Changes in Irish America

July, 2005: The Irish Festival in Sioux Falls, South Dakota draws bigger crowds each year.

Tom Deignan, Contributor
October/ November 2005

At the end of this past July, bands, dancers and others gathered at Terrace Park in Sioux Falls, South Dakota for the town’s annual Irish Festival. Despite temperatures running close to 100 degrees, organizers told the local newspaper that a good time was had by all who attended.

Twenty years ago, the Sioux Falls Irish-American community would not have had such an opportunity to celebrate its heritage. That is because the Sioux Falls Irish Festival is only in its sixth year.

Sioux Falls (population 135,000) is just one of many towns and small cities all over the United States where annual Irish festivals have sprung up in the last 20 years.

It is not that there were no Irish-Americans in such places until recently. Instead, what has happened in Sioux Falls, as well as so many other places, is an illustration of one of the key changes which have unfolded in Irish America over the last 20 years.

Contrary to what many sociologists expected, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Irish immigrants who settled in and around big cities such as Boston, New York, San Francisco and Chicago are determined not to let their ethnic identity melt away.

This surge in ethnic pride is just one important change that Irish America has witnessed in the last 20 years.

The relationship between Irish-Americans and the Irish on the other side of the Atlantic has altered dramatically as well.

Meanwhile, profound changes in technology, particularly the explosion of the Internet, have also fundamentally changed how the Irish on both side of the Atlantic communicate, as well as research the past.

The number of Irish coming to the U.S. has dipped significantly. And those Irish who still do come are facing a tougher time. In the wake of 9/11, U.S. immigration policies have been much more strictly enforced, making work and travel between the U.S. and Ireland much more difficult for immigrants without a green card or other documentation.

Then there are the changes that have swept over Northern Ireland, which have had ripple effects from the Bronx and Boston to Dublin and London.

In the end, what can’t be denied is that in the last two decades Irish America has continued to evolve in fascinating, utterly unpredictable ways.

Sociologists and other cultural observers have long predicted that the Irish, for all of their success and pride in their heritage, were destined to melt into the vast pot that is America. Nearly four decades ago, the eminent Irish-American Daniel Patrick Moynihan argued in his famous book Beyond the Melting Pot that the unique traits and ways of the Irish would blend into the larger American fabric, leaving newer immigrant groups to dominate the ethnic market in America.

What would Moynihan say if he were to visit the Sixth Annual Sioux Falls Irish Festival in 2005?

In fact, it could very well be argued that many sociologists got things backwards.

It appears that recent generations of Irish-Americans are embracing their heritage just as vigorously as previous generations have.

Irish-American culture has survived not just the flight from the big cities to the suburbs, it has endured — even thrived — as the Irish (sometimes fifth or sixth generation) have settled in more remote areas of the U.S.

Towns which have seen no particular increase in their Irish population have nevertheless seen a large increase in Irish pride and celebration, from festivals and dancing classes to music lessons and readings. New chapters of the Ancient Order of Hibernians or Friendly Sons of St. Patrick are still being formed.

Why has this happened? Well, that leads us to a number of other big changes which Irish America has witnessed in the last 20 years.

By the 1960s and 1970s, many Irish-Americans, especially those living outside of urban enclaves, were detached from their own family histories. But with middle-class status and greater educational opportunities, a new interest in Ireland and the Irish has been sparked.

Nothing illustrates this more than the large number of students in Irish studies programs now available at many colleges and universities.

With more and more Irish-American families able to pay for a college education, demand for knowledge about their roots has grown substantially.

It is not surprising that a place like Notre Dame University, of the fabled Fighting Irish football program, would house one of the most respectable Irish studies programs in the U.S. But Notre Dame’s Keough Institute for Irish Studies is just one of dozens of such programs or study concentrations at colleges and universities all over the U.S.

Boston College’s Burns Library now houses what is believed to be the most impressive collection of Irish research material outside of Ireland.

From Georgia Southern University to The New College of California to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Irish-American college students all over the country have access to impressive Irish studies programs.

And these programs are not focusing solely on broadly popular subjects such as immigration history or the writings of Joyce and O’Neill. Challenging, even esoteric programs related to the Irish language and the intricacies of agriculture or village life in Ireland are flourishing right here in the U.S.

Past generations of Irish-Americans learned about Ireland from parents or grandparents, and from Irish cousins who were likely to turn up looking for a place to stay when they first immigrated to the States. But the rise in affluence in Ireland has meant that the Irish are less dependent on their American cousins, and therefore have less contact. The young Irish of today can stay at home or, as members of the EU, work in Europe.

At the same time, it is easier than ever for Irish-Americans to uncover lost family connections via the Internet. This invaluable tool for research and communication was more or less undreamed of 20 years ago.

The Irish government is also deeply committed to establishing state-of-the-art genealogical research centers for all members of the diaspora.

Intricate search engines and other computer tools can help track down distant parish records, enabling Irish-Americans to construct a family tree many generations back. E-mail makes it easier to track down additional information, or to even get in touch with distant Irish cousins.

This, in turn, has fed another trend, which affected an older form of media: the explosion of interest in Irish books. Of course, Irish-Americans have always been serious readers. However, the 1990s phenomenon of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes seemed only to be the most extreme example of a broader success when it comes to books about Irish material. Entire publishing houses now serve Irish-American readers, and St. Patrick’s Day brings with it dozens of books by high-profile Irish authors.

