The Irish Road to the White House


“The brains of Tammany now lie in Calvary Cemetery,” lamented Walker after Murphy’s death. Worse, Tammany’s conscience lay there, too. Walker’s charm couldn’t cover the fact that the corruption Murphy had worked so hard to contain if not eradicate was once again out of control, and as the cold realities of the Depression set in, the public rapidly lost its tolerance for Jimmy’s fast and easy ways. The revelations made by the Seabury investigation and a public hearing in front of Governor Roosevelt in Albany led to Walker’s resignation as mayor in 1932.

Tammany’s subsequent history is a shadow of what came before, but Murphy’s legacy didn’t end with the eclipse of Tammany. Murphy had anointed another important protégé in Ed Flynn, the leader of the Bronx Democratic organization, who was proud of the fact that “whatever knowledge of politics I have I learned through Mr. Murphy.” Much as Murphy had recreated Tammany after Croker, Flynn represented the next iteration in the machine’s evolution from engine of post-Famine reorganization to key player in the coalition that would empower F.D.R. and the New Deal, and elect J.F.K. president.

The nomination in 1960 of John Kennedy as the Democratic presidential candidate was the culmination of the process of reorganization that defined the post-Famine experience of Irish America. The descendant of Famine immigrants and Irish-American pols (his maternal grandfather, John Fitzgerald – aka “Honey Fitz” – was the mayor of Boston), Kennedy was not only handsome, articulate and a war hero, he was also a product of exclusive prep schools and Harvard University. On the surface he bore little resemblance to politicians like Al Smith.

For all his upper-class finesse and Ivy League polish, however, there was never any doubt that John Kennedy was an Irish Catholic. As Tom Maier makes clear in his enlightening book, The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings, J.F.K. had a thorough grasp of Irish history and a deep appreciation of his own family’s place in the journey out of Famine Ireland into America.

Professor Lawrence McCaffrey, the dean of Irish-American history, has identified the common denominator among Irish-American pols this way: “The famous Irish political style was shaped by Irish history, Catholic communal values, and confrontations with British imperialism and colonialism. In their efforts to free themselves…the Irish learned to compete within the context of the Anglo-Protestant political system.” Beginning with Daniel O’Connell and continuing in America, writes McCaffrey, “they became particularly adroit in the techniques of mass agitation, political organization and confrontation, and liberal-democratic politics.” The makings of Kennedy’s historic victory rose out of this Irish insistence on retaining their identity while refusing to accept second-class citizenship.

At the heart of the matter would always be the catastrophe of the Famine. It was the great divide – an economic and existential upheaval that transformed the landscape of Ireland and the mindscape of the Irish, both at home and in the diaspora that it helped bring about. A physical wound and psychic humiliation, it dwarfed the effects of any battlefield rout. Whether spoken about or not, the Famine was always there, embedded in Irish America’s very foundations, in ambitions, fears, doubts, in the expectations Irish Americans passed to their children, in how they worshipped and worked, in their religious, educational and social organizations and, above all, in their politics. The experience of political initiation under O’Connell took on new meaning and significance in the trans-Atlantic passage to America.

Nobody has spoken more movingly of that passage and what it meant than J.F.K. In testament to history’s love of improbable outcomes, this great-grandson of Famine emigrants, who a century and a quarter before left a wrecked, enfeebled province of a globe-girding empire for an uncertain future in a country that held their condition pitiable and their religion contemptible, became the first sitting President of the United States to visit Ireland and address the parliament of what was now an independent nation.

In his speech to the Dail in 1963, Kennedy said, “…no country contributed more to building my own than your sons and daughters. They came to our shores in a mixture of hope and agony, and I would not underrate the difficulties of their course once they arrived in the United States. They left behind hearts, fields, and a nation yearning to be free. It is no wonder that James Joyce described the Atlantic as a bowl of bitter tears. And an earlier poet wrote, ‘They are going, going, going, and we cannot bid them stay.’”

In the long perspective of history, the Irish recovery was swift. But it was a trying, difficult century for those who labored against poverty and prejudice in America, and against the underlying “cosmic insecurity” that the Famine instilled. On their journey to the White House, Irish Americans had to build and pave a road that no minority group had ever before traveled.