By Patrick Farrelly
THE NEW IRISH AMERICANS, by Ray O’Hanlon. Roberts Rinehart. 240 pp. $15.95
In every generation since trans-Atlantic travel ceased being a voyage of discovery, the Irish have looked to America for economic, political and social liberation.
But is is one of the many oddities of Irish society that the lives and achievements of the millions forced to leave are barely acknowledged, much less celebrated.
Those of us who learned history in Irish schools were told simply that there was a famine and hard times ever since, which resulted in many people leaving for America.
Irish society has always been incapable of the painful self-examination that coming to terms with this continuous population drain involves. Along with denial, there was the official disregard of those forced to leave: Emigration, after all, was something that happened to poor people in the west of Ireland.
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The inclination to live in denial was never stronger than in the early 1980s when many U.S. cities played unwitting host to the new, and predominantly illegal, Irish immigrants.
We should be indebted to Ray O’Hanlon for stepping forward to document this era in his exhaustively researched and eminently readable “The New Irish Americans.” Like this reviewer, O’Hanlon grew up as part of the first generation in modern Irish history that didn’t see emigration as its main option. The ’60s and ’70s in Ireland were periods of great optimism. For the first time, the usually sick Irish economy seemed on the brink of finding a way to employ most of its own people.
When, inevitably, the bubble burst, those heading out on that well-trodden path to the New World found an unusually inhospitable environment. No one had heard of the 1965 Immigration Reform Act, which had stopped the free flow of green cards to the Irish. As O’Hanlon puts it, “The very idea that the United States would slam the door in the face of thousands of young, talented, ambitious, white, English-speaking Irish was as humiliating as it was unexpected.”
The Irish government was, not unexpectedly, both ill-prepared and publicly, at least, unconcerned.
At the center of “The New Irish Americans” is O’Hanlon’s story of how this “lost generation” took its fate in its own hands and, like earlier generations, carved out a place for itself in America. His account of the growth of The Irish Immigration Reform Movement and its successful fight for the legalization of thousands of young immigrants is brilliant and comprehensive. It is an extraordinary story that should be read particularly by those who benefitted from the campaign.
The organization founded and led by two 20-something Cork emigrants, Sean Minihane and Pat Hurley, was a classic study in how to build a grassroots movement. The IIRM took advantage of the well established network of Irish-American politicians and organizations to put together an alliance that neither the Irish government nor Capitol Hill could ignore. O’Hanlon takes the reader behind the scenes and tells in entertaining and informative detail the struggles within the IIRM and also those between the political forces that were drawn into the fight.
Having chronicled the fight of this new generation to find a life in the U.S., O’Hanlon moves on to the political and culture wars that have preoccupied us in the last decade and a half. Matters like the so-called Irish renaissance in literature and music are laid out with intelligence and, thankfully, a sense of perspective.
The continuing struggles in the Irish community between different perspectives on Northern Ireland, and latterly the American role in the development of the so-called peace process, is deconstructed with admirable clarity. On this issue, O’Hanlon puts more recent events in an historical perspective, something that has been distinctly lacking in recent coverage of the relationship between the Irish-American community and Northern Ireland.
The chapter on the development of American media coverage of Ireland is an account of just how poorly served the public has been. O’Hanlon reminds us, though, of Jo Thomas’s investigative reporting of the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s shoot-to-kill policies for The New York Times in 1985. Thomas did her job brilliantly and her Times career was short-circuited as a result.
One of the more interesting sections of the book for this writer is the one on the rivalry between the Irish Echo and Irish Voice. Having been at the coalface for some period at the other newspaper, I can vouch for both the fairness and the intelligence of O’Hanlon’s analysis. There is little doubt that the Irish community benefitted from the competition initiated by the arrival of the Voice. At the end of the day, the Echo also thrived from the contest.
The quibbles I have with this volume are few, one being the treatment of the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization conflict with the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee. O’Hanlon gives short shrift to ILGO without, I think, analyzing the implications for both the Irish community and the new ’80s arrivals. The response of the community’s establishment was depressingly predictable. But the sparse support that ILGO received from the new arrivals was indicative of the conventional limits of their political consciousness too. In contrast, the bold leadership shown by young immigrants like ILGO’s Anne Maguire was reminiscent of the verve of Irish revolutionary immigrants of a former era.
O’Hanlon concludes with an insightful perspective on the future of the Irish-American community. He underscores the growth of a new confidence in Irish America.
Still, a new recession in Ireland could provoke a big immigration crisis in the Irish community and readily expose the limits of the gains made in the IIRM period. In that context, O’Hanlon is correct when he bemoans the lack of response by Irish Americans to the attacks on immigrants by the Clinton administration and Congress.
To understand how we got here and where we’re likely to end up, “The New Irish Americans” is a must read, a starting point for a history and an analysis of the latest Irish journey into America.