Commentary Magazine

A Commentary Report: The Irish of New York

It is now well over a century since any of the various groups living in New York has been able to claim so much as a bare majority of the populace; only the Jews today can claim even a quarter. There have been times, however, when one group after another established what might be termed a working hegemony: first it was the Dutch, then the English, then the Irish. The first two were simply swamped by newcomers (white Anglo-Saxons are barely 5 per cent of the current population), but the passing of the Irish era has been a more complex matter, touching on much that is central to the present turmoil in New York.

The Irish era can be said to have begun with the fall of Boss Tweed in the 1870’s, but the groundwork of Irish dominance was set long before that. The politics of the city had become increasingly egalitarian through the 19th century, and the Irish working class had increasingly asserted itself. In 1868 a New York aristocrat, George Templeton Strong, commented bitterly in his diary: “Our rulers are partly American scoundrels and partly Celtic scoundrels. The Celts are predominant, however, and we submit to the rod and the sceptre of Maguires and O’Tooles and O’Shanes. . . .” But by the 70’s, Strong’s bitterness was already overlaid with a note of helplessness: “We are to Papistical Paddy as Cedric the Saxon to Front de Boeuf.”

During the era that followed, the Irish seemed to be everywhere, involved in everything. “Slippery Dick” Connolly and “Brains” Sweeney had shared power and office with Tweed, as had any number of their followers, but with few exceptions the pre-1870’s Irish had represented the canaille. With the dawning of the Gilded Age, however, middle-class and upper-class Irish began to appear; thus ranging across the social spectrum, the Irish appeared to dominate a good part of the city’s life for half a century. They came to run the police force and the underworld; they were as evident on Wall Street as on the Bowery; Irish contractors laid out the subways and Irish laborers dug them. The City entered the era of Boss Croker of Tammany Hall and Judge Goff of the Lexow Committee which investigated him; of business leader Thomas Fortune Ryan and labor leader Peter J. McGuire; of Reform Mayor John Purroy Mitchel and Tammany Mayor “Red Mike” Hylan. It was a stimulating miscellany, reaching its height in the Roaring 20’s with Al Smith and Jimmy Walker. And then, suddenly, came the crash. In June 1932 Smith was denied the Democratic renomination. The Tammany delegates left Chicago bitter and unreconciled. Two months later Mayor Walker resigned in the face of mounting scandal, and decided to leave the country with his beloved English mistress Betty. A few days before his departure, Franklin Roosevelt had been elected President. The next man to be elected Mayor of New York City would be Fiorello H. La Guardia. Then a Jew became world heavyweight champion; the new name in baseball was DiMaggio; the new crooner was Sinatra. And so it went. The almost formal end came within a decade: In 1943 Tammany Hall itself, built while Walker was Mayor at the cost of just under one million dollars, was sold to Local 91 of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Tammany and the New York County Democratic Committee went their separate ways. The oldest political organization on earth was finished. So was the Irish era.



The basis of Irish hegemony in the city was established by the famine emigration of 1846—1850. By mid-century there were 133,-730 Irish-born inhabitants of the city, 26 per cent of the total population. By 1855, 34 per cent of the city voters were Irish. By 1890, when 80 per cent of the population of New York City was of foreign parentage, a third of these (409,924 persons out of 1,215,463) were Irish, making more than a quarter of the total population. With older stock included, over one-third of the population of New York and Brooklyn at the outset of the Gay 90’s was Irish-American.

The older stock went far back in the city’s history, Ireland having provided a continuing portion of the emigration to North America during the 17th and 18th centuries. Much of it was made up of Protestants with English or Scottish antecedents, but there were always some Celtic Irish, either of Protestant or Catholic persuasion. In 1683 Governor Thomas Dongan, afterward Earl of Limerick, summoned the first representative assembly in the history of the colony, at which he sponsored the Charter of Liberties and Privileges granting broad religious freedom, guaranteeing trial by jury, and establishing representative government. He was nonetheless suspected of plotting a Catholic establishment, and with the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the Catholics of New York were disfranchised and kept out of the political life of the city for almost a century.

This was a basic event, inaugurating a long tradition of denying rights to Irish Catholics on the ground that they wished to do the same to English Protestants. To this day the most fair-minded New York Protestants will caution that Irish Catholics have never experienced the great Anglo-Saxon tradition of the separation of church and state, although indeed they have experienced nothing but.

In 1798 another of the periodic native Irish revolts against the English took place, and, as usual, failed. In its aftermath came the first of a long trail of Irish revolutionaries, Catholic and Protestant, who were to disturb the peace of New York City for a century and a quarter. These were educated professional men who had risked their lives for much the same cause that had inspired the Sons of Liberty in New York a generation earlier, and on the whole they were received as such. (A few, like Dr. William J. MacNeven and Thomas Addis Emmet, became prominent New Yorkers.) Catholic emigration from Ireland also began in earnest after the Revolution, so that by the time of the great famine migration of 1848—50, a community of Irish Catholics was well enough established in New York and its basic patterns of life set. (“Honest John” Kelly, who succeeded Tweed, and W. R. Grace, of the shipping line, who became the city’s first Irish-Catholic mayor, were both native New Yorkers.) The hordes that arrived at mid-century strengthened some of these patterns more than others, but they did not change them nearly so much as they were changed by them. They got off the boat to find their identity waiting for them: they were to be Irish-Catholic Democrats.

There were times when this identity took on the mysteries of the Trinity itself; the three were one and the one three. Attachment to the Democratic party came last in point of chronology, but it could have been received from the hands of Finn MacCool for the way the Irish clung to it.



Tammany was organized in New York a few weeks after the inauguration of Washington. The principal founder was one William Mooney, an upholsterer and apparently by birth an Irish Catholic. Originally a national organization, from the first its motif was egalitarian and nationalist: the Sons of St. Tammany, the American Indian chief, as against the foreign ties of the societies of St. George and St. David (and, indeed, of the Sons of St. Patrick), or the aristocratic airs of the Sons of the Cincinnati. Its members promptly involved themselves in politics, establishing the New York Democratic party. (Until recently, Tammany officially retained the Jeffersonian designation, “Democratic-Republican” party, and far into the 20th century the Phrygian cap of the French Revolution was an important prop in Tammany ceremonies.)

