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What Happened to Irish America?

Irish Americans used to be progressive champions for the oppressed and the downtrodden. Now many of them are Trump voters.

Don Emmert/AFP/Getty

Declaring March Irish Heritage Month, President Trump paid tribute to “the tremendous role Irish immigrants and their descendants have played in the development of our great nation.” It was a perfunctory proclamation, issued every March since 1990 by presidents Democratic and Republican. But given the professed nativism of the president praising this once reviled immigrant group, it’s worth looking a little more closely at the Irish in America. They have indeed played a tremendous role, just not the one Trump or many Irish Americans might choose to remember. 

As St. Patrick’s Day approaches Irish Americans are once again pulling out our Donegal tweed flat caps and preparing to sing our wistful songs. The Irish in America are tenacious in their cultural identification, claiming an Irish identity a century or more after our forbearers stepped off the boat. We keep our poetry and our grudges, but in the long years of assimilation we seem to have shed what was once a hallmark of Irish identity: a solidarity with the oppressed. 

Irish names are prominent among Trump loyalists. Many Irish Americans have adopted his brand of nativism, as well as an every-man-for-himself faith in the market and a tight-heartedness that would have been anathema to our grandparents. Half of us voted for Trump in 2016. But Irish American history is filled with characters who looked outward from their Irishness, who stood, sometimes fiercely, for the outsider and the exploited, who could see their plight in the struggles of other peoples.

The Sons of Molly Maguire, a clandestine organization of Irish and Irish American labor radicals in coal country Pennsylvania in the 1870s, took their inspiration—and possibly some members—from a group of the same name in Ireland that set fires, killed livestock, and assassinated the gentry who had starved them off their land when the potato crop failed. There needn’t have been a famine: Food was exported to England all across those hungry years. Likewise, there was no lack of income in America’s coal country. The Molly Maguires directed their rage at the mine owners growing fat off their bent backs and blackening lungs. Their actions helped pave the way for unions and collective bargaining. Better to sit across a table and negotiate than forever be checking for dynamite.

Mother Jones, after whom the magazine is named, was a sharp-tongued and formidable Irishwoman, a type recognizable even today. A famine refugee, she was born in County Cork in 1837 and ended up in Tennessee, married to an iron molder. After yellow fever took her husband and all four children, she became mother to child laborers, miners, and the kind of workers who would never win an H1-B visa today. She traveled incessantly, organizing and speaking, comforting miners forced into a tent city by John D. Rockefeller in Colorado, rallying workers in West Virginia and in Pennsylvania. She helped found the Wobblies with William “Big Bill” Haywood. In 1903, advocating an end to child labor, she led a march of mill worker children from Philadelphia to President Theodore Roosevelt’s grand estate in Oyster Bay, New York.

A generation later, veterans of the Irish Revolution built up a muscular labor movement and political apparatus. New York’s Mike Quill applied his experience organizing for Irish Republicanism to launch the Transport Workers Union. He was a member of the Communist Party until 1948, pro-integration, a supporter of civil rights, and an opponent of the Vietnam War.  

Irish immigrant women arrived on their own from the 1840s on until the 1920s, unmarried and childless, seeking work when most female immigrants were traveling with or to husbands. Initially servants, they became nurses in vast numbers, accruing education and professional credentials even while their new country looked at them with suspicion, considered their religion foreign and dangerous, their loyalties divided. Willful Irish American girls poured into convents in the middle of the 20th century, seeking education and broader horizons along with their devotion. Since the 19th century Irish nuns (and French, Italian, and German nuns) had built the social service infrastructure of the expanding Catholic Church, running hospitals, orphanages, and school systems: pioneering female executives.

John A. Ryan laid the intellectual groundwork for the New Deal. The anti-semitic radio priest Charles Coughlin is better known, but Ryan was more important. In the 15 years before the Depression, the Minnesota priest born to immigrant parents argued, in books, speeches, and papers, for a living wage, unemployment insurance, worker compensation, public control of utilities, and Social Security. He advocated an income tax before there was one and argued that there was a moral imperative—and ought to be a legal one —to redistribute excess wealth. And he urged Catholics, whose church was controlled by Irish, to support the New Deal. Now another Ryan from the upper Midwest is trying to dismantle it.

When the legislation was conceived, Irish ward politicians delivered votes for it and implemented it, birthing a U.S. more fair and just than the country they or their parents sang sad songs about. We remember the cartoon version of the political boss with smoldering cigar, meaty face, and greasy palms, but forget the political skill, the distribution of work, the marshalling of votes to make government work for the people. Commitment to shared prosperity was a bedrock principle of those politics. 

The New Deal worked—for white people. People of color were systematically and specifically excluded. And while some Irish priests marched with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, others spoke of defending their urban parishes from black “infiltration.” As the Irish left the subway tunnels, mills, and nursery wards for the middle and upper middle class, maybe we held hard to the wrong things. Step dancing classes and children’s names with complicated Irish spelling, but not the old neighborhoods’ practice of shared advancement. Donations to the Irish Studies Departments at prestigious colleges, but not commitment to the on-ramps that did us so much good. 

Our memory of subjugation is remote enough now that we erect monuments to the Great Hunger, reminding ourselves of suffering, giving ourselves chills as we read about skeletons walking the roads, dying with mouths stained green from eating grass. Families on the run. Desperation. The point of remembering injustice shouldn’t be that we fetishize the injury until we twist ourselves mean or make our suffering and our success unique by pulling up the ladder behind us.

The point is to remember what we were so we can see ourselves in the one who is there now. The major waves of Irish immigrants, the famished and haunted, the rebels against empire, the dispossessed rural workers greeted with hatred in their new country—they bear a striking resemblance to the Africans today boarding wretched vessels to cross the Mediterranean, driven from their own countries by drought and war, the Central Americans walking the spine of the continent, and the Muslims opening hate mail in their mosques. Our ghosts are among them. They resemble our Irish ancestors more than we do anymore, flat caps notwithstanding.