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Reading: The Clout of the Irish

They were destined to succeed in Chicago politics -- they had the language, knew the system, and felt the need to get even. Remind you of anybody?



To any old-line Chicago Irish alert to the symbolism, that March day must have seemed a nightmare on legs. It was Saint Patrick's Day, and there was Harold Washington, nemesis of the Irish political machine, marching arm in arm with Jim Thompson, scion of the ancient foe of the Irish, the Anglo-Protestant establishment. It was enough to make a man move to Oak Lawn.

The situation of the Irish in Chicago, it seems, never changes, even if the Irish have. That is the lesson of The Irish in Chicago, the latest edition in the University of Illinois Press series The Ethnic History of Chicago. The book is a collection of four essays for the general reader that explore key aspects of that experience. The ambition of the series (edited by Melvin G. Holli of the U. of I. at Chicago) is to provide "interesting and readable" accounts of ethnic history, and in this case it has.

It is as politicians that Chicago came to know the Irish 150 years ago, and the Irish to know Chicago. Lawrence J. McCaffrey, professor of history at Loyola University, touches on the topic in his essay "The Irish-American Dimension." He writes, "Politics gave the Irish the wealth and opportunities denied them in business." Anti-Irish racial prejudice was real and pervasive, and though these accounts confirm anew that bigotry is not new to Chicago, they also reveal the impermanence of its effects. (The worst thing you can say about the Irish in the 1980s is "Jane Byrne.") McCaffrey goes on: "Religion and politics were Irish vocations, not avocations. In the case of politics, the calling often became hereditary" -- even if (as McCaffrey might have added) the talent for it did not.

The point is explored in more detail by Michael F. Funchion in his "The Political and Nationalist Dimensions." A proud son of Loyola (MA and PhD) who now teaches history at South Dakota State University, Funchion makes clear that if there ever was a people damned to succeed in politics, it was the Irish: The newcomers spoke English. They understood the political system, which resembled that of Great Britain. The common-man bent of Jacksonian Democracy appealed to the Irish immigrants with their antimanorial resentments. And power had important psychic rewards for a people despised by WASPs as drunks, papists, and Democrats.

The new Irish-Americans were especially suited to operating within an urban political system that at its worst was so corrupt that ordinary embezzlers and swindlers avoided politics as unbecoming. Personal loyalty was traditionally prized. So too was a certain guile, acquired through "their old-country experience in circumventing the inequalities and oppression of the British legal system." Irish-American politicians were resistant from the start to the virus of idealism, at least the kind espoused by Protestant Anglo capitalists who saw reform in terms of institutional efficiency and personal moral uplift. Victims in Ireland of manorial capitalism and victims in the U.S. of its industrial cousin, the Irish did not view poverty as a sin. No doubt many regarded outfits such as the Society for the Relief of the Deserving Poor as not just meddlesome but misnamed -- surely no one deserves to be poor.

Virtue in any event was properly the province of the church, not City Hall. The Catholic Irish were not individualist but communal in their orientation, and looked to the family for help when death or debt intruded. What the family couldn't do the ward organization often could, and it didn't ask for your soul in return, just your vote. Indeed, McCaffrey makes this provocative assertion: "The gradual emergence of the American welfare state owed more to Irish machine politics than to liberal ideology."

If the Irish ran Chicago, however, they did not own it. Though a sizable presence electorally, they were never numerically dominant outside a few key wards; at the apex of their political power, around the turn of the century, Irish voters comprised only 20 percent of the electorate, the rest being mainly Swedes, Germans, and Americans for whom the "old country" meant Virginia or New York. The Irish had the power to nominate, in short, but not necessarily the power to elect. Ethnic coalition building thus became a strategy for survival as early as the mid-19th century.

The Irish were never as insular as some other ethnics, never ghettoized in Chicago either physically or politically. Coalitions had been struck between the Irish and northern Europeans in the 19th century and with the new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe beginning at the turn of the century. The latter threatened to undo the Irish machine by swamping the Irish in their ward strongholds, a fact symbolized by the ascension in 1928 of a Bohemian, Anton Cermak, to the party leadership. (Cermak has been seen as anti-Irish politically, a sort of Slavic Harold Washington; Funchion pooh-poohs this.) While the Democratic rank and file changed, the leadership did not; after Cermak there followed more than 40 years of Irish domination in the party, the City Council, and the mayor's office.

