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Considering Irish Americans without emerald-colored glasses

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Catholic News Service

“The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City” by James R. Barrett. Penguin Press (New York, 2012). 369 pp., $29.95.

If you are looking for a sentimental book about Irish immigrants in America — “The Irish Way” is not it.

James R. Barrett, a professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, takes an honest, well-researched look at the Irish influence on the new, urban American identity. It is part sociology and part history. A lot of the information is neither romantic nor endearing. However, facts are facts.

It is a big undertaking. Barrett looks at how the Irish influenced their world. He focuses on their role in several major American cities and their interaction and influence with other ethnic groups. He examines all of this with the background of the street, the parish, the workplace, on stage, through the machine and in the nation.

It is a daunting task. However, the 73 pages of footnotes show that the author has done his homework.

He writes in the introduction: “My object is not to advance a universal theory of Irish Americanization. The size and location of their communities varied. … A legacy of real and imagined slights shaped Irish Catholic consciousness and their defensive urban culture. They told themselves and others that their success was hard-won, that they must stick together and take care of their own. At its best, this mindset led Irish-Americans to support integration and reform for other oppressed migrant peoples; at its worst; it became an excuse for racial and ethnic intolerance such as the Irish themselves had faced.”

The book explains how the Irish, some of the first immigrants, certainly suffered. Barrett notes: “In the 1830s and 1840s, Protestant gangs invaded Irish Catholic neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Boston and New York, burning homes, convents and churches.” It also chronicles how the Irish, in turn, developed turf wars with other ethnic groups in cities such as Boston, New York and Chicago.

The church also shares the dual nature of this book. It shows a caring and compassionate group, but also a church that is ruled by Irish hierarchy and not necessarily open to welcoming others to predominantly Irish parishes.

Nuns receive high praise, for the most part, in the book. Barrett especially notes that “the curriculum in schools taught by Irish nuns resembled that of the public schools, though it also included Catholic religious instruction. Irish nuns were responsible not only for the upward mobility of many Irish women but also in the long run form Americanizing them.” (Here Barrett credits historian Sarah Deutsch).

In terms of politics, the Irish certainly created a strong political machine. For example, Barrett writes: “From 1908 to 1933, every Lower East Side Tammany candidate for the board of alderman, the state assembly and the state senate was Irish.” Of course there are the stories of patronage and power.

This book shows the darkness and light of the Irish immigrant experience and how this

influenced others. Barrett acknowledges this when he writes: “An abiding tension between inclusiveness and exclusiveness, between cosmopolitanism and parochialism, lies at the heart of the Irish-American relations with other groups. This story turns on the dynamic between those impulses.”

Barrett’s book shows a lot of the negative behavior of Irish immigrants. It notes that there were some positive outcomes but mostly it shows how one group can affect so many others.

The book pieces together a lot of information and facts. It is a sociological study that has a nice conversational tone. And it allows the reader to make his or her own conclusions about what the Irish did or did not do to develop the urban experience.

Weber is the social media editor for Catholic Communication for the Diocese of Springfield, Mass.

 

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