The original issues around which the New York political parties were organized concerned the events of the French Revolution. Jefferson and his Democratic followers were instinctively sympathetic to France. Hamilton, Jay, and the Federalists reacted with the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, designed in part to prevent the absorption of immigrants into the Jeffersonian party, but which only strengthened their attachment to it. In 1812, the Federalists bitterly but unsuccessfully opposed the establishment of more-or-less universal white suffrage, certain it would swell the immigrant Irish vote of New York City. So it did, and in no time the Irish developed a powerful voting bloc. In the 1827 city elections, a prelude to the contest between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, the Irish sided mightily with Jackson, himself the son of poor Irish immigrants, and thereupon entered wholeheartedly into the politics of the Jacksonian era. By 1832 the Whig candidate for President found himself assuring a St. Patrick’s Day dinner that “Some of my nearest and dearest friends [are] Irishmen.”

The contest for the “Irish vote” became an aspect of almost every New York election that followed. A week before the election of 1884 a delegation of Protestant clergymen waited on the Republican presidential candidate James G. Blaine, at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, to assure him, in the words of Reverend Samuel D. Burchard, “. . . We are Republicans and don’t propose to leave our party, and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” Blaine, who had been making headway with the Irish, lost New York by 1,077 votes, and thereby the election, which put an end to Republican rule of post-Civil War America.

By now the New York City Irish were not only voting for the Democratic party but thoroughly controlled its organization. “The Irish role in politics,” it has been said, “was creative, not imitative”—to which it may be added that it was also unprecedented in that it led to a persisting pattern of rule by men of the people. Almost to this day, the men who have run New York have talked out of the side of the mouth. There is nothing surprising in the fact that this unnatural situation should always have appalled those with-a-stake-in-the-country.



But the most important accomplishment of the Irish in America is not political—it is religious. The Irish may have been creative about political organization, but they were also indifferent to political ideas, and therefore very little came of their hegemony in New York except a continuing series of victories at the polls. Much, however, has come of their devotion to their Church, which they have built from a despised sect of the 18th century to the largest religious organization in the nation, numbering some 43,851,500 members in 1963. In secular terms, this achievement has cost them dearly. A good part of the surplus that might have gone into family property has gone instead into building the Church—which has almost certainly inhibited the development of the solid middle-class dynasties that produce so many of the important people in America. The celibacy of the Catholic clergy has also deprived the Irish of the class of ministers’ sons which has contributed notably to the prosperity and distinction of the Protestant world. And to make matters worse, these disadvantages have been reinforced by a pervasive prejudice against Catholics on the part of Protestants that has still not entirely disappeared.

The Catholic Church does not measure its success by the standards of secular society. Many of its finest men and women disappear from the great world altogether. This is well understood and accepted by Catholics. What troubles a growing number of persons within the Church is the performance of the great bulk of Catholics who remain very much a part of the secular society around them. For a Church notably committed to the processes of intellect, the weakness of Catholic scholars and writers is particularly galling. It is, for example, notorious that Catholics in America have produced hardly a handful of important scientists. Yet neither have they produced a great poet, a great painter, a great diplomatist. None of the arts, none of the achievements that most characterize the older Catholic societies, seem to prosper here. “Is the honorable adjective ‘Roman Catholic’ truly merited by America’s middle-class-Jansenist Catholicism, puritanized, Calvinized, and dehydrated?” asked the Protestant Peter Viereck. What he perhaps really wanted to know is whether Irish Catholics are Roman Catholics. But it is impossible to pull the terms apart in the reality of American life, for since the early 19th century the American Catholic Church has been dominated by the Irish, and nowhere more so than in New York, the preeminent Catholic city of the nation.



Obviously, the Irish Church in America was established in the 19th century in the sense that parishes were organized and the churches built at that time. But it is also apparent that certain essential qualities of the religion itself derive from the world that followed the French Revolution. The English in the 17th and 18th centuries practically destroyed the Irish Church. The faith remained, but the institution virtually disappeared; Catholics had almost no churches, few clergy, hardly any organization.

The Church that grew from this beginning was something different from the historical Roman Catholic Church, not so much in theology (although there was a distinct Jansenist flavor) as in culture. It was a Church with a decided aversion—stemming from the French Revolution and the events of Italian unification—to the modern liberal state; it was a Church that was decidedly separatist in its attitude toward the non-Catholic community (which in America, as in Ireland, was for a long time the ascendant community); and it was a Church with almost no intellectual tradition. With all this, as Kevin Sullivan writes, “Irish Catholicism, in order to hold its own in a land dominated by an English Protestant culture, had developed many of the characteristics of English sectarianism: defensive, insular, parochial, puritanical. . . .”

It emphatically did not, however, acquire the English fondness for royalty. In a passage which Father C. J. McNaspy has said “speaks volumes,” de Tocqueville noted that Father Power, pastor of St. Peter’s, the first Catholic church in New York, “appears to have no prejudice against republican institutions.” This was surely because republican institutions, far from disestablishing the Church, had had the effect of raising it to equality with Protestant churches. Moreover, republicanism had raised Irishmen to a kind of equality with Protestants: one man, one vote.

But accepting republicanism did not entail accepting liberalism. From the first, the Irish Catholic clergy of New York have been conservative. The revolutions of 1848, which involved European liberals in a direct physical attack on the Papacy, produced a powerful effect on the American hierarchy, and Bishop John Hughes of New York put his flock on guard against the “Red Republicans” of Europe. At this point, therefore, the Church began to find itself in conflict not only with primitive, no-Popery Protestants who burned convents, but also with liberal, educated, post-Calvinist Protestant leadership.

The divergence between liberal Protestant and Catholic views in New York grew when Catholics in the pre-Civil War period generally declined to support the movement for the abolition of Negro slavery. In the post-Civil War period, when much Protestant energy turned to the issues of social reform, the Catholic Church continued to remain apart and, in the view of many, opposed. The New York diocese was notably alert to the perils of socialism. Indeed, one widely popular priest, Father Edward Mc-Glynn, was temporarily excommunicated in a controversy that followed his support of Henry George, who ran for mayor in 1897 on the “single tax” platform.