The Irish, in short, learned early that to keep power you have to share it. It was a lesson the leadership applied to the next wave of immigrants to the city, the blacks that began streaming into Chicago from the south around World War I. The Democrats were not just the party of Roosevelt and the New Deal but of Mayor Edward J. Kelly, an early integrationist and open-housing advocate. The Irish kept their hands on the levers of power, but those levers increasingly were connected to a black machine.

That accommodation failed in the late 1970s. It may be, in terms of her coalition-building skills anyway, that Jane Byrne wasn't Irish enough. Or maybe she was too Irish; McCaffrey explains the destructive antagonism shown during Washington's first term as a reassertion of "Chicago Irish political provincialism and tribalism," echoes of the days when a Limerick "butthermilk" couldn't get a job on a gang run by a Dubl in "jackeen" and vice versa. You can take the boy out of Bridgeport, in other words, but . . .

Ethnicity as a historical construct is still fairly new. History was something people did, not peoples. It is interesting that the index to Robert P. Howard's now-standard one-volume history of Illinois, published in 1972, includes no entries under such topics as "Irish," "Poles," or "ethnic groups."

Times haven't changed much, but historians have. Their ambition of late is to understand individuals in terms of their groups, and institutions as expressions of the culture of groups. Ellen Skerrett (author with Dominic Pacyga of last year's well-received Chicago: City of Neighborhoods) seeks in "The Catholic Dimension" to examine the crucial attachment of the Irish to the Catholic Church. Among these essays, hers is perhaps least enticing; Skerrett writes knowledgeably about topics of particular interest to the Irish that are of less interest to those whose appetite for explications of diocesan politics is easily sated. It cannot be skipped, however. Irishness was inextricably linked with Catholicism. (Skerrett notes that while the parochial schools run by other ethnic groups were used to preserve and define ancestral languages and customs, those of the Irish focused on making better Catholics.) That is why the Irish tended to identify themselves in terms of their parishes rather than with language or a cause; it is also why they became Americanized so easily.

Considered from the meager promontory occupied by the daily press, "white ethnics" often seem to be alike, distinguishable only by the fact that (as George Dunne has stated) Irish names are easier to pronounce. The Irish, like other ethnic groups, suffered poverty, dislocation, and discrimination upon their arrival. Each group's response to those circumstances was unique. The fact that the Irish spoke English (even if a brogue kept many of them tongue-tied) was an inestimable advantage. The fact that they were not divided into factions over nationalist causes in the homeland was another difference. So was the nature of the women. Irish immigrant women tended to be better educated than their men (indeed single Irish women were more successful economically than men); their formidable talents were, upon marriage, devoted to the management of large families. In McCaffrey's view, it was mainly the women who as wives, teachers, and nuns led "a slow but tenacious Irish drive toward middle-class respectability."

It is an unexpected consonance, but the one ethnic group with whom the Irish have much in common is black Americans. It is useful to be reminded, for example, that big cities in the U.S. have been home to an underclass for a very long time, and that the first one wasn't black but white. "The impoverished, physically and mentally disabled Irish," argues McCaffrey a little clumsily, "became America's first group social problem." Our authors are not the first observers to blame the reputed dissipation of the early Irish on their new environment; Finley Peter Dunne's Martin Dooley, in the 1890s, concluded that Chicago corrupted the Irish more than they corrupted it. (Skerrett, in her essay, takes a skeptical view, suggesting that poverty "has been overemphasized" in our analysis of the sociology of the 19th-century Chicago Irish.)

The Irish indeed were the north's niggers. Their culture owed much to poverty and, worse, forced dependence on the landlords in the old country, and as is so often the case, family and individual took precedence over the abstract values of "good community." Skerrett tells the story of attempts in the late 1880s by Protestant residents of WASP Englewood to buy out Catholic church builders; a new church would bring in new Irish, and the Irish would bring in the crime and vice the good people of Englewood were trying to escape.

Later, of course, it was the Irish who fled from blacks. Charles Fanning's essay, "The Literary Dimension," is devoted in substantial part to the inevitable James T. Farrell, whose work Fanning describes as "a study of forced displacement." McCaffrey uses the expression "the Irish diaspora" to describe the Irish flight in advance of black expansion, which began in earnest during the World War I years. Today the Chicago Irish aren't even Chicago Irish anymore; the 1980 census revealed that there are three times as many Irish-Americans living in the suburbs as in the city itself.

The numbers are indisputable, although Skerrett disputes the dynamic behind the demographics. Although ethnic change was a factor in the gradual breakup of the old Irish parishes that began after 1880, she writes, "The Irish were not so much pushed out of their old neighborhoods [moving farther and farther south] as they were pulled by the opportunity for better housing." Move they did, whatever the motive.

