Hyphenated-Americans — which includes just about all of us — will grasp a solid understanding of the challenges our ancestors faced in emigrating to the United States by taking in the history of what author James R. Barrett calls America’s first ethnic group, the Irish.
No matter if your family roots are traced back to Germany, Italy, Poland, Russia or anywhere else, the way immigrants from the Emerald Isle became Americanized and moved up the social ladder provided a blueprint for immigrants that came afterward from other countries.
Treated sometimes as less than human, parodied as dumb and dirty, the Irish were the first mass group of arrivals to U.S. shores to face hostility from those who, ironically, had emigrated here themselves, just on earlier boats.
How those Irish immigrants not only survived but came to thrive — and set the standard for immigrants from other lands to do the same — is documented superbly in “The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City.” Penguin Press has set a March 1 release date, do you think with the coming St. Patrick’s Day in mind?
James R. Barrett tells the story well by telling interesting, factual, funny, maddening, humiliating stories in some very readable 300 pages. A professor of history at the University of Illinois, Barrett nails down the facts of the Irish-American experience, with more than 70 pages of footnotes to back up his work.
Catholics will find nearly 50 pages focused on the religious angle of the immigrant experience, and as much as this is a history of the Irish, Barrett shows how that history impacts other, non-Irish immigrants who are Catholic. The section titled “The Parish” details how the Irish came to dominate to the point that, as Barrett writes, “By 1920, two-thirds of all Catholic bishops (three-fourths in New England) were of Irish birth or descent.”
What makes this such worthwhile reading is that “The Irish Way” isn’t depicted as always on the side of the angels, even when it comes to the church. This is history, warts and all whether we like it or not, and the warts — the machine politics, the not-what-you-know-but-who-you-know hiring practices, the racism — are historical facts.
But so too are the struggles for a “living” or “family wage,” as Barrett points out, the six-day work week, old-age pensions, the right for labor to organize and bargain collectively, all strongly supported by the Catholic Church.
The section on the Irish immigrant in the workplace puts facts in place where many may have simply anecdotal examples passed along from ancestors. There’s real value that, in documenting the history of the Irish and their climb up the social ladder, “The Irish Way” clarifies the struggles of those from later immigrant groups — the Italians, Poles, Jews and blacks — who found the entrenched Irish a barrier to their own economic and social mobility.
The role of the stage Irishman is paid its due, and the role the immigrant Irish played in the political history of the United States is a well. In all, “The Irish Way” is history that reads as well as a novel, perhaps because it’s a history that has had such an impact on what America is today and who we are today as Americans.