These developments strengthened the separatist tendencies in the Church, although again, the basic decisions had been made prior to the great migration. Foremost of these was the decision to establish a separate school system. The parochial schools, Monsignor John Tracy Ellis has suggested, swamped an incipient Catholic intellectual movement which stemmed from the educated offspring of the Maryland gentry and was powerfullly reinforced in the 1840’s by the conversion of prominent Protestants, corresponding to the Oxford movement in England. Thus the American Church became more and more Irish as time went on. And as it became more Irish, its prestige declined. The Irish were the one oppressed people on earth the American Protestants could never quite bring themselves wholeheartedly to sympathize with. They would consider including insurgent Greece within the protection of the Monroe Doctrine, they would send a warship to bring the rebel Kossuth safe to the shores of liberty, they would fight a war and kill half a million men to free the Negro slaves. But the Irish were different.



“The Irish,” wrote Macaulay, “. . . were distinguished by qualities which tend to make men interesting rather than prosperous. They were an ardent and impetuous race, easily moved to tears or laughter, to fury or to love.” The Irish-American character as it finally developed was not very different from the one Macaulay described, save in two respects: it was urban and it was egalitarian. Where the Irish had been wild, they now became tough. Where they had been rebellious, it now became more a matter of being defiantly democratic. In the words of Thomas Beer, “an infinitely pugnacious, utterly common and merry animal.”

Picture John Morrissey: heavyweight champion of the world, member of Congress, principal owner of the Saratoga race course, proprietor of gambling houses, husband of a famous beauty, and a leader of the “Young Democracy” that helped overthrow Tweed. In 1875 a respectable enough Mayor named Wickham, who had been elected by the new Tammany group, posted a man in his anteroom at City Hall to receive the calling cards of visitors. Shortly thereafter, Morrissey, having no card, was refused admittance to the Mayor’s office. As recounted by Morris R. Werner:

A few days later, a friend met John Morrissey in City Hall Park. He was dressed in a swallowtail coat, patent leather boots, white kid gloves, and he carried a light coat over his arm. In his other hand was a thick book. His friend, John B. Haskin, said: “Hello, John what’s up now? Going to a wedding?” “No,” answered Morrissey, “not so bad as that. I’ve just bought a French dictionary to help me talk to our dandy Mayor, I’m going in full dress to make a call, for that is now the style at the Hotel Wickham,” pointing to the City Hall. “No Irish need apply now,” Morrissey added.

Fifteen thousand people followed him to his grave.

Let it be said that the Irish gave style to life in the slums:

Boys and girls together, me
and Mamie O’Rorke,
Tripped the light fantastic on
the sidewalks of New York.

They became the Playboys of this new Western World. “None Can Love Like an Irishman” was a favorite song of Lincoln’s day. By the turn of the century it had become equally clear that none could run like them, nor fight like them, nor drink as much, nor sing as well. When it came to diving off the Brooklyn Bridge or winning pennants for the Giants, it took an Irishman. And who could write such bittersweet songs as Victor Herbert? Or enjoy life like “Diamond Jim” Brady? All was “bliss and blarney.”

Much was forgiven them. Their failures, as they themselves said of their principal one, were “a good man’s weakness.” A certain compassion pervaded even their wrongdoing. Jimmy Walker was nothing so much as P. T. Barnum in a speakeasy: predatory, not evil. At their best such Irish had a genius for getting through to people: no one in the history of New York has ever been able to explain state government to the voters in the way Al Smith did. Nor have they ever quite forgotten the compliment he paid their intelligence.

By degrees the Irish style of the gaslight era became less and less Irish, more and more the style of the American city. Al Smith came close to being for the people of the Lower East Side of America what Lincoln had been for the Frontier. Better still, what Jackson had been—two Irishmen, a century apart. When the comic strips began, the principal urban characters—Maggie and Jiggs, Moon Mullins, Dick Tracy—were Irish. When the movies undertook to fashion a composite picture of the American people, the New York Irishman was projected to the very center of the national image.

For whatever reason, perhaps because of the influence of New York Jews in the film industry, when Hollywood wanted to synthesize the Christian religion, they found it easiest to do in the person of an Irish priest: Pat O’Brien as Father Duffy in the trenches. When the tough American up from the streets had to be portrayed, the image drawn was invariably that of an Irishman. James Cagney (a New Yorker) was the quintessential figure: fists cocked, chin out, back straight, bouncing along on his heels. But also doomed: at the end of the movie he was usually dead. The contrast with Chaplin tells worlds.

And by the time the New York journalist, John O’Sullivan, coined the phrase “Manifest Destiny” as a compact apologetic for American expansionism, the Irish had also become seasoned nationalists. Their exploits, or their accounts thereof, in the Mexican and Civil Wars established the American institution of the “Fighting Irish.”

Success went to their heads; it also undermined the character of many. It is to be noted, as Thomas Beer does, that “The Irish were at once established as a tremendously funny, gay, charming people and concurrently were snubbed.” There was a touch of Sambo in the professional Irishman: he was willing to be welcomed on condition that he not forget his place. There was also more than a bit of mucker in the man-of-the-people pose. Derision of the highfalutin all too easily shaded into contempt for intelligence and learning, particularly on the lace-curtain fringe. The Irish were flirting with the peril Whitehead pointed to in his remark that in the conditions of the modern world the nation that does not value trained intelligence is doomed.

This was painfully manifest in the Irish-American response to the extraordinary flowering of Irish literature in the late 19th century. The emigrant Irish may have brought with them a certain peasant respect for learning—“Isle of Saints and Scholars”—but two generations in the slums of New York killed it, if it ever existed. Instead of embracing and glorying in the new literature, the New York Irish either ignored it, or if they were respectable enough, turned on the Irish authors, accusing them of using bad language. After that began a steady emigration from the Irish “community” of many of the strongest and best of the young. This migration was as devitalizing in America as it was to the Irish nation overseas.

The image changed. At the turn of the century Ireland stood for brave things. The painter John Sloan was a Scot by descent, but preferred to think otherwise: “I’m an Irishman,” he would say. “Therefore I’m agin the government. . . .” But as time went on the rebel receded, the policeman loomed larger. There are, of course, no statistics or measures of this kind of movement, but the impression is overwhelming. Except for those with a strong religious vocation, the sensitive, perceptive children of the American Irish born early in the 20th century found little to commend itself to them in the culture to which they were born.



