1001 THINGS EVERYONE SHOULD KNOW ABOUT IRISH AMERICAN HISTORY, by Edward T.
O’Donnell. Broadway Books. 352 pp. $15.95.
At some point in his long march toward the promised land of academia, Ed O’Donnell clearly decided that his subject of choice, history, didn’t have to sound like a ponderous piece of baroque music. It can be light, jazzy and accessible, too.
Now, here’s a test: Does the musical metaphor in the preceding paragraph
sound familiar? It should. That’s how Bing Crosby’s Father Chuck O’Malley, sitting in front of a piano, explained his personal theology in “Going My Way.” Bing Crosby? Funny we should mention him. He’s the 695th thing everyone ought to know about Irish-American history, according to Dr. Edward T. O’Donnell, professor of history at the College of the Holy Cross.
O’Donnell — who, let it be said at the outset, is a friend of mine — has put aside the world of ponderous footnotes and important-sounded theses to produce the perfect St. Patrick’s Day book for Irish history buffs. It’s a delightful, fun read, something every Irish American ought to have on the coffee table. And, speaking as the author of three books in O’Donnell’s
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terrific (naturally!) bibliography, I have to say that the author’s breadth of knowledge is pretty unfair to the rest of us. It’s one thing to know your Irish-American nationalism, or your Irish-American sports stars, or your Irish-American entertainers, or your Irish-Irish early Christian missionaries. It’s quite another to cover all these topics, and more, in one book. But that’s exactly what Ed O’Donnell has done. He’ll have some of his envious colleagues screaming like a banshee.
Oh, that last phrase? That’s No. 649 on O’Donnell’s list.
If you know anything about Irish-American history, you know that O’Donnell is a brave soul indeed. That’s because of a facet of Irish-American life which O’Donnell wisely ignores: Anybody who dares write a book entitled “1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish-American History” risks incurring the wrath of begrudgers, revisionists, post-revisionists, Fenians, anti-Fenians, Catholic nationalists, militant Protestants and assorted keepers of ethnic mythology. They’re out there, and they’ll be tearing through the book, looking for a reason to feel disrespected, disappointed or dyspeptic. Well, as long as they actually buy the book and aren’t gnashing their teeth over a borrowed copy.
I found the sections I’m most familiar with, nationalism and Irish-American politics, immensely readable, accurate and sprinkled with wit. As an example of the latter, O’Donnell’s concludes Must-Know Fact No. 230 (about immigration restrictions on non-Irish people) by writing, “The Irish, at least in the eyes of the quota makers, were finally welcome in America.” This is followed by Must-Know Fact No. 231, which reads: “Well, Sort Of.” It’s the story of Al Smith’s bitter defeat in the presidential election of 1928.
To O’Donnell’s credit, not all of his must-know facts are celebratory. Entry No. 225 deals with Irish-American nativism — a topic loaded with irony. It’s a brief discussion of the anti-Chinese movement headed by Denis Kearney, an Irish immigrant and union organizer, in the 1870s in California. Kearney’s well-publicized rantings helped set the stage for the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Kearney is not somebody who’ll make you proud, but he surely is somebody you ought to know about.
Nearly everyone who reads this book will find entries that make them smile. My personal favorite was O’Donnell’s treatment of the unjustly forgotten humorist Fred Allen, born in Irish Boston and given the name John Sullivan. He changed his name, as his friends Jack Benny and George Burns did, but he never forgot his roots. Allen was the Will Rogers of the 1940s, and O’Donnell does him justice. Allen, he writes, “was not merely a comedian, he was a sharp social critic and iconoclast, an antiauthoritarian in the great Irish-American tradition of Edward Harrigan and Finley Peter Dunne. He delighted in puncturing the swelled egos of public figures . . . ” Yes, we all ought to know about Fred Allen, now more than ever.
At a time when interest in Irish and Irish-American history has never been higher, Ed O’Donnell has done us the favor of providing an introductory course in the subject. Buy this book, read it, disagree with it if you like. Sure, get into a donnybrook over O’Donnell’s list of 10 classic Irish-American films.
Donnybrook — that’s Ed O’Donnell’s Must-Know Fact No. 673.
— Terry Golway