Author Q&A: James Barrett

  • June 7, 2012

James R. Barrett details his supposition that the Irish immigrant experience set the template for subsequent waves of immigration.

In The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City, the newest volume in the award -winning Penguin History of American Life series, James R. Barrett chronicles how a new urban American identity was forged in the streets, saloons, churches, and workplaces of the American city. This process of “Americanization from the bottom up” was deeply shaped by the Irish. From Lower Manhattan to the South Side of Chicago to Boston’s North End, newer waves of immigrants and African Americans found it nearly impossible to avoid the Irish. While historians have emphasized the role of settlement houses and other mainstream institutions in Americanizing immigrants, Barrett makes the original case that the culture absorbed by newcomers upon reaching American shores had a distinctly Hibernian cast.

The Irish Way centers on the story of Irish American influence over later immigrants. You argue convincingly that the Irish often defined what it meant to “be American” for later immigrant groups. Can you explain the genesis of this book? How does it connect with your previous work?

I’ve always been interested in how the relations between ethnic and racial groups shaped American society and how immigrants gradually developed broader identities as Americans. I wanted to observe these processes not in theory but as they took place in city streets and workplaces, churches and saloons, vaudeville houses and city political machines. I’m primarily a historian of the working class. I entered this project with that “bottom-up” perspective and with questions about what divided American workers from one another and what experiences brought them together. Another part of the work derived from an interest in the roots and reproduction of racial and ethnic prejudice; the Irish played a vital role in that domain. But the inspiration for the book was also personal, as it often is in the case of social history. I grew up in an Irish American family in an ethnically-mixed inner city neighborhood. My wife’s experiences as the child of Chinese immigrants in a city (Chicago) that seemed to be dominated by the Irish and our lives together over 40 years also provided a lot of the inspiration.

In the book, you point out that many later immigrants eventually returned to their native lands, “but for the Irish there was no turning back.” The famine era speaks for itself, but can you explain more about the conditions in Ireland during the later waves of immigration? Many other immigrant groups came from untenable situations; why for the Irish in particular was there no turning back? Did this strengthen the Irish American identity?

Although it is difficult to quantify, the lingering effects of the famine, the memory of it and the visible signs of how it changed the nation remained in the community well beyond the mid- 19th century. The famine certainly transformed Irish society and at least in some respects, it made things worse for the Irish poor. As land holdings were consolidated, much of the small farmer class was wiped out. Without being able to take up land, young people tended to delay marriage and sometimes never marry at all. During the “Land Wars” of the late 19th century, the remaining tenant farmers and laborers fought it out with large landlords and their agents — more economic dislocation, more evictions, more social conflict. In a word, post-famine Ireland remained a place to leave and when people left, there was little to draw them back. Once here, for all the problems they faced, they were able to engage extensive networks based on kinship, county, politics, and parish. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Irish had “risen” in many cities and they faced a far brighter prospect here than they might have in Ireland.

When Ireland finally took off with the rise of the “Celtic Tiger” from the 1980s, the Irish were shocked to find that people wanted to leave their own societies and come to Ireland for economic opportunity. In that period, some Irish immigrants returned to their nation or went back and forth, but that was new — very little return migration before that.

Prejudice and racial identity are motifs that run throughout the book. As Irish Americans attained a level of respectability in the U.S., they often clung to what they’d achieved by fiercely distinguishing themselves from other minority groups, and emphasizing their “whiteness” or “American-ness.” But then, in the years leading up to World War I, just at the point when they had begun to be widely accepted as part of mainstream America, the subtleties of self-identification began to shift. Irish Americans spoke out against being “Anglicized” and embraced the idea of a distinct “Irish race.”

Irish Americans occupied a unique space somewhere in between ethnic immigrant groups and mainstream “white” America. To what degree was staying in this space a choice? Your book focuses on the Irish experience in urban centers, but were there Irish in smaller communities who more fully assimilated into mainstream “white” America?

Continuing anti-Catholicism and anti-immigrant sentiment extending well into the 20th century meant that the Irish were thrust into alliances with others from Catholic and immigrant backgrounds. These broader identities formed the basis of alliances that provided the Irish with some of their influence — an inter-ethnic political machine, the diverse Catholic Church, ethnically diverse unions.

There are examples of rural/agricultural Irish American communities; in fact, there is one not too far from where I live in central Illinois. But even in these cases, the Irish often arrived not as farmers but rather as laborers, laying or maintaining railroad track, draining farm fields, and so on. In some places, as in the case of Ivesdale, Illinois, they took up land and the relative isolation actually reinforced and helped to sustain Irish identity over the generations. The communities remained fairly homogeneous. The same thing happened for a while in some mining towns. Butte, Montana was an example of an Irish industrial town where job notices were posted in Gaelic — until the labor force became much more diverse in the World War I era. In general, however, it was harder to sustain strong ethnic institutions in smaller, diverse towns and we would expect that assimilation occurred more rapidly in those places. In big cities, with their large immigrant populations, the ethnic cultures held on longer, and the Irish were largely city people.

