1969: A crazy year for Irish America


It is fitting that the 1969 Nobel Prize for literature went to the Irish playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett. After all, in works such as "Waiting for Godot" and "Endgame," Beckett alternated between tragedy and comedy, drama and farce.

The same could be said about 1969.

It has now been 40 years since that eventful year which gave us Woodstock, the moon landing, the Manson family and revelations about a massacre in a Vietnamese village called My Lai.

But 1969 was also a decisive year in Irish-American history. That year, it seemed as if Irish Americans in Chicago and New York, California and Philadelphia were fighting their own civil war. The causes of the conflict were religious, generational and geographic. Whatever the cause, these conflicts made for quite a crazy year.


Troubles in Belfast and the Bronx

Most importantly, the Troubles in Northern Ireland reached a boiling point in August of 1969, with the clashes that came to be known as the Battle of the Bogside. Support for Catholic civil rights in Northern Ireland was initially strong in America. But then a new generation of Northern Ireland activists toured America and challenged Irish-American Catholics to look closely at what was going on in their own homeland.

Similarly, in 1969, when legendary New York journalist Jimmy Breslin served as fellow author Norman Mailer’s running mate in the race to be New York’s mayor, many assumed the semi-comical run could get some serious attention. It was believed that Mailer would appeal to the intellectual elite while Breslin would win the votes of Irish Americans and other ethnic Catholics.

That thinking went out the window, however, when Breslin was greeted with derision in, of all places, the Bronx’s Gaelic Park.

Also in 1969, the great Irish-American political clan – the Kennedys – remained in the spotlight just one year after Bobby was gunned down. In July, a strange new word –“Chappaquiddick” – was suddenly on everyone’s lips, especially those who looked to sink the once-promising career of Ted Kennedy. A few months later, Ted’s father, Joe Kennedy Sr., passed away at the age of 81.

And that was not the only loss Irish America suffered that fateful year. An aspiring author with the all-too-fitting name of John Kennedy Toole killed himself in March.

Toole’s mother made it her mission to turn her son’s grimy manuscript, about an Irish New Orleans misfit named Ignatius J. Reilly, into a published novel. That novel, of course, was A Confederacy of Dunces, for which Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1980.


John Wayne and McSorley’s

True, 1969 wasn’t all about death and conflict.

Famed actor John Wayne (born Marion Morrison) spent his career making classic films with fellow Irish American John Ford, among them The Quiet Man. In 1969, Wayne finally won a Best Acting Academy Award for his role in True Grit.

But mostly, 1969 was the year Irish America faced disorienting change. If events in Northern Ireland didn’t make that clear, then events at a humble pub with sawdust-covered floors, on East Seventh Street in Manhattan, did.

It was in 1969 that a group of women challenged the century-old policy of allowing only men into what is often described as America’s oldest Irish pub, McSorley’s Old Ale House.

What a year. Even Samuel Beckett could not have made this stuff up.

By far, the biggest news in Irish America was the explosion of violence in Northern Ireland in 1969. The hot summer turned bloody in mid-August during the annual Apprentice Boys march in Derry, which was seen as a celebration of Protestant domination. Catholics and Protestants clashed, and when the Royal Ulster Constabulary intervened, the infamous Battle of the Bogside ensued.

The battle was just one episode during the year that spurred nationalist Catholics to organize and fight their status as second-class citizens.

Not surprisingly, Irish America mobilized behind the North’s Catholic civil rights movement.


Bernadette Devlin tours America

Irish America had always played an integral role in the fight for justice in Ireland. And so, just as John Devoy and Eamon de Valera did in the past, a new generation of Irish nationalists toured the U.S. to drum up support for their cause.

But 1969 was different. That became clear when 22-year-old Bernadette Devlin came to the U.S. in August.

The telegenic firebrand – the youngest person ever elected to British Parliament – seemed ready to woo Irish America with her reports of Catholic oppression in Northern Ireland. But Devlin wanted to speak out against all injustice – including the ongoing segregation of African Americans in the U.S. Devlin criticized the likes of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, the Ancient Order of Hibernians and even the Catholic Church.

Devlin argued that Daley and many other Irish-American power brokers either ignored or contributed to social inequality in the U.S. Perhaps most shockingly, she compared many Irish-American leaders to the Orangemen in Northern Ireland who repressed Catholics.