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Retracing the Irish diaspora to America


They call it “The Gathering” and it’s Ireland’s mightiest tourism push in history. Throughout 2013, the whole country hopes to bring home some of its own, drawing from the world’s estimated 70 million souls who boast Irish roots. Click on There, you’ll light on umpteen events, from grand festivals to small family reunions. I did a little surfing and see that there’s, yes, a surfing competition on the beach in Bundoran Town, plus the Rory Gallagher International Tribute Festival in Ballyshannon. There’s the Listowel Writers’ Week led by Colm Tóibín, plus a reunion of the McKeown family in County Down. And today, St. Patrick’s Day, for the first time ever, 8,000 members of the Irish diaspora have been invited to march in the Dublin People’s Parade. Céad míle fáilte (“a hundred thousand welcomes”) indeed.

In solidarity, I’ve done a little gathering myself. The Irish immigrated everywhere, but particularly to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and here, creating “one of the great success stories in American history,” writes Jay P. Dolan in “The Irish Americans: A History” (Bloomsbury, 2008).

And before we plunge in, I just want to clarify something touchy. Most of us equate Irish immigration with Irish Catholic immigration, and start the story with the Great Famine of the 1840s. But the economic problems — and beginnings of the exodus — emerged much earlier.


In 1740-41, “The Year of the Slaughter,” carried a higher death rate than the Famine because “rents were rising as crops were failing” alongside the fall of the dominant linen industry in Ulster. Most of the immigrants who took flight then were Scots-Irish, the Americanized name given to those Scottish and English (mostly Presbyterian) families who colonized northern Ireland in the 17th century. Their descendants include John McCain, Elvis Presley, and George S. Patton. Some 55 percent of Irish immigrants are Scots-Irish, 45 percent Irish Catholic.

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The later, Catholic immigration is the fabled one, though, and Dolan gives lively, in-depth considerations to the long, astonishing list of injustices and biases here: the nativist Know-Nothings and the Klan, who targeted Catholics, the infamous No Irish Need Apply ads, the Thomas Nast cartoons in which any Irishman looks like “a cross between a professional boxer and an orangutan.” Each immigrant group must find its niche, and the Irish were prodigious; if they were excluded from WASP enclaves of business and banking, they used their strength in numbers — and original social networks — to move into other power centers. Catholics had been excluded in Ireland, too, and they knew how to organize against the oppressor. It was in their blood.

Subsequent urban, non-Irish immigrant groups all encountered this powerful Irish matrix: ward heelers, cops, firemen, saloonkeepers, priests. The America met by most European immigrants was an Irish America, explains James R. Barrett in “The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City” (Penguin, 2012). There were tensions, of course. Italian radicals thought the Irish too conservative, due to the church’s influence. The Irish found the Italian festas distasteful and less properly Catholic. The Poles bundled the English speakers together, seeing the Irish and WASPS as just “two prongs of the same nativist fork.” But Jewish writer Harry Golden said that “it was the Irish and the Irish alone we Jews admired.”

As for the intense, painfully complicated relationship between African-Americans and Irish-Americans, you’d do well to read “How the Irish Became White” (Routledge, 1995). Author Noel Ignatiev means “white” as in “partake of the privileges of white skin,” something out of reach to early Irish arrivals. Indeed, in 19th-century pejorative slang an Irishman was “a white Negro,” and a black man was “smoked Irish.” Both, in other words, worked in the lowliest jobs. Irish-American ditch diggers and miners fled an Ireland that never participated in the African slave trade, but where conditions were close to slavery.

Meanwhile, such great 19th-century figures as Daniel O’Connell — a.k.a. The Emancipator, who fought for an independent Ireland — likewise urged the abolition of American slavery. Until, that is, American slave masters shut down such talk by sending funds overseas to support Irish freedom. Let’s not forget that Scarlett is an O‘Hara in “Gone With the Wind.”


As for the ladies, did you know that Ireland sent over her daughters much more than other countries sent theirs? Partly, it’s because large, poor Irish families could only provide a dowry for one or two daughters to marry in-country. Partly, it’s because parents trusted the girls to send home money more than the boys, who might spend it on the drink. So I learned in Margaret Lynch-Brennan’s enlightening “The Irish Bridget: Irish Immigrant Women in Domestic Service in America, 1840-1930” (Syracuse University, 2009). These maids were “a formidable, unheralded, and singular influence on Irish family life and culture,” writes veteran Boston journalist Maureen Dezell in “Irish America: Coming into Clover” (Anchor, 2002).

Dezell takes on more Irish culture and history — I love her spotlight on Hollywood’s James Cagney and Pat O’Brien view of Irish-Americans. And she has a wry, personal touch: She calls St. Patrick’s Day cutesiness “Eiresatz,” for instance. She’s also clear-eyed about Gaelic clannishness and lack of introspection. On that last point, she quotes the famous (perhaps apocryphal) line from Freud: “This is one race of people for whom psychotherapy is no use whatsoever.” But she also relishes Irish humor, unpretentiousness, and love of literature: Indeed, you must admire a country that features a shot of “Samuel Beckett: The Complete Dramatic Works” in the promo video for The Gathering.

And so to the fiction of affliction. I adore these two novels of the Irish-American immigrant experience. The first is a dark, hidden gem called “The Parish and the Hill” (The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1986, first published in 1948) by Mary Doyle Curran. It follows three generations in Holyoke, where shanty Irish live on Money Hole Hill and lace curtain Irish aspire to “The Hill.” It is a world where the working men “exchanged the English landlord for the Yankee mill owner” and at home the “teakettle stood always simmering.”

Then there’s the more recent “Brooklyn” (Scribner, 2009) by the remarkable Tóibín. After JFK died, Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart.” One must append this saying to this book; it is so very beautiful, so quietly devastating. “Brooklyn” gives us Eilis Lacey, a dutiful young woman from Enniscorthy, sent to America in the 1950s to help support her widowed mother and family. She lives in a rooming house, attends parish hall dances, works in a ladies’ shop, and studies bookkeeping at night. At times she blooms in her new world, at times she feels as if she “was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. . . . Nothing here was part of her. It was false, empty.”

We should remember that anyone with Irish-American roots descends from such moments of exile and loneliness. Not to mention infinite moments of black humor, crushing work, and great bravery. Most of these forebears never saw Ireland again; indeed, when you left, you were given a great, bittersweet going-away party called “an American wake,” because it was assumed that was the last you’d be seen at home. So that was one sort of gathering. There will be countless others in Ireland this year, much happier certainly, but still full of ghosts.

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at