Commentary Magazine

That Most Distressful Nation, by Andrew M. Greeley

Lost Identity

That Most Distressful Nation: The Taming of the American Irish.
by Andrew M. Greeley.
Quadrangle. 320 pp. $8.95.

Over the past several years evidence has been mounting to indicate that a reemergent white ethnic consciousness is upon us. This social phenomenon, which is usually referred to as the “new ethnicity” or the “new pluralism” by its sympathizers and as the “new tribalism” by its critics, has given rise to a number of books and newspaper and magazine articles. Andrew M. Greeley, director of the Center for the Study of American Pluralism, National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago, and an early supporter of the new ethnicity, is one of its pioneering interpreters. His publications in this area include, besides numerous articles and reviews, Why Can't They Be Like Us? (1971), a stimulating study of America's white ethnic groups. Greeley has characterized his new work as “the first attempt to write about the Irish experience in the United States from a sociological point of view.” This claim is no doubt correct, but it should be remembered that within the last decade another comprehensive study of the Irish in America has appeared, William V. Shannon's monumental, historically-oriented The American Irish. There is also the superb seventy-page chapter on the New York Irish in Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan's now classic study of New York City's five major ethnic groups, Beyond the Melting Pot.

Put in its simplest historical and ideological terms, the new ethnicity is the spread in recent times of positive group self-consciousness from blacks to other minorities in America, including white minorities. With regard to the Irish, Pete Hamill, in the special “Irish” issue of New York magazine of March 13, 1972, contends that “something exhilarating and wild has happened to the Irish this past year, the reforging of a lost cultural identity.” Andrew Greeley, on the other hand, asserts unequivocally at one point in That Most Distressful Nation that “the legitimation of ethnicity came too late for the American Irish.” No doubt the truth about the American Irish with respect to their present attitude toward themselves as a group lies somewhere between these two divergent views.

Greeley's book tells us, directly and indirectly, wittingly and unwittingly, a good deal about the current state of the American Irish. His method over some seventeen chapters is a combination of history (of Ireland), anthropology (again focusing on Ireland), opinion research (comparing the American Irish with various other groups in America), and impressionistic essays (on certain aspects of the Irish-American character and personality). In itself this format, aside from the surprising absence of a section on Irish-American history, seems generally appropriate to the subject, and Greeley, a sociologist long interested in ethnicity, a third-generation Irish American, and a Roman Catholic priest, is ideally qualified to do the job that such a flexible, open-ended format calls for. Moreover, readers familiar with some of his earlier work have the right, I suppose, to expect something special from him on the American Irish. Unfortunately, his book on the subject is, on balance, a disappointment, though an informative and thought-provoking one.

Somewhat simplified, the main, partly interlocking themes of Greeley's book are the following: the persistence of certain Old-Country values and traits among the New-World Irish; the examination, through the study of history and anthropology as well as through personal observation, of certain culturally acquired behavioral patterns and attitudes in the American Irish; the proposition that the American Irish are in economic terms largely successful; the corollary (for Greeley) that with success the American Irish have been “tamed,” have become dull, predictable, and uncreative. Among Greeley's secondary themes let us note at least these: the increasing invisibility of the American Irish to themselves and the larger society; their liberal politics in contrast to their conservative image; their paradoxical character and personality; their low self-esteem; their problems with alcohol; their capacity to survive.


Greeley's summary of Irish history is detailed and pertinent. He identifies the four aspects of that history that would appear to have had the greatest shaping influence on the character of the American Irish: the Gaelic past, the Catholic religion, the Penal Laws, and the Great Famine. Reading Greeley's straightforward account of the last two, one can only shudder and agree with normally arch and imperturbable Daniel P. Moynihan when he says in his Foreword to the book:

The damage done to the Irish by defeat is as nothing to that inflicted on the British through victory. The plain barbarity of British acts in Northern Ireland in 1971 and now in 1972 is scarcely imaginable save as one considers what they have done to themselves since Cromwell. In all else generous and brave: in this thing, hideous.

Hideous. An apt word to describe England's treatment of Ireland since the Reformation and before. For the American Irish especially, this great and long trauma is past; but the scar is deep and wide and its name is radical self-hatred. We know better today, perhaps, than we once did what price millennial contempt exacts from its recipient-victims, as well as what its cost can be to its author-victims. Probably every nation has its moral blind-spot, its quasi-official “dilemma.” Ireland has been England's, and Greeley is right, in my opinion, to stress the burden of this baleful past on the American Irish of today.

As I have already implied, Greeley's book rests upon the presumption of a very high, if not all-determining, degree of continuity between the Old Country and the New. The Irish on both sides of the Atlantic, Greeley maintains, share such things as an intense loyalty to the Catholic Church, strong sibling bonds, sociability, and a predilection for politics, coupled with an informal, indirect, pragmatic political style, that is rooted in the customary law and extended family structure of Celtic Ireland. While as a general principle the notion of continuity seems valid enough, for someone like myself who was born and raised in Irish America, is of Irish-born parents, and has visited close relatives in Ireland, the discontinuities and transformations that occur between the Irish of Ireland and those of America are on occasion as impressive as the continuities. I cannot imagine, for example, heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan's ever coming out of Ireland. Only Irish America (or, with different “styles” each, Italo-America, Polish America, etc.) could have produced him. As she has demonstrated over and over again, America can make an essentially pastoral people as hard as nails and, at the same time, insatiably hungry for recognition. Yet Sullivan's “style” outside the ring, his particular brand of charm and gregariousness, was thoroughly Irish, as William V. Shannon has shown. Thus, what is involved here is, in the end, not a complete cultural break but rather a complex transformation. It seems to me that in a book about the American Irish it is as important to speculate concretely and at length about possible breaks and transformations that would distinguish the New-World Irish from their Old-Country cousins as it is to enumerate continuities that would draw them together.

That said, I hasten to point out that Greeley is especially perceptive, in my opinion, when he generalizes about the genus Irish-American on the basis of his experiences with the predominantly Irish parishioners of Christ the King Church in Beverly, an upper-middle-class section of Chicago. (Greeley served as a curate in this parish for ten years, from the early 50's to the early 60's, and apparently still keeps in touch with its people.) His comments about familial and other interpersonal relations among the American Irish—for example, regarding parents who withhold praise from their children with crippling effect, the spiritually inhibiting and socially controlling function of ridicule, the subtle but dominating power of the Irish matriarch—strike me not only as accurate but also as tremendously important steps toward transmuting personal insights into common, “objective” knowledge. And the dissemination of just such knowledge is what is needed to liberate the Irish in America, not from oppression but from ignorance about themselves.


If there is one theme that dominates Greeley's book, it is the basically twofold notion that the American Irish, in their obsessive quest for respectability, for economic success and social acceptance, have been “tamed” by the very attainment of that goal. In short, they lost their “Soul,” as Greeley puts it, when they gained suburbia. The theme is of course a clichè, and like most clichés it rings true up to a point. As regards the success factor alone, my own impressions, supported to some extent by information gleaned from sources such as Vance Packard's A Nation of Strangers, make me question Greeley's rather sunny appraisal of the overall socioeconomic achievement of the American Irish. Packard points out that of Chicago's fifteen wealthiest suburbs, only number fifteen in rank is predominantly Roman Catholic in religion (presumably German and Irish). Are most American Irish upper-middle class and living in places like Chicago's Beverly, as Greeley implies? Or are most of them still to be found in neighborhoods like Daley's classically white ethnic, lower-middleclass Bridgeport? My sense of the situation is that there are even now at least as many people in the Bridgeports of Irish America as in the Beverlys.

And have the Irish who inhabit America's Beverlys necessarily lost their Soul? Greeley is not very explicit about what he means by Irish Soul, though it must be conceded that he is skating on the outer rim of expressibility when he tries to put such a concept into words. One gathers, nonetheless, that for him it connotes tribal passion, mystical whimsy, spontaneous concern for others, generosity of spirit, and a kind of existential energy and imagination. If the American Irish ever had all these qualities, they no doubt did lose some of them in the struggle to get to suburbia. On the theoretical plane, however, are “success” and “Soul” mutually exclusive, as Greeley's central theme suggests? For that matter, are lack of success and lack of Soul mutually exclusive? In creating his rather simplistic Soul/-success polarity, it is as if Greeley merely radicalized and rigidified Macaulay's quip about the Irish as having qualities that make men interesting rather than successful.

For Greeley, success and Soul conflict, and because of this conflict, he has virtually painted himself into a corner. On the one hand, he wants very much for the American Irish to be successful, but on the other, he is in effect warning them that the price is too high. Greeley's attitude toward success is thus hopelessly ambivalent. In this he typifies most of his fellow Irishmen. This ambivalence, never directly confronted by Greeley, holds the key, in my opinion, to an understanding of a major facet of the American-Irish character and personality.

At the end of his long study of the American Irish, William Shannon reaches this conclusion: “If there is a single concept that distinguishes the Irish in America, it is their dual preoccupation with security and power.” According to Shannon, the Irish in general have fared best in careers made within large organizations and institutions, work situations which allow them to satisfy their need for security now and power later, hopefully, within the organization. Complicating the matter, as Shannon further observes, is a kind of “aristocratic disdain for mere money-making” on the part of the Irish, and not least among those who have made some. While evidence exists to suggest that the Irish do view themselves as destined for a higher calling than worldly success (e.g., their significant overrepresentation in the convents and seminaries of America, as well as in the Peace Corps, as Greeley points out), it seems to me that this attitude can for some at least be simply a convenient pose, an after-the-fact rationalization for the refusal to bestir oneself and take risks in the secular sphere.

Risk-taking in the occupational realm, gambling with their twin needs of present security and future power for the sake of an only possible great success, financial or other, is not something the Irish have done frequently or well. Thus, to the extent that risk-taking is a precondition for outstanding success, the Irish on the whole are precluded by something in themselves from ever attaining that kind of success. In what is to my mind his most suggestive chapter outside of those devoted primarily to Ireland, Greeley in “The Next Generation” explores the Irishman's lack of “spiritual entrepreneur-ship,” even if he neither calls it that nor probes this lack as deeply as he could have. He notes that those members of the younger generation of the American Irish with whom he has contact seem no different from their parents in their unwillingness to take risks. Greeley then speculates about possible reasons for their timidity. The capacity to take risks, he reminds us, presupposes a healthy amount of self-confidence, which, in turn, is usually born and nurtured in unambiguous parental approval during childhood. Sad to say, this type of reinforcement does not occur often enough in Irish-American homes. While there may be, and most likely usually is, plenty of love from parent to child, rarely will this love be matched by expressions of approval. Greeley illustrates this trait with an autobiographical statement that will no doubt shock some of his readers, though probably not the Irish ones among them: “In my own life I cannot recall ever being praised by my parents for any achievement.”


But why should parents behave this way? Why don't they encourage their children by praising their accomplishments? What lies behind this withholding? Greeley raises such questions in “The Next Generation” and offers some tentative, partial answers to them. But midway through the chapter, he abruptly veers off in another, almost opposite, direction and tries to show, with the aid of opinion research, that the younger generation of American Irish “are not doing that badly” and in fact are doing rather well. Toward the end of the chapter Greeley attempts a synthesis of his own negative impressions regarding the extreme fragility of the young Irish-American's ego and the more positive data concerning achievement and attitude gathered through NORC surveys. However, the chapter's contradictory, almost schizoid, character persists through this synthesis, and we are left asking ourselves Greeley's own question: “But why is the socialization process of the Irish family so destructive to the confidence, self-esteem. and creativity of its young people?”

Greeley gets closest to answering this question himself when he observes on the same page that “in the Penal years, any Irishman who had spectacular success would have achieved it by selling out to the English conquerors at the expense of his fellows.” The Penal Laws, as Greeley makes abundantly clear earlier in his study, begun in Elizabethan times, strengthened during Cromwell's reign, developed to their evil fullest after the Battle of Boyne in 1691, and in force until the first Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 (the last disabilities against Irish Catholic land ownership were not struck down until the Wyndham Act of 1903!), made it virtually illegal to be Catholic in Ireland, impossible to keep the traditional faith and at the same time enjoy the most elementary rights of a citizen and human being. As laws, they were framed in such a way as to encourage if not coerce conversion to Protestantism. I quote a passage selected at random from Greeley's summary of their incredible particulars:

Catholics were excluded from the legal profession; they could be neither barristers, nor solicitors, nor magistrates, nor judges. They could not be members of municipal corporations. They could not serve in the army or the navy; they could not bear arms; they could not wear swords on ceremonial occasions. They could not own a horse worth more than five pounds; any Protestant seeing a Catholic with a more valuable horse could compel him to sell it for five pounds. Catholics might not acquire land from Protestants; a Catholic landowner could not deed his estate as a whole; no Catholic could hold a lease for more than thirty years, but a Catholic who became a Protestant could inherit his father's whole estate.

Thus, when Greeley invokes the Penal times within the context of such questions as risk-taking and success, and in the process associates “spectacular success” with “selling out,” knowingly or not he is but a step away from deducing a general principle, from equating exceptional achievement with the denial of one's own, gaining distinction with losing the faith, success with despicable betrayal. Greeley himself never takes that step or makes that equation, but some of his readers no doubt will.


It seems to me that at the deepest level of the Irish psyche dwells the conviction that all individual risk-taking in the name of worldly pursuits involves the possibility not of greater achievement and fuller self-realization, but rather of ceasing to be Catholic, the ultimate betrayal. This conviction, though unexpressed and very likely completely unconscious, is nonetheless so widely held among the Irish that an elaborate set of moral constraints has been developed over the centuries for the mutual enforcement of the commandment-promise: stay with the crowd and you will keep the faith. Thus, the herding function of ridicule, excessive teasing, “Who do you think you are?,” “What will people say?,” parents denying praise to their children—all discussed by Greeley, but not as techniques for binding the Irish together in the faith and protecting them, in any way possible, from success, that most mortal of sins.

In his chapter on the Church, Greeley quotes the historian Patrick J. Corish: “The Cromwellian settlement made the ‘Irish’ and ‘Catholic’ synonymous: to be the one was automatically to be the other.” Thus did the faith come to be inextricably bound up with the notion of self as Irish and other as English-Protestant, and one's most basic integrity, in the manner of Thomas More, to be concentrated in adamantine allegiance to the Roman Church. While he never quite says so, at several points in his book Greeley hints at his own belief in the enduring synonymy of “Irish” and “Catholic,” as well as at the fact that for him the vital core of the Irish heritage in America is religious faith. But have we not reached that point in our own history and that of the British Isles when “Irish” and “Catholic” are no longer as synonymous as they once were, and when in fact “Irish Catholic” leans more toward Irish than toward Catholic, rather than the reverse, which used to be the case? Surely if there is one thing we have learned from the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland during the past three and a half years, with “Catholics” (native Irish) on one side and “Protestants” (descendants in their vast majority of the Scottish and English plantation-solution settlers) on the other, it is that to be Irish Catholic is not necessarily to be a believer. Is not a comparable separation of religion and ethnicity beginning to manifest itself in America? Is that not in fact an aspect of the new ethnicity? Does not one still feel bonds of kinship and solidarity with one's fellow Irishmen in America when one no longer shares the traditional faith? I pose these questions because they are “in the air” nowadays and because, to my mind at least, their implication is clear: leaving the faith no longer automatically means deserting the faithful, nor can success any longer be equated, subliminally or otherwise, with the betrayal of one's kind. I cannot help but wonder whether Greeley might have held back from pushing his exploration of the “success problem” of the American Irish further than he did out of an unconscious fear of having eventually to deal with such questions.


In the final analysis, however, Greeley's hesitations and ambivalences tell us more, perhaps, about the present state of the American Irish than the most lucid, critically self-aware account of the subject ever could. The American Irish today are a troubled, confused lot, as a group and as individuals, and they are troubled in ways that go beyond the “normal” anxieties and insecurities they feel as white ethnics. Greeley's conclusion about the more than geographic marginality of Ireland in relation to the rest of Europe (“Ireland is Europe, all right, but either not quite or just barely”), when slightly modified, describes perfectly the borderline position the American Irish occupy in relation to both the majority culture and white ethnics: they are not quite nativist and are just barely ethnic.

Michael Novak, in his brilliant if at times abrasive The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics1 has recently reminded the American Irish of just how vulnerable they are, as well as how uncomfortable they can be made to feel, on their ethnic flank. Novak's book shows, among other things, that “ethnic animosity within the Catholic Church” has increasingly isolated the Irish from the other Catholic groups in America, people who have been patronized and bullie by the Irish for a century and who are now beginning to give tongue to their resentment. On their other flank, while the American Irish are closer culturally to Anglo-Saxon America than other white ethnics, one should not for an instant forget the immensely important fact that the Irish alone, of all white ethnics, have lived for centuries, and on the receiving end, in a stark and brutal adversary relationship with overwhelming Anglo-Saxon power. This may mean that at a visceral, pre-conscious level, the American Irish experience our ethnic-nativist conflict, muted though it has become, in a more devastating way, emotionally and psychologically, than other white minority groups in the country experience the same conflict.

This brings me to my last source of disappointment with That Most Distressful Nation. In part no doubt because he feels he has already treated the broader topic of white ethnicity in Why Can't They Be Like Us?, and doubtless because in the present book he wishes to stress the American Irishman's unique heritage and his continuity with his Irish past, Greeley does not attempt to situate the American Irishman with respect to the recent reassertion of a white ethnic consciousness in our land. He gives the American Irishman an Irish past that is both harrowing and heroic, but little in the way of an American history, only a vague and vaguely desperate present, and not much hope for the future. But surely the new ethnicity represents the essential fact of our present, our means of retrieving the past, immediate as well as remote, and our promise of a better future. While it is obviously no panacea, it has as much potential for helping the Irish to find their place in America as it does for helping other groups.

Thanks to the new ethnicity, the American Irish, and all other groups in America, have the chance to awaken from the nightmare of history (to paraphrase Joyce), from the time-honored but dignity-destroying dream of a melting-pot America. Paradoxically, we can probably awaken from this bad dream best through the study of history and not through any deliberate effort to revive or time-freeze fading or evolving group self-concepts. It would be impossible to improve upon Moynihan's neat formulation of this option and need in his Foreword:

There is no need for the recreation of a distinctive ethnic identity. It is enough to hope that the Irish experience, as that of others, may become part of the American sensibility. It is something we need to know about ourselves, something we need to teach, and which we must first learn (emphasis in original).

For it is only after setting the record of our various, interconnected pasts straight that we shall be in a position to shape our collective future with intelligence and mutual respect.


1 Reviewed by Robert Alter in COMMENTARY, June 1972.

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