The Irish in America

Right now, in America, all things Irish are hot. Sparked by best-selling books like Angela’s Ashes and How the Irish Saved Civilization; the remarkable contemporary economic prosperity in Ireland; Irish creativity in cinema, dance, and popular music; and the apparent peace settlement in Northern Ireland; this new interest in Irish history and culture has been accompanied by an unhesitant assertion of the ethnic identity of Irish Americans. But for many sons and daughters of Eire, Roman Catholicism isn’t part of the picture.

Irish, Catholic, American

For generations the Roman Catholic Church in the United States and Irish-American Catholicism were almost assumed to be one and the same. The massive waves of Irish immigrants to these shores, beginning with the Potato Famine refugees of the 1840s and continuing until the eve of the First World War, far outnumbered the smaller Catholic population that had come earlier (only some of whom were Irish). Also, within the Church in America, the Irish dominated other Catholic ethnic groups—including Germans, Italians, and Poles—that entered the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

How did the Irish become the dominant ethnic group in American Catholicism? To begin, the Irish had fewer cultural impediments to overcome. They spoke English, a skill many other Catholic immigrants lacked. In addition, the Irish were better educated than most other Catholic immigrant groups (and even a large percentage of the general American population). Primarily, however, Irish dominance can be explained by their propensity to stay in the cities. There is much speculation as to why they did so. It may have been to avoid their bitter experience in the Irish countryside; more likely, though, the close, communal character of the small villages of Ireland could best be replicated in the tight-knit neighborhoods of crowded American cities. On a more practical level, these immigrants were often penniless when they landed, making it impossible to move beyond their port of entry. Inertia then prompted siblings, cousins, and, later, nieces and nephews to settle themselves among already-established enclaves. Regardless of the reason, their common urban experience afforded the Irish the opportunity to influence American culture and, especially, politics.

And even in politics, they had less to learn about how things were done in America. The Irish had been tutored in the arts of mass democratic politics by Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Emancipation Campaign in the 1820s. His movement gave them a headstart over Catholic immigrants from less politically advanced nations. The techniques they developed worked naturally in secular politics, but also in ecclesiastical politics: hence the preponderance of Irish names among the American hierarchy, heads of religious orders, and officers of educational institutions.

Culture Clash

The cultural and psychological baggage the Irish brought with them and the hostility they confronted in the United States are significant factors in understanding how the Irish colored the Church in America. The Irish Catholics arrived in a society whose heritage and values were British and Protestant; simplistic Protestant historiography drew a direct line from the Reformation through the Glorious Revolution to the American Revolution, and independence from Britain had not dampened a strong streak of anti-Catholicism in American society. Ireland had been the accomplice of many of the enemies of Protestantism, including the popes, the Spanish, the Stuarts, and Louis XIV of France. The defeat of the Irish Catholics by the forces of “freedom, religion, and law” led by William of Orange guaranteed the endurance of the Glorious Revolution and the Bill of Rights. A society holding such a perspective was bound to meet a massive influx of Irish Catholics with an even greater hostility than that which normally confronts immigrants.

After their defeat, the Irish were stripped of their cultural and linguistic heritage. Gaelic Ireland had fought its last fight in 1690, after which many of its leaders went into continental exile. Only those who conformed to Protestantism could advance politically, socially, or professionally. Opportunities existed for Catholics only in commerce, which required becoming Anglicized in tongue and culture. The Gaelic poetic tradition died out and the language survived primarily among the more impoverished peasants—but even they aspired for their children to learn English as the language of personal advancement. Thus the Irish immigrants in America were left with just two marks of identity: nationality and religion. For many those marks became interchangeable, the sort of development that often brings short-term benefits to the Church but, in the long term, can have a corrupting effect.

Catholic Characteristics

Some consequences of the inseparable intertwining of Irishness and Catholicism in America were commendable, particularly in matters of community spirit and solidarity, and the teaching and discipline of the Church gave the unwelcome immigrant community a foundation for self-improvement and advancement. Since the Church could draw on older historical and international resources, it played that role for the Irish much more effectively than even the Black churches did for African Americans. But certain Irish characteristics of the Church in America caused difficulties.

What comes to mind first is the old canard about Jansenism. It is axiomatic for “post-Catholic” Irish-American journalists and popularizers to lampoon the concern the Irish-American (and Irish) Church gave to the virtue of purity. Actually, the emphasis on Jansenism to explain that feature of Irish Catholicism is grossly overdone. Many Irish priests of the 18th century were trained in France because seminaries were illegal in Ireland. Some may have been influenced by Jansenists, but Jansenism was scarcely in the ascendancy in the France of Louis XV and XVI.

Furthermore, in the Ireland of the 18th and early 19th centuries, church attendance and adherence to Church moral rubrics left much to be desired, as is understandable in light of the persecution, impoverishment, and questioned legality of the Church. The emphasis on sexual purity was a constructive theme of the Maynooth-educated clergy of post-Famine Irish Catholicism. Only then were the reforms of the 16th-century Council of Trent applied to a revitalized Church engaged in what one historian has called a “devotional revolution.” The high regard for sexual purity also did no harm to the emigrants, although it can be argued that inadequate attention was paid to other virtues, such as sobriety and honesty (particularly political and business honesty), that were essential for the improvement of a socially and economically deprived people.

