To mark the opening of the exhibit The Fifth Province: County Societies in Irish America at the Irish Consulate in New York, co-curator Dr. Miriam Nyhan discussed the changing role of New York’s Irish county societies with CAHIR O’DOHERTY.
You can no longer make the kind of journey to America that your grandparents’ generation did. That involved American wakes, creaking ships or first plane rides, and it included the possibility it might be the last time you ever set eyes on your loved ones at home.
The unspeakable personal cost of those separations is the subject of a thousand Irish ballads, as are the challenges of what happened once they arrived. Those once in a lifetime voyages to the U.S. also involved finding your feet in a new nation, at a time when most Irish people might not have ventured two miles beyond their own townland in their whole lives.
Nowadays, of course, those kinds of journeys are no longer possible – but the memory of them, like the echoes of the Famine and the Civil War, live in all of us, and are a part of the Irish DNA.
No one in America has lived or recorded the challenges and opportunities faced by generations of the Irish quite like the various Irish county associations. For decades, and in many cases centuries, they have worked to recreate a sense of home, community and belonging through social, cultural and sporting events that have transformed and occasionally even saved the lives of the generations who joined them.
It’s not sentimentality to say that they were a blessing. The facts reveal how much they helped, publically and privately, to extend protective and benevolent assistance to thousands of hard working Irish people who made America their new home.
New York claims the largest cluster of these county societies, and it claims the oldest ones too, but the impulse to share the experience with others like themselves is one that has marked the Irish, no matter where they have settled in the world.
This month Dr. Miriam Nyhan, a faculty fellow and assistant professor at Glucksman Ireland House at New York University, has co-curated, with NYU’s Dr. Marion Casey, a groundbreaking new exhibition that celebrates the lifetime commitment that many Irish men and women have made to their own heritage (and its preservation) through their membership in county societies.
In her research Nyhan focused primarily on the 1950s Irish immigrants who settled in New York and London, but her work gave her an overview of the recent history of the societies too.
Unsurprisingly, since she’s made them her subject, Nyhan admits she’s a deep admirer of the work they do.
“I was interested in the lost record of the Irish, because there hasn’t been much research done on the Irish county societies here or the generation of immigrants who came here after World War II,” Nyhan told the Irish Voice. “At first I was interested in the London Irish, but pretty quickly I decided to make it comparative and chose New York.”
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.”