Today on the surface, the “Irish” in Irish-American is fast fading. A very considerable body of Irish traits and speech habits has become so thoroughly absorbed in New York culture as no longer to be regarded as Irish. And even the most visible Irish contribution to the New York scene, the Irish saloon, is vanishing, decimated by prohibition and now unable to compete with the attractions of television and the fact that Italians can cook.

Unquestionably, however, an Irish identity persists. It would seem that it now marks someone as plain, in contrast to fancy, American. In an urbane culture, Irishness has come to represent some of the qualities the honest yeoman stood for in an earlier age, notably in the undertone of toughness and practicality. “Be more Irish than Harvard,” Robert Frost told the young President in 1961. But the problem with perpetuating this Irish type is that it is essentially proletarian and does not jibe with middle-class reality. Like Southern hospitality, the Irish temperament has become a tradition—valid enough, perhaps, but requiring constant reinforcement.

Three additional factors are working toward a weakening of Irish identity in America: the decline of immigration, the fading of Irish nationalism, and the relative absence of Irish cultural influence from abroad on the majority of American Irish.

A trickle of Irishmen continues to arrive in New York, but it is barely sufficient to keep the County Associations alive and to provide talent for and interest in the sporting events that are centered at Gaelic Park in the Bronx. And in truth, most of the recent immigrants are rather a disappointment to the American Irish, just as Ireland itself is to many Americans who go back. Few sights are more revealing than that of a second- or third-generation Irish-American tourist sitting down to his first meal, boiled in one iron pot over the open peat fire, in his grandparents’ cottage. Embarrassment hangs just as heavy over the Fifth Avenue reviewing stand of the St. Patrick’s Day parade. The sleek, porcine judges and contractors, all uneasy bravado, simply don’t know what to make of the smallish, dour Irish officials and emissaries gathered for the occasion. Neither do the guests from Eire seem to know quite what to make of the “O’Donnell Abu,” Fighting 69th, “Top O’the Marnin” goings-on. In Dublin, March 17th is a holy day, the parade is like as not devoted to the theme of industrial progress, and until recently the bars were closed.

Finally, the establishment of the Irish Free State and later the Republic of Eire, despite the Ulster issue, has substantially put an end to the agitation for Irish independence which contributed so much to the maintenance of Irish identity in America. As Whitehead said of Protestantism, so of Irish-American nationalism: “Its dogmas no longer dominate; its divisions no longer interest; its institutions no longer direct the patterns of life.”

Ironically, it is precisely those persons who were most attached to the Irish cause and the Irish culture of the 19th century who are having the most difficulty maintaining such attachments in the present time. Ireland has not ceased to influence America. Contemporary American literature, in fact, can hardly be understood save in the context of Shaw, Wilde, Yeats, O’Casey, Joyce, and the like. But those who would most value their Irishness seem least able to respond to such achievements. Irish writers have been Irish indeed: Protestants, agnostics, atheists, socialists, Communists, homosexuals, drunkards, and mockers, they have had but few traits that commend themselves to the Catholic middle class. “A common drunk,” Honorable James A. Comerford of the Court of Special Sessions exclaimed in announcing that the playwright Brendan Behan would not be marching in the 1961 St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York.



Indications are that the Irish are now about the most evenly distributed group in New York in terms of economic and social position. They are perhaps a bit heavy on the extremes: rather more than their share of the men on the Bowery and on Wall Street, but generally about the right proportions. In this respect they are unique among the major ethnic groups in New York.

Their distribution within class strata is not nearly so even. Sean O’Faolain has reminded us that the ancient Irish had a powerful distaste for commerce; throughout history the Irish were by preference lawyers and soldiers and priests, and the pattern rather persists in the New World. The Irish are well represented in Wall Street law firms. (In one of the largest, the Irish partners were recently considering whether a quota should be imposed.) But they have shown relatively little talent as merchants, and most of those who have, have been quite overwhelmed by Jewish competition.

The principal Irish businesses in the city still tend to be family affairs, founded by working men and involving the organization of manual labor in forms that may begin small and grow larger. The Irish have also done well in contracting, real estate, and banking, where there is stress on personal qualities and the accommodation of conflicting interests, and not a little involvement in politics. So, too, the Irish talent for political bureaucracy seems to have carried over into the world of business organization. The Irish have been content to get in the long lines of the giant corporations and for some time have been popping up in the front ranks as their turn came. In the long run, their patience may prove as important a commercial asset as Jewish daring or Yankee rigor.

For the moment, however, the relevant question is not how well the Irish have succeeded, but why they have not succeeded more. The English and Dutch who preceded them in New York are now almost entirely middle- and upper-class. The Germans who accompanied them are predominantly middle-class. The Jews who followed them are already predominantly middle-class and may soon be exclusively so. But if the majority of the Irish have climbed out of the working class, it has been only to settle on the next highest rung.

A clue to the difference is perhaps to be found in a 1947 Life cover story on the “Peoples of New York.” The Irish were not included among the major groups in the city but were relegated to a small block between the Rumanians and the Arabs. The picture was that of a cop, and the caption read: “Once the victims of a violent prejudice, New York’s many Irish are now thoroughly assimilated. Many of them become politicians or members of the city’s police force.” Instead of profiting by their success in the all-but-despised roles of ward heeler and policeman, the Irish seem to have been trapped by it. As with the elder Tyrone in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, they seem almost to have ruined their talent by playing one role over and over until they could do little else.



For Tyrone, as for his sons, so also for the race: drink has been their curse. It is the principal fact of Irishness that they have not been able to shake. A good deal of competent enquiry has still not produced much understanding of the Irish tendency to alcohol addiction. But whatever the explanation, the fact itself is indisputable, and in ways it is worse now than in the past: a stevedore could drink and do his work; a lawyer, a doctor, a legislator cannot.

