The Irish Catholic Diaspora in America
Lawrence J. McCaffrey
“The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan
Ever the outsider, I’m a poor example of an Irish Catholic American. No less an example of the breed than my mother regularly lamented my lack of respect for our heritage. She’d be appalled to know that after D. P. Moynihan the person I think has the best insight into the Irish problem is Dennis Leary. I have an excuse: my heritage is as much Czech as Irish. (As was mom’s.)
But this isn’t about me, it’s about Professor McCaffery‘s look at just what happened to my forebears as they made their way to and in a New World. For those who like the bona fides and biases disclosed, we’re O’Malley’s from County Donegal and the whole mishpoca was here before Ellis Island opened, the earliest in 1688 or so (but on the German side).
Before I get to what McCaffery has to say , though, let me get the truly critical stuff out of the way. As a work of scholarship, published by an academic press, I found this book lacking. It didn’t tell me much more than what I grew up hearing around dinner and picnic tables with my relatives. It’s a nice story but it’s not breaking any ground in the telling me something new department. Really, it’s an ‘Erin go Bragh‘ button of a history book.
But, if you didn’t grow up steeped in this tale it’s a fine introduction. The first two chapters alone do a better job of explaining why it’s so easy for we of Irish descent to be disgusted with anything English than anything else you’ll ever read. Special relationship my eye, they’re just a bunch of wankers.
But I digress.
The American side of the tale is sketched out in broad outline and what could almost be called scant detail. You get navvies coming to dig the Erie Canal. You get the Church (that’s the Roman Catholic Church; we who got the full parochial school treatment tend to assume a lot when it comes to religion) stepping up as the champion of its congregants. You get some of the more colorful political figures–Curley, Daley, Kennedy. You hear, a bit, about the development of Catholic universities and the flight to the suburbs. You even get some questionable interpretations of why the Boston Irish are the way they are.
That last bit really shows the limits of McCaffery’s writing. The Professor has a bias and it’s to tell a triumphalist tale. In part, there’s a lot of truth to it. In a day and age when the focus is on ever smaller splinter communities, it’s not always easy to remember that the Irish had the unwanted outsider experience first. It’s too easy to look at middle and upper-middle class Irish Americans, clinging to those perches in the 5th or 6th generation, and see white people who are privileged.
He is also intent on suggesting (I’d say stating but since he offers scant hard evidence he never gets quite emphatic enough to use that verb) that modern liberalism is an Irish invention that lies behind the New Deal and the modern Democratic party. So the support of the Vietnam War by the Church and the outrageous behavior of Cardinal Spellman and other Irish leaders is sped past.
There are two holes in this tale of ultimate success, one more glaring than the other. The crater is the Catholic Worker Movement and Dorothy Day. I could invent a lot of possible explanations for such a head-scratching omission but none would be supported by evidence. Given the underlying thesis that there’s some unusual tendency towards the communal good among the Irish, though, the absence is notable.
The other, and I admit this is my own particular interest, is in the commercial realm. How do you cover Irish busines success and leave out advertising? Especially when your name is McCaffery and McCaffery & McCall was one of the hot shops of the creative revolution set off by Doyle Dane Bernbach?
One more thing caught my eye in this 1997 revision of a book originally published in 1976. McCaffrey notes in his introduction a series of well-known polls and studies that show some 40 million Americans claim Irish descent. (p4) He marshals this fact to demonstrate that the Irish couldn’t possibly be racist be cause so many of the ‘Irish’ respondents also self-identified as Protestants. In so doing he misses the bigger point even as he clearly underscores why being Catholic is so critical to the definition of Irishness.
Michael Hout and Joshua R. Goldstein published a paper in the American Sociological Review (Vol. 59, No. 1, Feb., 1994) entitled “How 4.5 Million Immigrants Became 40 Million Irish Americans: Demographic and Subjective Aspects of the Ethnic Composition of White American” in 1994 (pay wall). The paper demonstrates that there’s no possible way the number of immigrants from Ireland could ever become the number of people claiming Irish descent. Even ethnic inter-marriage can’t account for it all.
What seems to be at work is an expressed preference in self-identification and that’s a social function attributable to Lord knows what in the broader culture. It’s pretty obvious to anyone with an Irish Catholic heritage, though, that the following personages are not in any way Irish: Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Yet each has claimed to be so.
To my mind there’s no better skewering of sentimental Paddy Irish bullshit than Denis Leary’s MTV’s Unplugged rendition off what’s labeled ‘Traditional Irish Folk song.” Enjoy.