1969: A crazy year for Irish America


Suffice it to say, traditional Irish Americans did not take this well. The AOH, which had raised money for Devlin, swiftly took the gift back, handing it instead to the Irish Catholic church.

This, however, did not change the fact that even on an issue that seemed simple – supporting Catholic rights in the North – Irish America was being challenged in ways it never had been before.


Breslin’s unlikely run

The same dynamic – traditional Irish Catholics disturbed by the more radical nature of younger Irish Catholics – was on display in New York City.

Author Norman Mailer decided to run for mayor. His running mate, hoping to become City Council president, was Jimmy Breslin, already a legendary newspaperman. Perhaps most famously, six years earlier, when John F. Kennedy was killed, Breslin wrote a famous column profiling the humble laborer who dug the first Irish Catholic president’s grave.

If Irish America grieved in unison in 1963, those days were gone in 1969. Breslin, though from a humble broken home in Queens, began to be seen by some blue collar Irish as just another egghead intellectual who sided with longhaired college kids and Vietnam protesters.

So, when Breslin showed up at the Bronx’s Gaelic Park one Sunday for a campaign stop, good feelings were hard to come by. Breslin was shouted at and threatened. When he left, he discovered that one of the tires on his car had been slashed.

“They are my people and they are waiting for me,” Breslin later wrote. “They are waiting to beat the hell out of me.”

As with the split over Bernadette Devlin, it appeared that there were two Irish Americas in 1969 – one traditional and satisfied with the status quo, the other progressive and seeking reform. Neither was willing to change. The very idea that one or the other should budge seemed only to harden their stances.


A divisive figure

Another divisive political figure in Irish America was Ted Kennedy. Many felt sympathy for the young brother of the slain president and aspiring senator. They believed Ted was the heir apparent to the kind of noble progressivism JFK and RFK embodied.

For some, that changed following the events of July 18, 1969. Kennedy was attending a party on Massachusetts’ Chappaquiddick Island. After leaving, he lost control of his car and drove off a bridge. It turned out Kennedy had a passenger, a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne. Kennedy survived the crash. Kopechne did not.

Kennedy did not report the incident to police until the next day. In his memoir True Compass, completed right before his death, Kennedy called his behavior “inexusable.”

Then, on November 18 – four months after Chappaquiddick – Joseph Kennedy Sr. died at the age of 81. He suffered a stroke in 1961 and had been partially paralyzed since. Some wondered if the very public events surrounding Chappaquiddick hastened Joe Sr.’s death. Either way, for Irish America, it was clearly the end of an era.


A new era?

But if a new era was beginning, what would it consist of? Sure, everyone used the term fighting Irish. But that seemed far too literal in 1969. It seemed as if the Irish – like much of America – was split into two warring camps.

One camp was represented by agents of change such as Bernadette Devlin. The other was represented by unapologetic conservative John Wayne, who finally won an Oscar in 1969 for True Grit. Wayne was an outspoken critic of what he saw as the radical turn many Americans were taking. Many Irish Americans agreed wholeheartedly with Wayne.

But if Irish America bent severely in 1969, it never quite broke.

True, divisions remained. In his book, An American Requiem, the writer James Carroll (ordained a priest in 1969) eloquently explored many of the issues that divided Irish Catholic Americans through the 1970s.

Following Bernadette Devlin’s notorious tour of the U.S. in 1969, some activists abhorred the IRA while others funneled guns and cash to the nationalist cause. Ultimately, however, the so-called Four Horsemen of Irish-American politics – Ted Kennedy, Hugh Carey, Tip O’Neill and Daniel Patrick Moynihan – forged a consensus that would eventually help the U.S. play a major role in bringing peace to the North.

Finally, 1969 saw another important development. For the first time in over four decades, Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish football team played a post-season bowl game. Since the 1930s, the school had decided not to participate in bowl games, even as their prominence and popularity grew.

Notre Dame finally changed its policy in 1969, pleasing the Irish’s many fans across the U.S.

The fifth-ranked Fighting Irish took on # 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl following the 1969 season. The Irish lost 21-17.

That may seem fitting, given the way 1969 played out in Irish America. But it also meant that the Irish – the football team and the millions of Americans who traced their roots to Ireland – were back.