It is evident enough that Irish drunkenness has given the Jews (whose alcoholism rates are as phenomenally low as those of the Irish are high) an important margin in business and the professions—it may even have tended to keep the Irish out of some of the professions. Probably, also, alcoholism partially accounts for the disappearance of the Irish from organized crime. Gambling and related activities are among the largest business activities in New York and certainly among the most profitable. With their political power, even if declining, the Irish ought to have a share of control in them, but others have completely taken over. Bookmaking, policy, and drugs are complex, serious, exacting trades. They are not jobs for heavy drinkers.

The relative failure of the New York Irish to rise socially may also be related to the Irish success in politics. A case, at any rate, can be made that, contrary to the general impression, politics is not a lucrative calling. This case would be more confirmed than contradicted by the periodic scandals that reveal the large amounts of graft and benefactions passed between politicians and various legitimate and illegitimate businessmen: the politicians are often as not on their way to jail. The secret of the long tenure of many of the better-known Irish politicians is that they were honest men by any standards, and certainly by the American standards of their time.

Even were the Irish rising faster socially and economically than they seem to be, the first impression would still be one of decline. People disappear into the lower-middle class, to emerge, if ever, only years or generations later, in the upper reaches of achievement. In the interval, they are outdistanced in the areas of popular achievement, which are particularly visible in an age of mass media. This has been painfully obvious for the Irish in New York, which is the center of the nation’s entertainment industry and thereby the center of most of the popular arts. In the past thirty years, the Irish fighters and ballplayers have gone down before Negroes and Italians. The Irish crooners have been driven out by Italians. Most of the popular comedians are Jewish. The best of the musicians are Negro.

A similar, if more complex, process is at work in the trade-union movement. The most important of the working-class leaders of the city, from Gompers to Dubinsky, have emerged from the Jewish socialist tradition (Peter McGuire and George Meany excepted). This tradition, however, has about played itself out; the Jews have left the working class, and Jewish liberals have largely turned their interests elsewhere. During all this time, the bulk of the trade-union leadership, notably in the craft unions, has been Irish. This leadership continues with a diminished, but by no means vanished ethnic base. Of late the leadership has even been revived by the influence of Catholic ideological movements, symbolized in New York by the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, and the various church-related labor schools. It is likely that Irish influence in this area will continue for some time.

In their classic stronghold, the police force, the Irish have been forced to set up a society to protect their interests. For some time ethnic groups in the New York police, as in many of the city bureaucracies—and, indeed, in the life of the city generally—have maintained fraternal organizations. The Italians were first to organize on an ethnic basis within the Police Department. In the 1930’s they were followed by Jews, the white Protestants, the black Protestants, the Puerto Ricans, and the Poles. For a long while, the Irish were so dominant that it would have seemed ludicrous for them to organize. But by 1952 it was obvious that those days were passing; the Irish still had a majority of the force, but no longer a majority of the police academy, and so they set up the Emerald Society and took their place among the other minorities.

Turning lower-middle-class is a painful process for a group like the Irish who, as stevedores and truck drivers, made such a grand thing of Saturday night. Most prize fighters and a good many saloon fighters the in the gutter—but they have moments of glory unknown to accountants. Most Irish laborers died penniless, but they had been rich one night a week much of their lives, whereas their white-collar children never know a moment of financial peace, much less affluence. A good deal of color goes out of life when a group begins to rise. A good deal of resentment enters.

The cumulative effect of this process has been to produce among a great many Irish a powerful sense of displacement. It is summed up in a phrase they will use on hearing an Irish name or on being introduced to another Irishman. “There are some of us left,” they say. One could be in Con-naught in the 17th century.



The sense of displacement is nowhere more acute than in politics. The basic cause of the decline of the political power of the Irish has been their decline as a proportion of the population. Where they accounted for a third of the population of the city in 1890, they are probably no more than one-tenth today. Many of the Irish who remain in the city have become Republicans, thus splitting the Irish vote, and of those who are still Democrats, a great many have been at odds with the prevailing ideology within their party.

The main thrust of Irish political activity has always been moderate or conservative in New York, but until recently it has not been articulately so. There is a well-known story about the Tammany 4th of July fete at which a reporter asked why “Mister” Murphy had not joined in singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” “Maybe,” came the reply, “he didn’t want to commit himself.” The functioning urban politician does not commit himself; he negotiates with the commitments of others. This came naturally to the Irish, who were the least encumbered of peoples with abstract notions about municipal ownership and trade-union rights. And Tammany conservatism has also been reinforced by the political developments which from the beginning of the Irish era to the present have kept the New York Democratic party isolated from that party in the rest of the country.

The crucial turning point was the rejection of Al Smith, first by his country and then by the Democrats themselves. The New York Irish gave their hearts to Smith, who was an Irish figure whatever his ancestry. He was in no sense a product of the slum, but rather a representative of a distinct New York urban culture that to this day asserts its own manner of speech and dress in a society otherwise overwhelmed by Brooks Brothers. Smith had not the slightest qualms about the adequacy of his education ; it was hyperbole, and perhaps a sense of mockery, that led him to tell the New York State Assembly that he was a graduate, not of Yale, but of the Fulton Fish Market. He was the greatest state governor of his generation, perhaps of the century, but he was without the pomposity of Good Government. When he declared, “No matter how you slice it, it’s still baloney,” he seemed to strip the establishment of all the pretense and posture designed to keep the Irish and such in their places.

The bitter anti-Catholicism and the crushing defeat of the 1928 campaign came as a blow. The New York Irish had been running their city for a long time, or so it seemed. They did not think of themselves as immigrants and interlopers with an alien religion; it was a shock to find that so much of the country did. Worse yet, in 1932, when the chance came to redress this wrong, the Democrats, rather than renominating Smith, turned instead to a Hudson Valley aristocrat with a Harvard accent who had established his reputation by blocking Murphy’s nomination of “Blue-eyed Billy” Sheehan for the U. S. Senate, and was soon to enhance it by getting rid of Jimmy Walker.

The main effect of the New Deal in the upper reaches of the Irish community in New York was to reveal to its members that while they had been rising socially and economically, the Democratic party as a whole remained an organization of the masses. It rarely occurred to the Irish to stop being Democrats because they had become bankers, or whatever. The party was an ethnic and religious alliance, as much as an economic one. Irish businessmen hated Roosevelt as did other businesmen, but with the special twist that they felt it was their own political party, overcome by alien influences (i.e. the old Protestant establishment) that was causing the trouble.

