The Irish Americans: A history

Posted on 04/04/2012 in misc

Rarely is a book title as perfectly descriptive as this one. The book is exactly as advertised. Written by retired Notre Dame Professor Jay Dolan, it does read like a textbook. It's not a book that you will sit down and devour in big chunks. It is a book that you will finish though, and I feel much smarter about my ethnic background for having read it.

A few things that struck me as I read the book. Not of all this was news to me.

The first wave of Irish immigrants were not Catholic. They were Presbyterian and Anglican, and they settled in the NE in the years prior to the Revolutionary War. They immediately faced extreme discrimination from the Puritans, who of course came to American in search of religious freedom for themselves, but not for anybody else.

After 100+ years of extreme discrimination, when the Irish Americans finally "made it" in America, they remembered the lessons of bigotry and were on the front lines of Emancipation. Ha! Not even close. The Irish were gung-ho about discriminatory practices against any group that might compete with them for jobs. This was primarily the Chinese and African-Americans early on, and later the Italians.

It's not really possible to discuss the history of the Irish in American without also discussing the history of the Catholic Church. I has my history backwards on this one. I always thought Irish culture and the Catholic Church was sort of a bottom up process, but it was the opposite. Irish Priests quickly gained control in the US, and remade the Catholic church as they saw fit, which was actually quite different than how it worked in Ireland. One example, regular weekly attendance at Mass was not that big of a deal in 18th Century Ireland. Skipping a Sunday in the US put you on the highway to Hell.

White flight to suburbia was very damaging to Irish Catholic culture. Prior to the 40s, the Irish tended to live in enclaves where everything, and I do mean everything, revolved around the local church. The neighborhoods were insular and an Irish family could get everything they needed without venturing more than a few blocks from home. They never got that back after the move to the suburbs. (I can remember my Grandmother pinpointing the downfall of the neighborhood to the day Italians starting moving in).

The fighting in Ireland and the eventual victory with the establishment of home rule was primarily financed by Irish-Americans. As recently as the early 1990s the Irish Pub I hung out at in Atlanta (The County Cork) occasionally passed the hat when somebody was traveling back to Northern Ireland.

The fallout of pious Catholicism was remarkably quick. In about a 20 year time period from the early 40s to early 60s, regular weekly attendance at Mass dropped from 80% to 40%. That's remarkably quick for such a dramatic shift in cultural practices. Catholic kids moved from Catholic to public schools in mass over the same time period.

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