Daniel Day-Lewis has made several trips to the Academy Awards playing Irish characters in films such as In the Name of the Father and The Boxer. In 2002 he even nabbed an Oscar nomination for playing the notorious anti-Irish bigot Bill “The Butcher” Poole in Gangs of New York.
Once again Hollywood is abuzz with Oscar talk for Day-Lewis, who is earning raves playing the 16th president in Steven Spielberg’s latest historical epic Lincoln.
The film, set in the waning days of the U.S. Civil War, closely looks at the legislative battle Lincoln and his fellow Republicans waged as they tried to pass a series of Constitutional amendments designed to ensure full citizenship for freed slaves after the war.
Not surprisingly, most critics have noted that Spielberg’s film depicts Lincoln as a near-God. Even before the release of this movie, Lincoln was widely regarded as the greatest U.S. president in history and has been the focus of countless fawning biographies.
The film further solidifies Lincoln’s standing as arguably the most noble American ever, who managed to maintain the union yet was unable to preside over its healing because of that Southern-sympathizing scoundrel John Wilkes Booth, who shot Lincoln in Ford’s Theater on the evening on April 14, 1865.
Given Lincoln’s stature in American history, it’s easy to forget that not everybody loved Honest Abe. Southerners, for one, believed he was responsible for tearing down their beloved way of life.
And then there was the Irish. After Southerners, Irish immigrants in the U.S. may well have been the group that most despised Lincoln.
Why? First, there was politics. Lincoln ran for president as the nominee of a fairly new group called the Republican Party.
The Irish, of course, were fierce Democrats. In cities such as New York and Boston, Democratic machines such as Tammany Hall helped the Irish find food and shelter in the New World. The machines were corrupt but also effective.
Many Irish immigrants believed that anything which threatened the Democratic Party – such as Lincoln – was a threat to their tenuous way of life.
In fact, New York City as a whole was so heavily Democratic and suspicious of Lincoln that there was talk of the city itself seceding from the union.
Then there was the war. Yes, of course, many Irish immigrants fought nobly for the Union cause in the Civil War, including the famous Irish Brigade. And yet, many other immigrants new to America had no interest in going off to fight in a war they knew very little about.
Consider the bitter lyrics of the ballad “Paddy’s Lament”: “When we got to Yankee land, they shoved a gun into our hands, saying Paddy, you must go and fight for Lincoln.”
The most infamous illustration of immigrant opposition to the war was the 1863 New York City Draft Riots which were depicted so vividly in Gangs of New York.
Anti-Irish bigotry in the Republican Party also fueled Irish disdain for Lincoln. The party during Lincoln’s time was a coalition of different interest groups, among them nativist and anti-Catholic ones such as the so-called Know Nothings.
Lincoln himself may not have been anti immigrant or anti-Catholic, but many of his supporters were. In fact, following Lincoln’s assassination and for many years after, conspiracy theories abound that the Vatican or other elements within the Catholic Church played a role in Lincoln’s murder.
Given all of this, you might say that Day-Lewis has portrayed two of the most vilified characters in Irish American history.
Bill the Butcher was a street level bigot, the kind of guy who threw rocks at immigrants and made it hard for them to obtain work.
Lincoln, meanwhile, was a great man of power, a symbol of an elite that wanted them in this country only if they were willing to feed the war machine.