By Daniel Hubbard | March 14, 2012
In American genealogy, unless you only have Native American blood, you will eventually run up against an immigrant. At least you probably hope to reach back in time however far as is needed. We all have roots elsewhere. Culturally, we even have roots in places where our ancestors never lived.
Many of those physical roots were pulled up toward the end of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth when when immigrants poured in from all over Europe. As they moved into the cities of the North—New York, Chicago, Boston and others, they encountered a group that was a generation ahead of them—the Irish. Irish immigrants were chronologically ahead of the others and ahead in other ways as well because they already spoke English. This put the Irish in a unique position. The new immigrant’s image of America did not come from people whose ancestors had arrived a century or more before. Their image of America and how to become American came from the Irish who inhabited the neighborhoods where the new arrivals settled. Many didn’t so much arrive in North America as arrive in Irish America
I’ve been reading The Irish Way. It is not just a book about the Irish in America, though it is certainly that. It is a book about the interplay between the Irish immigrants and the Americans who were already here and, more importantly, the immigrants who followed after. Like all of my favorite historical works, it is a book not of names and dates but of contradictions, interconnections and influences. It gives a glimpse into the world in which our ancestors may have found themselves and insight into their lives.
I hesitate to even use the term “The Irish.” On the one hand, The Irish Way discusses the roll that ethnic cohesion played but it also makes clear that the complexities of life, especially immigrant life, meant that no group can be considered as a monolith, even when at the time they were often treated that way. One of the currents that runs through the the book and, of course, that ran through Irish life in America, is the experience of being despised. Sometimes this led the Irish to a greater acceptance of their fellow immigrants than one might expect in profoundly intolerant times. It also led them to attempt to prove themselves “better” by turning on blacks and later immigrants. Sadly, one way to blend in with existing American society was to take on the forms of bigotry that Irish immigrants discovered when they arrived here.
By reaching America ahead of the other big waves of immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Irish molded the world in which other immigrants had to live. If you were a Catholic, there were Catholic churches to attend—run by Irish priests and bishops. Your priest was likely to be Irish long after the parish became predominantly Italian, Bohemian or Polish. There were parochial schools to attend as well, where Italian and Polish students learned what it meant to be American from Irish nuns.
If you transgressed and entered into Irish turf, there were gangs who let you know the error of your ways. Irish “athletic clubs” evolved into street gangs, which in turn evolved into organized crime. Irish gangs mapped out that path to such an extent that Al Capone’s Sicilian-born body guard, Vincenzo Antonio Gibaldi, went by the name “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn. He was not the only one who chose to enhance his tough image by adopting an Irish name.
The Irish made their way into the world of vaudeville and the theater. On occasion there might be a relatively insightful look at the relations between the different ethnic groups that mingled in the slums. Often the stage was far less subtle. When some Irish began to tire of the the Irish drunks and buffoons that inhabited the stage, they began to demand changes. A particularly offensive piece about dimwitted Irish maids produced heckling, thrown vegetables and violent protests resulting in multiple arrests in 1907. That piece disappeared from the New York stage. Yet Irish performers also donned blackface even as Irish audiences’ protests presaged a time when performing in blackface would no longer be imaginable.
The immigrant Irish brought with them the sense of struggle that being colonized in Ireland gave them. When they found themselves at the bottom of the labor market, they organized and struggled. When newer immigrants were used as strikebreakers it fueled both Irish hatred for them and Irish desire to Americanize them and incorporate them into the labor movement.
The Family Historian’s Bottom Line
From a family historians perspective, The Irish Way gives a much richer view of immigrant life in America than the one learned in school. I’m always looking for information about history and culture that can give clues about the “Why?” questions that so often come up when researching people’s lives. I try to see the world from something like the perspective of the person I’m researching. Here I found help in seeing the world not just from the point of view of an Irish immigrant but from the point of view of any immigrant that arrived in a place that the Irish already inhabited. For anyone who wishes to dig even deeper, I was pleased to find copious endnotes pointing to and adding details about the sources used.
I look for “A-ha” moments when reading history. Even in books that I find very informative and useful, I don’t always find them. This book’s basic premise was, at least for me, an “A-ha” moment in an of itself.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day.
The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City by James R. Barrett
Hardcover: 400 pages
Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The (March 1, 2012)