St. Patrick's Day each year celebrates everything Irish in America. Yet the day was not significant in the Ireland that immigrants left in the 1800s, and the Irish were once despised in their new country, says historian James Barrett, who specializes in U.S. urban, labor and ethnic history, with a focus on Chicago. Irish Americans, however, would play a key role in Americanizing later immigrants and integrating them into urban society, Barrett says in an upcoming book, tentatively titled "Americanization From the Bottom Up: Irish Americans and the Making of a Multi-Ethnic Urban Society." Barrett was interviewed by News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
So why did St. Patrick's Day become such a big deal for Irish Americans?
It was and is primarily a religious holiday in Ireland and also one associated with the goal of national liberation. This helps to explain why some Irish Catholics are offended by the drunken excesses we see in some commercialized events. In the American city, it became a way to assert Irish Catholic identity and worth, and to mark one's space in the face of considerable hostility and discrimination. In places like New York and Chicago, Irish Americans were determined to make a place for themselves. The parades and related events announced this determination. They were a way of saying, "We're here, we're proud of our culture, and we're not going anywhere." As they settled in, the official marches became more organized and respectable, a way of showing the broader urban community that the Irish had arrived.
The wave of Irish immigration to the U.S. began in the 1840s with a devastating potato famine in Ireland. How did that affect the way Irish Americans saw themselves and established themselves in the U.S.?
They developed a defensive urban culture characterized by extensive social networks based on the Catholic parish, the local Democratic Party, and trade unions. These networks facilitated their gradual rise to social and political influence, helped to provide them with jobs and business opportunities, and protected their communities. They also provided the means by which the Irish dealt with other racial and ethnic communities. The Irish marked their territory, figuratively and in everyday life, and defended it against all comers. This became a model of sorts for many who followed.
Just how despised were they?
In the first generation of their immigration and as late as the early twentieth century in some places, Irish Catholics were a racialized minority. They were thought to have disabilities based on their genetic stock, and they were treated accordingly.
Early Irish immigrants lived and worked in close proximity to African Americans and shared some of the same problems. Nativist intolerance focused on the Irish, and they were often excluded from jobs and respectable urban society. This produced a strong sense of grievance and a determination to succeed against the odds. But it also encouraged the Irish to distance themselves from African Americans, and this could enhance their racism.
Why were the Irish so significant in the history of U.S. immigration?
In some ways, Irish Catholics were America's first ethnic group. They came with a distinct culture and built their own distinct communities. They cultivated their own institutions and confronted many of the same obstacles and intolerance faced by later ethnic groups. When later immigrants arrived, they found the Irish dominating the streets and many of the most important institutions in working-class life. The Irish won a place in urban society through organization and struggle. Later immigrants had little choice but to deal with them.
So what role did Irish Americans play with those other groups?
There was often an impulse to exclude and marginalize later immigrants, to save patronage jobs and other goodies for themselves. But the Irish also had an incentive to integrate and mobilize the newer immigrants in the Catholic Church, the political machine, and the unions - partly to maximize their own influence, but also because of an undercurrent of social justice and sympathy with the oppressed. This stemmed, it seems, from their own experiences in Ireland and the American city, and perhaps also from their religious beliefs. The Irish, for instance, took the lead in the 1920s in opposing legislation restricting immigration and in opposing, often violently, the Ku Klux Klan's attacks on immigrants and Catholics. They could marginalize more recent immigrants, but they also made a place for them in American urban society.