The susceptibility of Irish-American Catholics to political corruption was sometimes rationalized as a way of fighting a system that was rigged against them. But their political ethos had a more subtle character. The Irish who landed in America stripped of their cultural heritage had developed a mythology about an Ireland taken from them, which they hoped to regain and to which they hoped to return. Perhaps more than any other immigrant group, they persisted in the aspiration to return home. That home was a medieval utopia: local, familial, intensely religious, and free of commerce, urbanization, and industry. It had been destroyed by political modernism, that is, Anglo-Saxon Protestantism and liberalism. But in the meantime, having nowhere to go but up, the Irish, both at home and in America, quickly learned the tools of the trade of democratic politics.

Daniel O’Connell, the scion of an ancient Gaelic family, had been able philosophically to reconcile political liberalism—indeed, utilitarianism—with Catholicism, although not without cost, as he lost his faith for part of his early adulthood. He then turned the values and principles of liberalism to the advantage of the Catholics of Ireland. From O’Connell’s time on, the Irish became increasingly adept at mass democratic politics, a talent they took to America. They soon came to dominate urban political machines, although their real breakthrough in national politics would occur only in the 1930s as part of the same New Deal that destroyed the old machines by nationalizing public welfare. But with that success in modern democratic politics there remained, even after several generations, the romantic idealization of Ireland. This romanticism may explain the curious sympathy of many conservative Irish Americans for the revolutionary Provisional IRA over the past 25 years of “troubles” in Northern Ireland. The nostalgia also suggests a subconscious reservation on the part of some Irish-Americans about the modern liberal state to which they had adapted so well. However, in the post-Vatican II era, many Irish-American Catholic thinkers have overcome this internal tension. One example is their celebration of the uniqueness of the Church in America: unique, that is, within the universal Roman Catholic Church, but increasingly less unique among American mainline churches!

Bricks and Mortar

But ecclesiastical Americanization is one side of a coin that, on the other side, stressed a parochial American exceptionalism to which the Irish, like many immigrants, became addicted. An historical consequence of the English colonization of Ireland was the cutting of ties between Ireland and the Continent, other than by circuitous and/or subversive routes. One especially sad effect was the iconoclasm imposed by the Puritan conquerors of Ireland. As G. K. Chesterton noted in his 1932 pamphlet, Christendom in Dublin, that iconoclasm brought about an impoverishment of the visual arts in Ireland. Of course, as Chesterton also noted, the Irish overcompensated in the verbal and literary arts, but in America, the effect of an aesthetically impoverished, Irish-dominated Catholic Church was an overemphasis on bricks and mortar with insufficient attention to artistic beauty. But besides cultural parochialism, the Irish-American Catholics became addicted to American First-ism, which tended to see America as the City on the Hill—not quite the New England Puritan’s promised land, but more the high point of political organization in which they were able to thrive. They became true believers of the Jeffersonian vision, and not inappropriately tended to link themselves with the political party Jefferson had helped found, the Democrats. The Jeffersonian Party had been very sympathetic to both the French Revolution and the Irish uprising in 1798 inspired by it. Refugees from the uprising, United Irishmen inspired by the Irish Jacobin Wolfe Tone, came to play significant roles in the Jeffersonian Party, particularly in New York’s Tammany Club.

An understandable Anglophobia among succeeding generations of Irish Americans combined with Jeffersonian Americanism to solidify a philosophical isolationism that remained in place until the Second World War. In fact, until Pearl Harbor, many Irish Americans were reluctant to fight a war to “save the British Empire!” This was a point especially distressing to Hilaire Belloc, who was almost unique among English writers in his inherent sympathy for Ireland and Irish America but who also saw Western civilization itself under assault from the Red and Brown totalitarianisms of the late ’30s. It was only after the Second World War, with the clearcut challenge of the Soviet Union, that Irish-American Catholics matured beyond an Anglophobic America First-ism to support the defense of the West in general. Consciously or unconsciously, they were taking a cue from another 18th-century Irishman whose wisdom was only beginning to be appreciated in America by the ’50s: Edmund Burke. His warnings about the French Revolution and its potential emulators in Ireland were appropriate in understanding the challenges of 20th-century totalitarianisms.

Because of the drastic drop in Irish immigration after the First World War, the Irish-American population was becoming distinct from the Irish population, as well as more integrated into American society.