Al Smith openly endorsed the Republican candidate for the Presidency in 1936. In a major address to an enthusiastic New York City audience he accused Roosevelt of preparing the way for a Communist-controlled America. The feeling of displacement is painfully evident. He told a Chicago audience that Jeffersonian Democrats were “out on a limb today, holding the bag, driven out of the party, because some new bunch that nobody ever heard of in their life before came in and took charge of things and started planning everything.” Four years later, when Jim Farley—who had hoped to succeed Roosevelt, only in the end to be pushed aside—broke with FDR, the Irish conservatives became even more united in opposition.



The decade and a half that followed was not an easy one for the Catholic Irish. Disdained on the left as reactionaries because of their violent opposition to the Soviet Union, they were not really welcomed by the Protestant establishment, whose interests they sought to preserve. Even today if Catholics are admitted to have been profoundly right about Russian Communism, the suspicion is widely shared among non-Catholics that they were right for the wrong reasons. Two decades ago it was not even clear they were right.

The crisis came in the years immediately after the Second World War when evidence began to accumulate about the true nature of the Communist conspiracy. Alger Hiss and Owen Lattimore and the Rosenbergs seemed proof enough for anybody—but not for a good number of persons in the Protestant-Jewish intellectual elite. This is the context in which the New York Irish turned overwhelmingly to the support of Senator McCarthy. But a clue to the nature of McCarthy’s influence on the New York Irish is that from start to finish he got his largest response from them not when he attacked Communism but when he attacked the institutions of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment. It was Harvard University and the State Department and the United States Army that seemed to be subverting the country. The faculty of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s college was riddled with Reds. Dean Gooderham Acheson would not turn his back on spies in the Foreign Service. George Catlett Marshall was a front man for traitors.

McCarthy finally let the Irish down. He ended up a stumblebum lurching about the corridors of the Senate where it had been decided that he was no gentleman. This left the Irish to defend a reputation that had become, in practical terms, indefensible. Yet the Irish achieved a strong temporary advantage from the McCarthy period that may or may not prove of permanent value. In the era of security clearances, to be an Irish Catholic became prima facie evidence of loyalty. Harvard men were to be checked; Fordham men would do the checking. There was also a disadvantage in this, however, for it put the Irish back on the force, encouraging their tendency to be regular rather than creative.

In 1960, when, for the second time, an Irish Catholic ran for President, it turned out that for many the estrangement from the Democratic party had gone too deep to be overcome by more primitive appeals. Alfred E. Smith, Jr., announced he was voting for Nixon. In fashionable Greenwich, Connecticut, the grandson of John H. McCooey of Brooklyn turned up ringing doorbells for the straight Republican ticket. Kennedy probably got little more than a bare majority of the Irish vote in New York City. And it appears it was the Jewish students in the Fordham School of Pharmacy who saved that ancient Jesuit institution from going on record as opposed to the election of the first Catholic President of the United States.



Within the New York Democratic party itself, the estrangement between the Irish organization leaders and the growing Jewish and Protestant liberal middle class, which intensified during the McCarthy period, became open warfare after Stevenson’s defeat in 1952 turned the attention of the latter group to local politics. Manhattan erupted in a series of Democratic primary fights in which the liberals set out to unseat the old guard Irish incumbents.

One by one the Irish district leaders were defeated. When this process had about run its course, the reformers turned on the leader of Tammany itself, Carmine De Sapio, accusing him of being a boss, which was of course his proper function in the traditional system. The Tammany leader’s position was, as always, ideologically indefensible. Unfortunately for De Sapio, it was now also ecologically untenable: middle-class voters were pouring into his district and had begun to operate within the regular party system. Forced to choose between increasingly hostile forces, Mayor Robert F. Wagner came down on the side of the reformers, whereupon De Sapio in the classic manner set out to deny him renomination. Except perhaps for the Negro areas of the city, the primary contest that followed was bitter and pitiless in contrasting the appeals of the traditional, neighborhood-oriented party organization with the modern, mass-media-oriented, liberal establishment. “If Wagner wins,” said one party leader, “you can close down every clubhouse in the city.” Wagner won overwhelmingly.

It may be that the Wagner victory put an end to the Irish political system itself in New York, just as La Guardia in the 1930’s had broken the hold of the Irish on the system. Wagner’s victory was a triumph of middle- and upper-class political initiative, organization, and leadership over the traditional conservative, working-class party. It was uniquely a victory of public-opinion experts, communication specialists, and theoreticians allied with a haute bourgeoisie whose liberalism and genuine concern for the poor of the city were nonetheless combined with something very like an old-fashioned Tory will-to-power. Tammany disciplined the masses and enabled them to rule. With that discipline broken, it is likely that New York will revert to the normal municipal condition of rule by the centers of economic power in alliance with the communications media. Organized crime will probably persist as one such center and may even grow more important. There are indications that the powerful political machines of the Tammany variety were the one social force capable of controlling organized crime—certainly the decline of Tammany was accompanied by the rise of Costello and the like—and it may well be that the future will see the liberal middle class and the criminal syndicates sharing power in a pattern that was already to be perceived during La Guardia’s ascendancy.

If this should happen, the Irish will have a role to play, for they have in significant numbers joined the middle and upper classes. A number of new Irish faces appeared in the ranks of the reformers, indistinguishable in most respects from their Jewish and Protestant counterparts, and helped perhaps by a tradition of being “politicans.” Sharing honors of primary day with Robert F. Wagner of Yale was James S. Lanigan of Harvard, who defeated De Sapio for district leader in Greenwich Village. The Irish liberals lack, for the moment at least, an ethnic constituency, but they are not for that the less sensitive to the changed style of politics. “The old-line political club,” said one reformer, “is concerned with individuals, getting a job for this one or doing a favor for that one. In our modern society, politicians have to deal with the problems of whole groups of people, and we reformers are concerned more with groups than with individuals.” The speaker was Peter P. Meagher, running for district leader on the West Side of Manhattan against the son of The McManus.



