The Irish Road to the White House
The story of how the Irish rose to the top of American politics.
In his speech to the Dail in 1963, Kennedy said, “…no country contributed more to building my own than your sons and daughters. They came to our shores in a mixture of hope and agony, and I would not underrate the difficulties of their course once they arrived in the United States. They left behind hearts, fields, and a nation yearning to be free. It is no wonder that James Joyce described the Atlantic as a bowl of bitter tears. And an earlier poet wrote, ‘They are going, going, going, and we cannot bid them stay.’”
In the long perspective of history, the Irish recovery was swift. But it was a trying, difficult century for those who labored against poverty and prejudice in America, and against the underlying “cosmic insecurity” that the Famine instilled. On their journey to the White House, Irish Americans had to build and pave a road that no minority group had ever before traveled.
Progress was often uncertain; the slights and suspicions hurled against them, hurtful. There were no precedents to follow. They had to muster the resources of political will and organizational skill to break down barriers of class and religion, to manage the trick of staying Irish while becoming American and to forge coalitions capable of asserting the rights of working-class immigrants against economic and social elites.
The political machines built – or, in many cases, adapted – by Irish leaders like Murphy in New York or O’Connell in Albany or the Pendergasts in Kansas City (all of them the descendants of Famine immigrants) were anti-millennial. Politics, Tom Pendergast was fond of saying, is concerned with “things as they are.” The machines cared nothing about ultimate goals or societal transformations. Their concerns were immediate and ruthlessly quotidian. Their tactics were practical (if not always legal) and their thinking was never ideological. They had none of the Marxist philosophy that shaped many German and Jewish immigrants, and dreams of revolution never reached the drawing board.
In their origins, the machines were defensive organizations, part of an immigrant community’s attempt to regroup and reorganize itself in the wake of a catastrophe that caused the greatest concentration of civilian suffering and death in Western Europe between the Thirty Years’ War and World War II. They were an answer to the powerlessness and humiliation experienced by people whose daily existence had long depended on institutions and rulers over whom they had exerted no control.
The machines shouldn’t be romanticized. There’s no doubt they were riddled with corruption (and the corruption often grew worse at moments when the entire country was off on one of its financial benders or when a strange interlude like Prohibition made illegality easy and lucrative). There’s also no doubt that, as well as serving up some extraordinary political figures like Charles Murphy and Al Smith, the machines added a degree of practicality and democratic realism to American politics. In the long run they served their primary purpose, giving the Irish and other immigrants space to reorganize apart from the control of Anglo-Saxon ruling classes and assisting their passage into America. The machines eventually went away not because they were corrupt or intrinsically evil but because they’d served their purpose and weren’t needed anymore.
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