish population.”

I sincerely hope that someday Terry puts pen to paper on the Irish Jewish relationship in New York!

Happy St Patrick’s Day!



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Samuel Beckett and Avigdor Arikha: The Long Friendship of an Irish writer and a Jewish Painter

“A Different Side of Sam; Beckett, Arikha and a Parisian Adolescence.”

Annual Samuel Beckett Lecture by Alba Arikha

Tel Aviv University

29 May 2014

This is the eleventh successive year of the annual Samuel Beckett lecture at Tel Aviv University.  It is the brainchild and longstanding project of Prof. Linda Ben-Zvi.  I want to thank her and the University’s Theatre Department for creating this wonderful literary bridge between Ireland and Israel.

This year the lecture will be delivered by Alba Arikha, the daughter of one of Israel’s greatest artists and the godchild of the great man himself, Samuel Beckett.  Her life, and her story of her father’s forty years of friendship with Beckett in Paris, weave together many strands; from the Irish writer’s Jewish connections and sympathies, Avigdor Arikha’s own Holocaust and wartime experiences, to their lives in Paris over the decades and the grounds for their deep friendship.

The causal chemistry of friendship is a mystery, as ineluctable as it is abiding.  But the outsider can usually trace some of the elements that forge it.

Both Beckett and Arikha found themselves deeply immersed in the great cataclysm of the rise of Nazism and World War II. Beckett fleetingly witnessed Nazi triumph within Germany during his stay there between 1936 and 1937 before moving to France and fighting alongside the Resistance, the Maquis, during the war.  Arikha survived the death camps and serious injury in Israel’s War of Independence before moving permanently to Paris.  Both men were confronted with the abject abandonment of all morality and goodness that was both a cause and a consequence of the great global conflict and its greatest sin, the Shoah.

As men of the arts, they arrived at the same conclusion about their craft and its purpose; to look unflinchingly at life and report back without artifice.

For the writer Beckett this meant spare, even brutal prose to describe the existential absurdity of life without a god, without meaning.  For Arikha, it meant abandoning abstract art in favour of drawing from life directly and in one go.  He would use neither photographs nor memory but draw his subject – whether himself, models or the quotidian things of life like fruit, furniture, rooms, even stones – there and then in one sitting.

Indeed, Arkiha’s art has a startling immediacy, most notably in his self-portraits which are alert, even electrifying.  His many sketches of Beckett show the mastery of his craft.  Like all great art, they capture Beckett both physically – angular, slouching comfortably, smoking, peering – and psychologically: meditative, ever thoughtful, as if always on the verge of being about to say something.  You long to hover in that apartment in Paris as Arikha sketches his friend and to wait to hear their conversation.

While we can’t go back, we have an emissary from that time and that very place in Alba Arikha.  She, along with her sister Noga, grew up with her father and her mother, the poet Anne Atik, in a household that served as an intellectual and artistic hub, whose energies and emotions were coloured by the seismic events through which both her father and his close friend Beckett had lived.   It was also an arena for the struggle between a traumatised father and a young adolescent striving to create her own future and her own life, to escape what Beckett’s mentor, James Joyce, called the nightmare of history.

Her memoir, Major/Minor (Quartet, 2011), recounts her coming of age in the 1980s and her evolving view of the Irishman.  Her inclination was to dismiss him as part of that burden of history that loomed over her home until she discovered Beckett through his writings.  As she recalled of his style, “No surplus, all essentials; something to strive for, when I’m older and wiser.” She remembers him: “He had a very gentle way of talking, Beckett, very calm. He spoke slowly and there was definitely something very soothing about him, very shy about him. He never judged, really.” And he would encourage her as a writer.

In association with the Theatre Studies Department of Tel Aviv University, the Embassy is delighted to host Alba Arikha as the speaker for this year’s Samuel Beckett Lecture: “A Different Side of Sam; Beckett, Arikha and a Parisian Adolescence”.

It promises to be a wonderful evening, followed by refreshments and conversation.  Please come to join us on Thursday, May 29th at 6:00pm, Room 101 Kikone Building, Tel Aviv University.

Best wishes,


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