An Epic Story of the Famine Irish


"We take so much for granted: Our ancestors came over and built all these schools, churches, hospitals, the unions, the Democratic party - a whole world. But they had to build it all from nothing. There were a lot of reasons why they should have fallen apart or just disappeared. You know, if it were just a matter of skin complexion they could have become Protestants, but something deeper and more complex was going on."

Could you talk about the complexity?

"Once the immigrants stepped off the boat in America, they were no longer just Irish. They had to deal with a whole different society. The culture of the diaspora is not the same as the culture in Ireland. It's rooted in that but it becomes something else when it comes here. An urban culture is created.

'Looking for Jimmy' is the non-fiction handbook to go along with Banished Children. In the book, I say one of the reasons the Irish were able to have such an impact on the urban experience was because they had to make it up. They didn't come over with useable habits or customs. Everything they'd come to know in Ireland was useless in New York and Chicago. So the whole thesis of 'Looking for Jimmy' is that they're making up an urban personality because they don't have anything else to fall back on.

"The Irish felt safe in cities. My ancestors never wanted to see the land again. They came out of the worst agricultural trauma in 19th century Europe. A million die and two million leave? Get me to the city. Yet they found a deeply ingrained prejudice in Anglo-American society towards the Irish. They weren't taken seriously.

There's a line by Samuel Eliot Morison in the 'Oxford History of the United States,' published in 1961, I believe, that I read in high school. It said, 'The Famine Irish made surprisingly little contribution to the economics or culture.' Yet look at popular entertainment: They made a tremendous contribution, beginning with the minstrels theater and traveling shows. And the economic contribution - who does Morison think dug the canals, the reservoir; who dug the Erie Canal? Yet a leading American historian could write that the Irish almost didn't exist.

"The Irish were looking for survival. They built political machines and out of those machines came the first social welfare system - the use of public funds to support citizens. "Little or no effect" - how wrong that was. Yet I was going to a Catholic high school in the Bronx in the 1960s and I'm told to read this book and it goes unchallenged."

Why was that view not challenged?

"I think so much of Irish-American experience is getting on with it, not stepping back to take an honest look at it. Until very recently the main concern of the Irish-American was just taking the next step. The Irish peasant society dissolved when the people came over here. All those institutions that we take for granted - the Catholic parishes, the labor unions - are all embodiments of efforts to survive that trauma. So we didn't look back. We created parallel social institutions.

"The Irish responded to the ferocious anti-Catholicism they found in America by saying, 'We're forming our own schools. We're not letting you form our children. We'll form them in their own culture, then they'll go into America.'

"My parish in the Bronx, St. Raymond's, had a church, a boys' grammar school, a girls' grammar school, a rectory, a brothers' house, a convent. The amount of money that people poured into those institutions, as well as womanpower and manpower - so much volunteer labor. This tremendous outpouring to create their own hospitals, their own schools is a pretty amazing story. "My mother went to Holy Angels Academy in Fort Lee, New Jersey and the nuns there got their master's degrees at Columbia - women, in 1920. Think of it."

Then the numbers that went into the religious orders were stunning. Certainly there's been a lot of scandal and abuse and all sorts of problems with the system, but there were so many good people in it. I think it'd be a tragedy if they were totally forgotten. Where are we now?

"The diaspora experience that formed in the Famine lasted really from the 1840s until, I think, John F. Kennedy's election. And then the breakthrough began. The Irish were no longer threatened. Their religion wasn't threatening anymore.

"So those very strict schools, the solidity of party loyalties weren't necessary for Irish survival anymore. We're at the tail end of the post-Famine Irish-American experience. I'm not saying it's over, but it's not going to be the same."