Irish county associations struggle to survive
The question Nyhan asked herself was, as an intending immigrant to London or New York in the middle of last century, how would her experiences have been different?
“Irish county societies have been around in New York since the 1840s and they’ve had peaks and valleys. Closer to us in time, they enjoyed revivals during the 1940s though the early 1960s and that era probably was their heyday,” says Nyhan.
The point of them, and the reason for their success, was that they provided a familiar focus for the Irish arriving in New York. Predominantly, these were rural Irish people arriving in the teeming metropolis, and the county society’s made the place feel a little smaller, a little more like home.
There was an important benevolent aspect to their work too. When members got sick (in an era before any kind of social health care) they were provided for (death benefits in terms of burial expenses were taken care of too).
“For the majority of people it was a social and cultural space to come together and meet up and perhaps meet their future partners and in the process they made the big city a lot more manageable,” says Nyhan.
They were a homogenous group, those mid-century Irish immigrants, in terms of their backgrounds and attitudes. Most were rural, single, and had not completed second level education.
For the majority who joined, membership was casual and usually revolved around the annual dinner dance once a year, and marching with their county contingent on St. Patrick’s Day.
The GAA, the church, Communion breakfasts, dinner dances -- these were the signature events were thousands of single young Irish people met up often for the first time.
“You can only understand an immigrant if you understand where they came from and what their social context and outlook was,” says Nyhan. “County societies are very reflective of that history. That’s why I chose them.”
Every county society had its own chaplain, every meeting opened with a prayer, and Mass followed by breakfast was a common event.
“The societies reflected the outlook and traditions of the society that each generation came from. The presence of priests and religious orders were a natural part of that daily life,” Nyhan said.
But times change. The new Irish, the people who came in the 1980s, haven’t participated that much in county societies.
“County identity is not as important as it was 50 or 60 years ago. Back then a Limerick man could meet a Limerick woman. You’re talking about intermarriage when you go out of counties. The 1980’s crowd came from a different Ireland and were not as interested.”
It’s easy to be critical of county societies now that they’re often seen as parochial and old fashioned. But the world the older generation of Irish immigrants had come from was much smaller. It was a world where the boundaries of counties meant more than to the 1980s generation.
“There are different levels of education. The people who come in the 1980s have finished second level. They came on airplanes; they didn’t have an American wake. Why would you invest in these organizations of you don’t know if you’re here for the long haul?”
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