I really enjoyed the sections about the evolution of the Irish American woman. Part of this story is about the strong value Irish Americans placed on female education: “‘It will always redound to the credit and glory of the Irish immigrants,’ Chicago’s George Cardinal Mundelein noted, than ‘they always gave their daughters the chance of a better education. The father may have only been a laborer in the trenches, the mother without any education, but where the daughter showed signs of ability and a desire to study, they bore every sacrifice that she might have intellectual advantages.’”

I am curious about how this progressiveness in regard to female education and professionalism squares with the traditional patriarchy endorsed by the Catholic Church. Irish Americans were as a whole a highly devout group; how did these two aspects of Irish culture coexist?

This is a little complicated. The church’s patriarchy comes out continually. One good place to see it is in the subordination of nuns, who seem to have done most of the Church’s work. Another is in the early Catholic objection to woman suffrage. But in both spheres there were countervailing tendencies. The Irish nun was a vital source of mentoring and inspiration for young Irish women and, later, for young women from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. She has been badly neglected by historians as a source of “Americanization” for immigrant youth. Nuns not only founded and staffed but also administered vast realms of the Church’s activities— schools, hospitals, orphanages. Young women looked up to them as examples of educated, engaged women; they were very much “in the world” and this was usually an urban world.

In the realm of politics, once they became convinced that immigrant women might constitute an important base of support, many machine politicians actually came to support women’s suffrage. The role of Irish American suffrage campaigners was one that I thought had been largely ignored. Note that Irish American women’s options, like those of most early 20th-century American women, were constricted, but where they found opportunities, as in nursing and above all in teaching, they made their mark.

Finally, there was a tradition of the “rebel girl” stretching all the way back to pre-famine Ireland. I would not claim that such politically-engaged women were common in 19th-century Ireland, but the myths about them abounded and that may also have been an influence on the young women who spread out as labor organizers, nationalist radicals, and suffrage campaigners.

One thing I found particularly interesting was the Irish Catholic impact on decency regulations in the film industry — by 1938, 98 percent of all films viewed in American theaters were being reviewed and rated by the Catholic “Legion of Decency.” You explain that “In line with conservative Irish sensibilities, the enforcement body showed far more concern with sex than with violence.” How did traditional Irish American standards determine the future of entertainment censorship in the United States? Did Irish standards of decency find common ground with Protestant sensibilities?

If the Church made common cause with Protestant reformers in their quest for “decency,” I am not aware of it; I think the assumption was that the Catholic Church had cornered the market on decency. Traditional Irish Catholicism had been less hierarchical and less concerned with issues of sexuality, but the post-famine Church was preoccupied with such concerns. That mentality ran up against a popular culture that must have appeared rather risqué by the standards of the time. When the Legion of Decency published its weekly lists of banned films and administered its yearly oath at Mass, it was harnessing an enormous market of second and third generation urban people who constituted the basis for the cinema market. The studios largely fell in line and submitted their films for scrutiny. For large portions of the ethnic urban population who filled movie theatres, the Catholic Church became the arbiter of “decency.”

The Irish American experience reminds me of the classic melting pot versus salad bowl immigration construct. Irish Americans embodied both sides of the equation — a desire to assimilate but also a desire to maintain a strong, independent, group identity. The Irish identity survived several generations following immigration to the United States. How did Irish American culture encourage this duality? Did the nativist culture of American WASPs play a role in creating this duality?

Having faced very real discrimination and even violence in the post-famine generation and beyond, the Irish retained a chip on their shoulders and turned it to their advantage. It became a tool for bonding the community and for mobilizing it in electoral contests, the defense of urban “turf,” and strikes. They were convinced that they had to “take care of their own,” that their fragile gains might be snatched away at any moment. To the extent that WASP contempt persisted — and it did in some places well into the 20th century, I think it did indeed reinforce this sentiment. On the other hand, this mentality sometimes encouraged the Irish to reach out to other, newer despised groups. Their efforts to integrate such groups into political organizations, unions, and social movements — sometimes on principle, other times simply because they needed their support — these efforts represent important moments in the creation of an inter- ethnic urban community and culture.

What are your thoughts on the state of the Irish American community today?

One is tempted to say that the Irish have been utterly transformed — disproportionate level of higher education, upward social mobility into the professions, relative wealth, flight to the suburbs, and, remarkably, the rise of conservative politics in the community. All of that can be found, but we continue to see them in large numbers in the police and fire departments and other public service jobs, among the clergy, and, of course, in city politics. And surveys suggest that a remarkable number of Americans, including many from ethnically-mixed families, continue to identify as Irish. I think the fascinating question is what that means to these people. I suspect they are still trying to figure that out.

Ashleigh Andrews Rich is a writer living in Fairfax, Va. She studied English at Cornell University with a focus on the history of the novel, and works for an environmental organization in Washington, D.C.

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