But the future of the Irish in New York politics is not a strictly political question. Much will depend on events within the Catholic Church, which is now entering a new phase both for the clerics and the laity.

Some time prior to the 1928 campaign the Atlantic Monthly published a statement by an Episcopalian layman directed to Al Smith which, citing papal encyclicals and canon law, challenged the compatibility of Smith’s religion with his loyalty to the United States Constitution. It was clear to Smith’s advisors, who gathered to discuss it, that the Governor would have to answer this challenge, but Smith himself was most reluctant. Hurt and dismayed, he said to Judge Joseph M. Proskauer (as reported by his daughter):

Joe . . . to tell you the truth . . . I don’t know what the words mean. I’ve been a Catholic all my life—a devout Catholic, I believe—and I never heard of these encyclicals and papal bulls and books that he writes about. They have nothing to do with being a Catholic, and I just don’t know how to answer such a thing.

According to Reinhold Niebuhr’s version of the meeting, which may be more accurate in spirit, Smith simply entered the room and asked all present, “Will someone tell me what the hell a papal encyclical is?”

This kind of thing is passing. It is hard to conceive of an American Catholic of the future becoming a candidate for President of the United States without having acquired a fairly sophisticated understanding of Catholic dogma on the subject of the relations of church and state. Nor is it likely that henceforth the prelates of the American Church will be drawn so preponderantly as they have heretofore been from the lower-middle class. But the one social characteristic of the present New York Church which does not seem likely to change during the next generation is its Irishness. Of the eighteen bishops in the New York area, in 1961, one was Chinese, one was Italian, and the rest were Irish. And in contrast to the police academy and the legislature, in the seminaries the Irish are holding their own.

The Catholic Church in New York during the remainder of this century will be characterized by an increasingly articulate and inquiring laity, ministered to by a steadily more sophisticated, predominantly Irish clergy. But the role of the Church in the life of the city is as yet uncertain. It will be determined by two things: first, the course of Catholic education and intellectual life; second, the attitude of the Church toward social change.



There is nothing in the history of organized religion comparable to the effort of the American Catholic Church to maintain a complete, comprehensive educational system ranging from the most elementary tutelage to the most advanced disciplines. The effort absorbs so much of the energies and resources of the faithful as to prompt the remark of a New York Jesuit that a Catholic diocese is a school system here and there associated with a church. Lately, however, the strain on resources has become all but intolerable, while serious misgivings have arisen as to the value of the end product.

Encouraged by the growing proportion of educated Catholics and much stimulated by the renaissance of Catholic thought in Europe, American Catholic intellectual life is going through, in the words of one nun, “an orgy of self-criticism.” (Fortunately, as Reverend Gustav Weigel, S.J., writes, “non-Catholics have politely and wisely kept out of the debate.”) The most widely discussed statement of the issue appeared in 1955 in the Fordham quarterly Thought. It was written by Monsignor John Tracy Ellis. Msgr. Ellis began with Denis Brogan’s statement that “in no Western society is the intellectual prestige of Catholicism lower than in the country where, in such respects as wealth, numbers, and strength of organization, it is so powerful.” “No well-informed Catholic,” said Monsignor Ellis, “will attempt to challenge that statement.” And he was particularly concerned with the studies that showed the abysmal performance of Catholics and Catholic institutions in scientific work. Two years earlier, Reverend Joseph P. Fitzpatrick, S.J., of Fordham, in the presidential address of the American Catholic Sociological Society, had said, on the same subject, “If this is true for the physical sciences, I would not hesitate to assert that it is more true of the social sciences.” Father Weigel has put the matter even more succinctly. In a paper presented to the Catholic Commission on Intellectual and Cultural Affairs, the group that has stimulated much of this discussion, he declared: “The postulate of all scholarly investigation is the nagging existence of mystery. The training of not a few young Catholics makes them believe that there is no mystery.”

Apart from a spate of defensive articles on “Great Catholic Intellectuals,” there has been surprisingly little dissent on these estimates. On the other hand, the act of asserting the lack of Catholic intellectual standards is the first step in establishing them. The Catholic world is in fact astir with intellectual aspiration that carries with it the possibility of great achievement.

The realization of this possibility will depend largely on the quality of the education Catholics receive in the coming generation. Despite evidence that parochial schools get a good quality student, the end results have simply not been good enough. And evidence also exists to show that some of the better Catholic students have been avoiding competition in the tougher non-Catholic schools, with a resulting isolation that feeds on itself. Without question, Catholic education came to a moment of crisis by the early 1960’s.

There are three elements to this crisis. First, the Catholics have a large and rapidly growing population. Second, it is the teaching of the Church and the wish of most of the laity that Catholic children should be educated in Catholic schools. Third, if this education is to meet their rising intellectual and social requirements, the already crushing cost will grow much greater; this leads to an increasingly adamant demand that in one way or another an end be put to the “double taxation” of Catholics in the field of education.

The cost of the Catholic school system in New York City is by any standards staggering. In 1960 in the dioceses of Brooklyn and New York (excluding those parts outside the city) there were some 360,000 students in Catholic elementary and secondary schools. This was 37 per cent of the enrollment of the public schools: a proportion hardly changed from the 1840’s. Moreover, the dioceses maintain eighteen colleges and universities, with some 30,000 students. The operating expenses of the city public schools came to $650,000,000 in 1960, on top of which was the cost of the city colleges. The Catholic population of the city, barely a median income group, pay their share of the taxes that support the public schools in addition to the full cost of the Catholic education system.

The Catholics manage this by sacrifice and by what appears to be a high level of managerial efficiency. (The cost per pupil of Catholic elementary schools in New York. is not one-third that of the public schools.) But there is a limit to such possibilities, and when that limit is reached, as it almost surely has been in some respects, the disparity in costs creates a difference in quality as well. In a period of rising intellectual expectations, this fact has led inevitably to active dissatisfaction with the existing arrangement under which Catholic schools are denied all but marginal public assistance.