President Bill Clinton played an instrumental role in the Northern Ireland peace process.


All of this has turned the sociological thesis of the American melting pot upside down. Numerically speaking, the Irish-American population has not necessarily increased in recent years.

But Irish-Americans all over the U.S. now seem more interested than ever in exploring the first part of their hyphenated identity.

This has all led to a new kind of relationship between Irish America and the island of Ireland. Look no further than the success of The American Ireland Fund, which raised over three million dollars at its New York City dinner this year.

That, without doubt, is the good news. But the last 20 years has also seen the rise of undeniable tensions within Irish America. Nothing illustrates this more than the fundamental differences between the U.S. and Ireland over the war in Iraq. The Irish felt a stronger political kinship with continental Europe than they did with America, and were quick to criticize President George W. Bush. There were even strong protests in Ireland when Bush paid a visit.

Meanwhile, Irish-Americans such as Captain Richard O’Hanlon, a Bronx native, are among the thousands serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. O’Hanlon, whose parents came to the U.S. from Cork, is commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which houses some 5,000 personnel.

Today’s Irish-American members of the military serve in the proud tradition of Civil War hero Thomas Meagher, Medal of Honor winner “Wild Bill” Donovan and, of course, the Fighting 69th Irish Brigade.

Irish-Americans, of course, had supported an armed struggle in Ireland for well over a century. Going back to the 1860s, the doomed Fenian invasion of Canada (then a British territory) was launched with significant American support. Following the Easter Rising in 1916, Eamon de Valera was shrewd enough to visit the U.S. often, since he knew there was lots of money and other forms of assistance here. (He was, after all, on the run from British authorities.)

Right through the 1970s and 1980s, Irish-Americans were often unabashed about sending funds to the IRA, or groups such as NORAID, which dubbed itself a humanitarian group yet was generally seen as a supporter of armed resistance against British rule in Ulster.

The Anglo-Irish treaty was signed in 1985 (the year Irish America was first published) but the violence in Northern Ireland would go on for years. But things began to change in the 1990s with the help of Irish-Americans. President Clinton followed through on his campaign promise to give Gerry Adams a visa to visit the United States. He went against his own State Department to make this happen. The Adams visit helped lead to the IRA ceasefire, in August 1994. Clinton later tapped former Senator George Mitchell to lead peace negotiations, which ultimately led to the historic Good Friday Peace Accords.

Irish-Americans such as Mutual of America chairman Bill Flynn worked tirelessly on both sides of the Atlantic to bring an end to violence.

To this day, a tenuous peace holds in Northern Ireland, and the emergence of Sinn Féin as a legitimate political party has left U.S. supporters of an armed struggle in Northern Ireland out in the cold.

The population of groups such as NORAID has dwindled in the last 20 years as Adams and Sinn Féin continue to produce results in Northern Ireland. The recent destruction of IRA weapons in Ireland seems to make it clear that there is no going back to violence for most of Irish America.

Mutual of America's chairman Bill Flynn, pictured here as the Grand Marshal of the New York Saint Patrick's Day Parade, worked tirelessly to bring peace to Northern Ireland


There is another Irish-American political evolution, which has been occurring since at least the 1930s.

Since the time of the Famine, the U.S. Democratic Party in big cities welcomed Irish immigrants, so long as they were loyal to the party with their votes, and looked the other way when corruption scandals hit the newspapers. The Republican Party, on the other hand, consisted of many nativists and elites, such as cartoonist Thomas Nast, who often depicted poor Irish immigrants as apes.

By the time the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, Irish-Americans were still loyal members of the Democratic Party. Many scholars credit the Irish for being a key component of FDR’s famed New Deal coalition which supported many anti-poverty programs during the Great Depression. But even back then, significant numbers of Irish-Americans were far from thrilled with Roosevelt. Many, particularly devout Catholics, felt he was too greatly influenced by religion-hating Communists.

It is often forgotten that even the beloved Al Smith — the first Irish Catholic nominated for president by a major party — was disdainful of Roosevelt and his policies.

By the 1950s, Communist hunter Senator Joe McCarthy (aided by a loyal pal named Bobby Kennedy) brought these tensions to the mainstream. Many Irish-Americans hated McCarthy’s tactics, but many also supported him. For that reason, despite the myth, it should be noted that not all of Irish America — particularly those who had reached the middle and upper classes — embraced John F. Kennedy.

By 1980, when Ronald Reagan — a strong supporter of Margaret Thatcher — was elected, many noted that the Irish, now living in the suburbs, were as supportive of Republicans as Democrats.

So, what about the last two decades? The Democrats won back some Irish-Americans in the 1990s, when President Bill Clinton played an instrumental role in the Northern Ireland peace process. However, just as many proved ready to stand by George W. Bush in the last election. The Catholic vote in gerneral and the Irish vote in particular was said to be the ultimate swing vote in Ohio.

So, what is the future of Irish America?

Fewer Irish immigrants are coming to the U.S. Does that mean Irish America is destined to wither away? It might seem that way.

Then again, visit Sioux Falls, South Dakota next summer and you may think twice ♦

For the first time in the history of America, both the Police Department in Boston and the Fire Department in San Francisco have women in charge. San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes White and Boston Police Commissioner Kathleen O'Toole.


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