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!