The present prospects for public assistance to parochial schools are at best doubtful. The basic problem is that Catholics have failed to persuade any significant number of non-Catholic opinion leaders of the justice of their case (although this may be changing, as evidenced by Walter Lippmann’s recent pronouncement). In New York, Catholic spokesmen have not yet been able to couch the issue in terms that have appeal, even perhaps meaning, for many Jewish or Protestant spokesmen; nor have they succeeded in providing Catholics in public and party office with any very coherent understanding of the problem. This is itself a measure of Catholic isolation from the liberal secular tradition of the city that is epitomized by the New York Times.



If an accommodation is reached on the school issue, there is likely to be some diminution of Catholic defensiveness of the kind that led Heywood Broun to call the New York Irish “the cry babies of the Western world.” This defensiveness can be particularly destructive on the issue of Communist subversion and American loyalty. New York Catholics have been prone to think they have learned something when the leader of Tammany Hall informs a communion breakfast of the Sanitation Department Holy Name Society that “there is no Mother’s Day behind the Iron Curtain.” When a number of the leading universities of the nation announced their opposition to the loyalty oath provisions of the National Defense Education Act of 1958, Catholic newspapers all over the country, as one disgusted Catholic scientist put it, “proudly displayed front-page stories in which they told how Catholic students in Catholic colleges virtually demanded loyalty oaths. . . .” This is at best a curious posture for members of a Church whose principal effort in American society has been to limit the role of the state in education.

The announcement in 1961 by the head of the John Birch Society that half his membership was Catholic—whether or not true—caused a stir in Catholic circles, as did the rise of the radical right in general in the post-Eisenhower period. Elements within the Church appeared to realize how uncritical and remote from reality large sections of lay opinion had become. There followed a series of lucid and eloquent statements denouncing extremist organizations and expounding the bases of effective anti-Communism. But whether the minds of those concerned had been conditioned beyond the reach of appeals to reason remained to be seen.

The excesses of Catholic militancy are producing a reaction among the laity as well. For although New York has for long been a center of clerical conservatism in the Catholic Church, it is also a center of Catholic intellectual activity that tends to “liberal” views in about the same proportion and along the same lines as intellectual opinion generally. The isolation of the Catholic community is rapidly breaking down as the great issues of the 1930’s and 1940’s recede. The passing of the Franco regime in Spain will remove a time-honored source of misunderstanding, bitterness, and bona fide hostility. The expulsion of Communism from the power centers of American life has been acknowledged in most Catholic circles, while the appearance of Communism in Latin America must give Catholics pause in their assumptions about the process of Marxist subversion: no Protestant country has yet gone Communist. Increasingly, the prospect is that the various elements of Catholic opinion—liberal, conservative, radical—will merge with corresponding elements in non-Catholic groups, at one and the same time expanding the area of Catholic influence and diminishing the influence of the Catholic bloc. The strong likelihood, therefore, is that the future will see Catholic opinion becoming increasingly variegated, and reflecting the widely divergent views of a community that spans a broad social and ethnic spectrum.

In 1962, some seven years after his widely read assessment of Catholic intellectual life, Monsignor John Tracy Ellis turned his attention to a potentially more dangerous possibility: that the emergence of an intellectually trained and vigorous Catholic laity would bring with it “the curse of anti-clericalism.” Already there was to be encountered “severe criticism of bishops and priests among the intellectuals and professional people.”

This represented, of course, an almost entirely new situation for the American Catholic Church, reflecting the increased numbers of highly educated Catholics, but also the increasing intellectual stature of the Church itself. Whereas in the past a disgruntled Catholic intellectual in Protestant-secular America would at a certain point simply leave the Church, there now emerged the possibility of remaining Catholic but becoming anti-clerical.

Monsignor Ellis spoke with great feeling of the only solution he could envisage:

. . . the laymen must be freed to speak and to act without hindrance on the vital problems that press for solution outside the realm of doctrine. If they are not given such freedom the superior training and education of which they are the recipients in rapidly mounting numbers will have been—insofar as the Church is concerned—largely wasted, and the Church itself will be exposed to the very real threat of having the laymen’s repressed zeal and frustrated ambitions for the Mystical Body turned into a disillusionment and embitterment that will breed in our land the kind of spirit that has poisoned the relations of clergy and laity in so much of western Europe and in Latin America.

The prospects for dissension within the Catholic community are strongest in the area of social policy, although here the structure most likely will be that of liberal clergy and laity combining in opposition to their conservative counterparts. Since the time of Rerum Novarum (1891) Catholic social doctrine has stood against many of the most cherished economic doctrines of American conservatism. However, this fact has, as it were, only gradually come to light. (It may be that semantics is in part to blame: Catholic spokesmen have used the term “liberal” to refer to laissez-faire economics of the Manchester school, which they have warmly denounced. However, Catholic and non-Catholic audiences alike would seem generally to have understood the term in its contemporary American reference to non-laissez-faire views.) With the promulgation of the papal encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (1931), and more drastically, with the late Pope John’s Mater et Magistra, the American Catholic Church found itself committed to a systematic social doctrine that was almost certainly far to the left of the social thinking of most American Catholics, clergy and laity alike.



Although most Catholic intellectuals will almost certainly associate themselves with the main body of American liberal opinion, Catholics are likely to have their most significant impact on conservative thought. American conservatism has for a century been notably inarticulate. Whatever Catholic doctrine might be, the generation of Irish Catholics now being educated has been steeped in conservative social feeling both at home and in their formal education. This sets them apart from any large group in America outside the South, save possibly the less numerous German Catholics. If the education of these Catholics is good enough, they will have the opportunity to create a sustained and comprehensive body of conservative thought in the United States based on the Catholic doctrine of the rights and responsibilities of the individual, the limitations on the power of the state, and the transcendent purpose of the social order, combined with a scholastic respect for intellect.

But there is a limit to the uses of conjecture. The future of the New York Irish will be determined by forces greater than any they may generate themselves. The decisive question is the course of organized religion in an increasingly non-religious culture. The short-run prospect of considerable interdenominational strain could just as suddenly yield to a Protestant-Catholic-Jewish entente in the face of assertive secular pressures. Clearly, the era of Irish hegemony in the city is past, but so also is their isolation. A new era is upon them, one which may be said to have begun on the day the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Great Britain were photographed at the rail of the Presidential yacht, standing above a large life preserver on which was emblazoned “Honey Fitz—Washington, D.C.”



About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.