The only home the Irish didn't leave behind, it seems, was City Hall. Douglas Bukowski, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, pointed out in an essay that ran in the Tribune in February that "more than any other group, blacks have emerged ready to contest the Irish as political players. . . . Like the Irish, blacks have discovered that the best measure of success in Chicago is politics." (That blacks learned their skills tending the Irish political machine is by now a commonplace irony.)

Funchion notes that a political circumstance that has not pertained in Chicago since the early 19th century pertains again today: a single ethnic group is large enough to challenge Irish political hegemony directly. The contest to unseat Harold Washington thus has symbolic historical overtones in addition to the meaner motives usually attributed to it. It is not just for City Hall that the surviving Chicago Irish fight, in short, but (like blacks) ethnic legitimacy. While overt anti-Irish bigotry has vanished, the memory of it has not; for people like Byrne and Hynes, says Bukowski, "it is still 1838."

Fanning's essay on Chicago Irish writing is the longest of the four, and the best written. He devotes most of that length to Dunne and Farrell. Yes, them again, here extolled as "the first American writers of genius to emerge from Irish ethnic backgrounds." These are two of the brightest trophies in the city's literary showcase, and the sheen of their reputations has begun to wear from all the polishing they get.

Fanning rescues us from boredom by considering each man's work as "first-rate social history, corroborating and clarifying more traditional sources about Chicago neighborhood life." Most history tells you what a country died of, while novels and stories tell you what it lived of, which as Dunne's Bridgeport barkeep Dooley once remarked is a much more interesting question. Readers who grew up thinking of Dunne as Will Rogers with a brogue may be surprised to find him here depicted as an acid social critic. Dooley says of a laid-off mill worker shot by a watchman while picking up bits of coal from a railroad track that his evening would have been better spent "comfortably joltin' the watchman's boss in a dark alley downtown." Crime, of one sort or another, we are reminded, has always been the issue.

More than one critic has complained that Farrell's novels about the south-side Irish are more works of documentation than imagination. But that is a virtue when reading the books as history. Fanning argues that critics and readers miss much of Farrell's meaning when they read only the Studs Lonigan trilogy. To fully understand Farrell's vision of that experience, one needs also to digest the O'Neill-O'Flaherty pentology, the hero of which, writer-to-be Danny O'Neill (clearly Farrell), makes an appearance in one of the Studs books. (Malcolm Cowley once wrote that Danny "isn't a very interesting hero" -- what writer could be?) These eight "Washington Park" novels provide "the most thoroughly realized embodiment" in U.S. literature of three generations (1900-1930) of Irish-Americans.

Two themes intertwine throughout Farrell's books, Fanning notes, the outer social life and the inner life of the consciousness -- the former a "grim experience of unremitting physical labor," the latter an equally appalling psychic isolation and silence. "The stairway of upward mobility," he concludes, "was strewn with cases of swallowed pride and stifled traditions."

Asians, blacks, and Hispanics may read much of their own future in these chronicles of the Irish. Material prosperity is an expensive reward when it is purchased, as most ethnic groups have done, at the price of place, language, religion, custom. As custom thins into mere habit, ethnicity becomes something one does rather than what one is, a way to keep apart from the Joneses. Dispersed beyond the city lines, their ties to the church weakened, their ranks split into city (conservative, self-defensively Catholic) and suburban (liberal, "American"), nationalist sentiments blunted by revulsion at IRA tactics, their culture not reinforced by any major Irish writing since Farrell -- we see the sense in McCaffrey's conclusion that in Chicago, as in the rest of the U.S., "Irish-America's pulse falters." This is a disputable conclusion; Eugene Kennedy sniped in the Sun-Times not long ago that McCaffrey "likes wakes." It is also an ironic one. McCaffrey himself describes the Chicago Irish as "an urban ethnic success story." He suggests, somewhat lamely, that interest among younger Irish-Americans in traditional music as played by such groups as the Chieftains may augur a renewal of ethnic consciousness, a hope that "Irishness might survive in a reduced but more refined and vital context." Perhaps. But lots of people love the Chieftains, and we aren't all Irish. That's America after all: everybody's Irish, and nobody is.

The Irish in Chicago by Lawrence J. McCaffrey, Ellen Skerrett, Michael F. Funchion, and Charles Fanning, University of Illinois Press, $19.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Richard Laurent.

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