As they became more integrated into American society, images of Irish Americans became a staple of American folk culture: the priest characters played in films by Bing Crosby or Pat O’Brien; the “Irish” of Notre Dame football; the five Sullivan brothers who died on the same vessel during the Second World War; the “Rosary Crusade” of the County Mayo-born priest, Patrick Peyton; and the weekly televised addresses of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. On another level, it was the time when Irish-American alumni of Fordham and Holy Cross were the FBI agents checking the security credentials of Ivy League-educated State Department attaches. This was an Irish-American culture that received increasing deference, if not understanding, from major media figures. It was a period in which all of the socio-economic indices ought to have portended a golden future: thriving educational institutions, increasing religious vocations, and general economic improvement all around. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the astute social scientist, began to perceive a second Irish-American immigration: from the cities to the suburbs, a clear sign of burgeoning economic prosperity. Finally, the election of the first Irish-American Catholic as president in 1960 completed the confident picture of an immigrant group taking its place at the forefront of American society. But, alas, that was the calm before the storm.

All Things Irish

Legitimate anxieties about the intellectual weaknesses of American Catholic culture, which essentially meant Irish-American Catholic culture, helped unleash a host of questions and uncertainty. The misinterpretations of Vatican II gave license to the peddling and discarding of the family jewels. It would not be long before Bishop Sheen would be replaced by Andrew Greeley as the best-selling Irish-American Catholic author and before media contempt for traditional Catholic things would be pioneered by Notre Dame alumnus Phil Donahue. Since the reign of Camelot in Washington, Irish-American Catholic politicians have largely been unwilling to take positions in accord with Catholic social teaching. They defiantly proclaim their commitment to the ascendancy of the political process over religious conscience.

In the ’90s, Irish-American Catholicism has become much more an ethnic identity than a religious commitment. Irish-American Catholics parallel most other Catholic groups— and the American population in general—in their attitudes on marital faithfulness, sexual morality, and abortion. Aside from a nominal Catholicism, a substantial portion of the younger generation of Irish-American Catholics share the blissful ignorance about Church doctrine and teachings common to products of the post-Vatican II catechetical innovations. Increasingly they choose Catholic schooling at all levels for themselves and their children out of tradition and a desire for social advancement rather than for religious purposes. Accordingly, they express minimal displeasure at the significant dilution of the catechetical and theological programs at such institutions.

Coincidentally, and possibly consequently, the decline in the religious flavor of Irish-American Catholicism has been paralleled by a renaissance in America of interest in Irish things. Accompanying this interest has been the appearance in a number of American universities, especially among some “in the Catholic tradition,” of formal programs or institutes of Irish studies. Many of these programs are of excellent academic quality, but few seem to give much attention to the Irish religious heritage, specifically the Irish-Catholic religious heritage. More often, these programs approach Catholicism as if it were a disease or a social malady that afflicted Ireland and the Irish diaspora. Needless to say, various cutting-edge academic enthusiasms, from postmodernism to gender studies, are prominent in many of these programs.

Two recent bestsellers have advanced the current popular interest in things Irish. Angela’s Ashes is the brilliantly written, often hilarious, but sad memoir of the childhood of Frank McCourt in both New York and Limerick. Not surprisingly the Church, more than any other Irish institution, suffers severe reprobation for the misery of the McCourt household, when its misfortune seems primarily attributable to an alcoholic and often absentee father.

How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill, has a more philosophically damaging message than McCourt’s well written, but predictably anti-clerical muckraking. From the very title many might have assumed it would be a repeat of the old, frequently overdone legends about the Isle of Saints and Scholars keeping the flame of Christianity burning when barbaric paganism had conquered most of the Christian West. That is the general subject of the book, but its message is more subtle. The Irish, holds Cahill, drawing on their pre-Christian spirituality, were able to lend an appreciation of the material and, particularly, the sexual to the ostensibly repressive flavor of the Augustinian-inspired Christianity that emanated from Rome. Cahill celebrates the autonomy of the Church in Ireland from the continental influences in matters like monastic indiscipline and divorce, causes of great scandal and consternation after the great reform era of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Pagan-inspired cults and festivals in Ireland were given a superficial Christian identity, a practice that historians like Christopher Dawson noted as often accompanying evangelistic missions. However, Cahill pays close attention to the particular quality of these rituals in Ireland and to their persistence, a factor occasioned by the relative independence of the Church in Ireland from Rome during the Middle Ages, and later by the British conquerors’ prohibition of the exercise of Church discipline. To celebrate these pre-Christian remnants as marks of “Irish spirituality” is close to a kind of New Age enthusiasm that has little to do with Christianity. The absence of any specifically Christian theme in the world-acclaimed Irish dance extravaganza, Riverdance, is a further symptom of this trend.

One remains optimistic about the great faith and commitment of many Irish-American Catholics, but increasingly their commitment will be exercised in movements and publications that are Catholic rather than Irish. Many Irish Americans will remain very faithful Catholics, but Catholicism might not be the determining feature of Irish America. What is a loss for Irish America, though, may well be a boon for the Church.


  • John P. McCarthy

    John P. McCarthy is Professor Emeritus of History and former director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Fordham University. He is the author of Hilaire Belloc: Edwardian Radical (1978); Kevin O’Higgins: Builder of the Irish State (2006); and Twenty-first Century Ireland: A View from America (2012).

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