I’m not saying I agree with Andrew O’Hehir in every aspect of his column on Salon, particularly the sense that there is a singular and deterministic direction of travel in Irish American identity. But there may be something in the idea that 1998 and the Good Friday Agreement has heralded a slow disengagement with the cause of Ireland per se:
As the title of Noel Ignatiev’s important if overly harsh academic study “How the Irish Became White” makes clear, Irish immigrants first arrived in America as despised outsiders, who were white in terms of complexion but not culture. In my colleague Joan Walsh’s“What’s the Matter with White People?”, she discusses Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, a little-noticed event in which black and Irish indentured servants rose up against British colonial rule. (This led to the creation of the slave codes, which made African-Americans slaves for life, and the conferring of limited white privilege on the Irish.) As late as the 19th century, Anglo elites in New York perceived the drunken and disorderly Irish newcomers as an unhealthful influence on the city’s industrious and long-settled black population.
But Irish-Americans rapidly absorbed the lesson that the way to succeed in their new country was to reject the politics of class and shared economic interests and embrace the politics of race. One disgraceful result was the New York draft riots of 1863, the low point of Irish-black relations in American history, when Irish immigrants by the thousands turned on their black neighbors in a thinly disguised race riot. Irish-Americans were under no delusions that the ruling class of Anglo Protestants liked or trusted them, and anti-Irish and/or anti-Catholic bigotry endured in diluted form well into the 20th century. But by allying themselves with a system of white supremacy, the Irish in America were granted a share of power and privilege — most notably in urban machine politics, and the police and fire departments of every major city.
…over the course of the last century the bulk of the Irish-American population drifted rightward through the Democratic Party and then out the other side into Archie Bunker-land. A key constituency of the New Deal coalition became, 40 years later, a key constituency of the Reagan revolution. But throughout that period there was always a countervailing social-justice tendency in Irish-American life, the tendency of the antiwar activist brothers Daniel and Philip Berrigan (quite likely the only Jesuit priests ever to make the FBI’s most-wanted list), or of 1952 left-wing presidential candidate Vincent Hallinan and his firebrand San Francisco family. This was the tradition of the radical Vatican II priests, nuns and theologians, who kept many of us from abandoning the Church altogether, and of the 1968 reawakening of Robert F. Kennedy and the subsequent career of his brother Teddy.
Without exception, those people started from an understanding of their own cultural and national history. They began with Irish nationalist or republican politics, and moved from there to consider how Ireland’s story fit into a worldwide pattern that transcended the specific racial paranoia of the United States. Of course Irish history did not end in 1998, and the current situation in that country – a land of immigrants for the first time in its modern history – is exceptionally interesting. But Ireland is no longer a divisive and charismatic “issue,” capable of galvanizing people who live thousands of miles away. With Irish-American identity now split between an optional lifestyle accessory and a bunch of unappealing right-wing guys yelling at us, its social-justice component has evaporated as well.
As I say, I’m not sure there’s a deterministic cause and effect here. The US’s long culture war may well have pushed many Irish American Catholics determinedly from the liberal to the conservative column for as many moral and ethical reasons as political. Still, there’s some resonant truth in the matter.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty