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Irish Nationalism in America


                      Irish Nationalism in America

In the most recent United States Census almost eleven million people identify as born in Ireland or of Irish origin. This is a multi-generational record reflecting how current citizens think of their ethnic background.

 Except for refugees who are always identified by their country of origin, a person’s family lineage is no longer deemed as significant as in the past. In 1960, John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s Irish Catholic background was seen as pivotal to his candidacy for the White House, and he won over 90% of the votes in his own ethnic constituency. The Irish Catholic credentials of the current president, Joseph Biden, are at least as strong as JFK’s but in the last election his support fell below 50%.

By the turn of the 20th century the 4.8 million people, either Irish-born or of Irish parentage living in America, had improved their social status significantly. They had achieved relative occupational parity in most employment areas. About the same proportion of male Irish Americans (35 per cent) were engaged in white-collar work, skilled jobs (50 per cent) or unskilled labor (15 per cent) as white native-born citizens.

Irish immigrants and their descendants became active in political life. Even before 1900 they dominated the Democratic Party in cities with large Irish populations. The Tammany Hall political machine was a byword for political corruption and graft, but they learned to wield power and, overall, were effective in advancing the social and economic standing of the Irish community.

The Irish-dominated American Catholic Church not only catered for the spiritual needs of the immigrants but also developed schools and social services that copper fastened their sense of being different and proud of their ethnic background and sense of tribal belonging.

Despite the noticeable Americanization of the Irish ethnic group towards the end of the 19th century, anti-Irish prejudice was still a salient part of life in the United States. The concept of Anglo-Saxon racial superiority was very much in vogue. Not only were African Americans consigned to inferior status but, to a lesser degree, so too were the Slavs and the Celts.

This pretentious version of Social Darwinism was used to justify British imperial expansion abroad and showed prominently among the dominant Protestant ascendancy in America. The White Anglo Saxon Protestants (WASPS) were convinced that they alone were marked with special ruling genes and noble purpose. It was no accident that the British Empire was the dominant colonial power, spreading their version of civilization wherever they went.

In America, Anglo-Saxons occupied nearly all the positions of power and influence in business and government, and their rhetoric about WASP superiority rationalized their culture of social snobbery which was fueled by crude anti-immigrant nativism and blatant racism.

According to this reading of “natural” WASP supremacy, the non-elite ethnic groups, especially the Irish, were blamed for the perceived evils of American society: slums, strikes, political corruption and crime.

The powerful American Protective Association, founded in 1887, openly advocated for discrimination against Irish-Americans in all spheres of life, political, occupational and educational. Remember that the Klan wasn’t just viciously against Blacks, they also despised Catholics.

America had two outstanding Irish leaders in those years and indeed they held major sway in the community right into the 1940’s: John Devoy and Daniel Cohalan.  Both were members of Clan na Gael which worked closely with the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), a descendant of the Fenians, in Ireland. In this role Devoy sent money for armaments regularly to the IRB in Ireland.

Cohalan, the son of emigrants, was educated by the Irish Christian Brothers, rose to importance in the Democratic Party and was appointed a Supreme Court judge. He and Devoy worked closely in guiding Clan na Gael, steering the organization away from openly supporting the occasional late 19th century violent Fenian eruptions in Ireland or in England. In fact, they made no bones about their admiration and preference for Parnell’s parliamentary tactics and condemned some of the Fenian dynamiting in English cities.

Both men realized that they needed a legitimate organization without ties to violence to promote their goals, and so in March 1916 the Friends of Irish Freedom (FOIF) was born. Over 2300 delegates assembled from all over the country in the Astor Hotel in Manhattan to respond in their words “to the call for leadership of the Irish race in America.” This meeting was held the month before the Easter Rebellion in Dublin. Except for Devoy and Cohalan, who were informed of the plans for the Rising, the delegates were unaware of the intended rebellion.

There was an explosion of new members after the executions of the leaders of the Dublin insurrection. While this growth was mainly evident in the cities in the northeast, branches of the FOIF, some named after the leaders executed in Dublin, were started all over the country.

The men at the top of the organization, especially Cohalan, were wary of allegations of hyphenism. Being called Irish-Americans was seen in some official quarters as amounting to a kind of semi-loyalty to the country which welcomed them to their new home. German-Americans and Irish-Americans were asked where their real allegiance lay, with the home country or with the new nation where they were living.

The FOIF spokesmen constantly stressed the compatibility of Irish-American nationalism and American patriotism. They liked to highlight the myth of historic enmity between Britain and the United States, recalling alleged British treachery in the war of 1812 and the Civil War.

On this theme, we read John Devoy’s opinion in his autobiography Recollections of an Irish Rebel: “We have followed with closer attention than many of our fellow citizens of other strains of blood, the course of American History, and have seen the same hand which has crushed Ireland ever stretched out in constant menace against America.”

Anti-British outbursts elicited criticism from the mainstream press. The powerful New York Tribune described the convention in the Astor hotel as “a clownish performance.” And the Brooklyn Gazette criticized the new body because it was at variance with majority thinking in Ireland.

The New York Times, not usually friendly to Irish concerns, declared that the British execution of the leaders of the insurrection as “incredibly stupid.” Cardinal Gibbons expressed his disapproval of the Easter revolt to the British ambassador, but he warned prophetically that the executions by the military leaders in Dublin might be “manufacturing martyrs.”

America entered the Great War in April 1917. Not surprisingly, the Polish and Czech communities gave full vent to their nationalist hatred for the Austro-Hungarian empire and Germany. In contrast, the FOIF had to be very circumspect about attacking Britain, America’s ally. However, after the war ended, they were quick to proclaim the real heroism of Irish-American troops on the Western front.

The Friends played important roles during the Irish War of Independence (1918-1921) and the Irish Civil War (1922-1923.) Food surely for another article.











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