As I read through American history in the odd way I’m doing it – a book here, an essay there, a more or less oblique reference somewhere else – I notice an odd flavor to what might be called the political history of the Irish in this nation. These dealings seem to share certain more or less unique characteristics. I may be completely full of it, here, but this pattern or flavor comes up so often when reading about Irish Americans that I’ve come to expect it.
(Preemptive apology: I don’t hate the Irish. My wife is 3/4 Irish, grandma and grandpa Taaffe and all that. If anything, I empathize with their uniquely hard road they had to follow. So no offence intended.)
For example, in the book The Professor and the Madman, (1) the author recounts a story about Irish immigrants in the Union Army by way of an aside. Seems some Irishmen thought that if they joined the army, they’d get guns and learn how to use them, and then could go back to Ireland and kill some Englishmen, a heartfelt and understandable desire. The Union Army was glad to take them, give them guns – and stick them right up in the front of the lines. Didn’t take long for the Irish to see that they were just cannon fodder, which, given the general level of contempt in which Real Americans(tm) held the Irish, should not really have been surprising. So they began deserting. When captured, they were branded on the face with the letter ‘D’ for deserter, which often proved fatal in itself. Don’t know if any survived to go back to Ireland and kill the English, but if they did, it was an expensive proposition.
The Irish always seem to be fighting the English. The English embody not just their idea of enemies, but their idea of government as well. How does the world look when your gut tells you your opponents hold you in utter contempt and want you dead? Also, in their eagerness for respect, power and revenge, the Irish in America cut very poor, ill-thought out deals.
Another story: Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna, city committeeman, and Alderman Bathhouse John Coughlin were a couple of Irishmen who managed to obtain powerful positions in Chicago in the late 1800’s. They were elected to these positions from the 1st Ward, which they ran like their own little kingdom, and by running an annual ball that funneled money to other politicians in the city. They, themselves, made money through racketeering and by running gambling dens and whore houses in Chicago’s 1st Ward, which operations were safe from interference due to the duo’s political ties.
It was a sweet deal, unless it were your son or daughter being destroyed. But boys will be boys, and the Irish tended to overlook how their own gained power and respectability so long as their Irishness was embraced. This is another pattern, related to the yearning of the perennially oppressed for respectability: the Irish Americans are not ashamed of their own criminals, even when those criminals prey on other Irish.(2)
But, again, it seems Kenna and Coughlin were less than astute in their understanding of political power. A street sweeper named Big Jim Colosimo worked his way up to become a pimp and restaurateur, and was appointed by Kenna precinct captain with orders to deliver the Italian vote. Big Jim eventually owned a couple hundred Chicago whore houses, and so, needing some management help, brought in a couple New York mafiosos to help out – a John Torrio and some guy named Al Capone. John, Big Jim and Al were all, supposedly, working for Kenna and Coughlin.
Now, an astute criminal would wonder: how do I keep these Italian mobsters in line? We Irish mobsters have at most a generation or 2 of experience in this – these dudes have centuries, and at least by reputation are pretty ruthless. Well, nobody knows exactly how it happened, but pretty soon, Coughlin and Kenna were taking orders from Torrio and Capone, and not too long after that, the Italians were just running their own people for Alderman and councilman, with the Irish being reduced to figureheads and tools. The Irish, again, end up with the very short end of the stick.
There are more stories like this, some less brutal. But is seems, over and over, that the Irish in America, desperate for respectability and power, and thinking that their opponents are their English murderers instead of fellow American citizens, close ranks, ignore evils, protect their own, demonize their enemies – and get used as cannon fodder and figureheads and tools. When one considers that the Catholic hierarchy in this country has been dominated by Irish prelates, and then looks at some of the deals cut with the powers of this world, one shudders. I say this as I read of the efforts of the leaders of Catholic schooling – largely Irish priests – to make those schools conform to the model set up by the state, a model concocted by virulent anti-Catholics and intended to crush the Church. These men achieved great respect among public school proponents, getting eulogized in Congress, that sort of thing. In light of the above, is this a good thing?
- Can’t find the book at the moment, read it over 5 years ago, so don’t sue if my memory, unlike Dante’s, failed me.
- Check this out, for example, from just a couple of years ago: “When I was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, just outside Boston, that old Irish tribalism still defined the city in a way it doesn’t quite anymore. Our top politicians, cops, columnists, and gangsters were all ethnic compatriots…. If there was a human embodiment of our blarney, it was the outlaw Whitey Bulger. Whitey was a near-mythical figure for a certain subset of Bostonians. He somehow defined our sense of provincial otherness. He looked out for his own. He had his own code. He was proud, tough, and cloistered, just like us. …. He was also a cold-blooded killer who left grieving families in his wake. But some of us (to our later shame) didn’t let that ruin the fun.”