The 1930s. Before the decade was over, America would be a vastly different nation, thanks in no small part to Irish Catholics.
Nineteen hundred and twenty-eight was a dark year for Irish Catholics in America. It was, of course, the year Al Smith ran for president and lost. The anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Ku Klux Klan played a major role in bringing down Smith, who lost “because of his religion, and because of the people he stood up for,” in the words of one biographer.
The Smith debacle suggested that Irish Catholics had come far in America but had a long way to go.
And yet, in the decade that followed, Irish Catholics would profoundly reshape America, and not just in politics. From books to radio, in front of Hollywood cameras and behind them, Irish Americans transformed America during the 1930s – for better or worse, it must be added.
A similar process might very well be taking place today, with Hispanic immigrants and their children moving into – and influencing greatly – the mainstream. The New York Times Magazine, for example, recently ran a cover story about the “Hispanicization” of the Catholic Church. It should be noted, however, that a heavily Spanish Los Angeles parish examined closely in the article was led by Irish-born and Irish-American priests.
Achievement, Assimilation & Anger
There were many great accomplishments by the Irish in the 1930s. There were the literary achievements of John O’Hara, James T. Farrell and, of course, Eugene O’Neill, who won the 1936 Nobel Prize for Literature. Power brokers such as Joseph P. Kennedy, meanwhile, slowly but surely made their way into the corridors of national political power.
But a figure such as Father Charles Coughlin suggests there was a dark side to this decade of Irish Catholic achievement and assimilation.
Wildly popular with both big-city Irish Catholics and rural Protestants, Coughlin was a radio commentator who evolved from a populist to an angry demagogue and anti-Semite. Both the Vatican and President Franklin D. Roosevelt worked diligently to silence the infamous “radio priest.”
This was just one instance during the 1930s in which Irish Catholics profoundly influenced mass media. Ultimately, Coughlin taught future generations of politicians and pundits how to use the radio, and later TV, to their advantage.
In the 1930s, Irish-Americans also played a key role in developing Hollywood’s infamous production code, which dictated how movies would be made for the next 30 years.
True, an inordinate fear of sex and violence fueled an Irish-led movement to censor movies. But so did a desire to battle anti-Catholicism, not to mention stereotypical films such as The Callahans and The Murphys (1927), which depicted Irish slum dwellers in the worst possible fashion.
Perhaps a figure such as James T. Farrell best sums up the complicated achievements of Irish-Americans in the 1930s. His Chicago trilogy of Stud Lonigan novels, all published during the 1930s, is considered a landmark in American realism, as well as groundbreaking in its frank depiction of urban life. But it was not some hateful anti-Irish Protestant who penned this often grim, oppressive view of the Chicago Irish. It was ‘one of our own.’
Yet Farrell’s epic novels — with their often bigoted characters — make it easy to forget that during the 1930s, Irish Catholics were pivotal swing voters when it came to endorsing President Franklin Roosevelt and his progressive New Deal. Indeed, as writers, filmmakers and politicians battled their high-profile culture wars, it was during the 1930s that a generation of Irish-Americans changed the nation in more subtle ways. Products of a Catholic schools system that was by now the envy of many Protestant ministers, Irish Americans finally made their way to the Ivy Leagues and other elite bastions in larger numbers, diversifying these institutions and paving the way for other “minority groups.”
Many during this decade were also preparing for a different kind of work – fighting the war against fascism during World War II, as members of “the Greatest Generation.” Clearly, the Irish were at a crossroads in the 1930s. Before the decade was over, America would be a vastly different nation, thanks in no small part to Irish Catholics.
Farrell never shied away from the darker side of the Irish in the 1930s. At one point, Studs’ Irish-born, obviously hypocritical father says: “We got to get a strong man in the White House, like Al Smith or Mussolini [to] make America a country for Americans only.”
But the fact is, vast numbers of Irish-Americans were not so reactionary. Many, in fact, were lifelong Democrats and union members who supported FDR’s New Deal. Some historians now credit Al Smith for laying the groundwork, in 1928, for FDR’s New Deal coalition, in which the Irish played a key role.