I also met there a family friend named Maureen Collins, a retired teacher whose mother and father came from Ireland the same decade as Leonard.
The Collinses were from adjoining Counties Carlow and Kilkenny; in Brooklyn, Leonard met and married a man from County Roscommon, next door to Mayo.
Maureen Collins’s affection for the older woman, who died later in 2006, owed much to the fact that she was of her parents’ generation, one that had all but disappeared.
But, on that day, over a cup of tea, Collins spoke of the previous Irish generation – from whose ranks came the first parishioners of Southampton’s Catholic church. She later sent me an official history, which has a compelling opening sentence: “Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary became a parish [in 1896] in response to the uncompromising faith of the poor and the need of the rich.”
Before that, vacationing Protestants sent out periodic calls to bishops and priests asking them to minister to their young Irish servants, male and female, who would not stay during the summer if they could not fulfill their religious obligations.
By that time, the Catholic Irish were gradually finding acceptance in America. Much had changed since the bedraggled Famine immigrants had come ashore. The anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party was dead. The “Celts” had joined the “Anglo-Saxons” and “Teutons” in the ranks of favored groups. Instead, the nativists and xenophobes were focusing their attention on the newer would-be Americans pouring into New York and elsewhere, such as the East European Jews and the equally impoverished and largely illiterate Italians.
It helped Irish immigrants that, as historian Lawrence McCaffrey has written, “in the late 19th and early 20th centuries [they were] culturally, socially and religiously more scrubbed and polished than preceding generations.”
They were similar to today’s immigrant servant classes, who constitute a disciplined army of labor, possessing a good basic education, a dedicated work ethos and a level of religious piety above the national average.
This doesn’t impress those who want much of that population to leave. “Illegal,” they scream, blind to an important reality — the law and the capitalist economy’s labor needs aren’t always in perfect harmony. As an Italian-American community activist and octogenarian, Zachary Sansone, once told me, referring to the early 20th century: “They needed someone to build this country up; they didn’t care if you had papers.”
Of course, there’s always been a fear about jobs, which the nativists and xenophobes have happily exploited to the full, for reasons that have little to do with the economy. The Know-Nothings did it and the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps does it today. Their real anxieties were and are elsewhere. In the mid-19th century, many Protestants felt that mass Irish and German Catholic immigration might give the Vatican a say in their Republic.
Nowadays, the concern is a little harder to nail down. The propaganda seems to suggest that the very act of “sneaking” across the border – committed by people who aren’t white and don’t speak English – poses a threat to American civilization. Yet at its root is the same old demographic panic. It happened with the freeing of the slaves and has been seen time and again with every significant wave of immigration and migration.
Is it fair to characterize this type of anxiety as bigotry? Harpreet Singh Toor, a leader of the Sikh community in New York, might say “not necessarily.” Singh Toor, who wears a turban, told me about an incident that happened in the Wall Street area when he was working as a computer programmer at City Hall. “This gentleman – and I will still call him a gentleman – had a suit and tie, and no briefcase; so he probably worked around there somewhere, and was on lunch break with his colleagues,” he recalled. “As he passed me, he said: ‘terrorist.'” That was back in 1997.
Singh Toor makes a distinction between simple ignorance, which one can tackle with patient explanation and education, and forms of prejudice that are more deep-seated. So, let’s be charitable and say the Minuteman group and its acolytes are ignorant. Nowhere is this more apparent than in their poor grasp of the country’s history.
They seem unaware that they are squarely in the tradition of those who opposed the first Catholic to make a serious bid for the presidency. In 1928, Al Smith’s candidacy was a lightning rod for the revulsion that middle America felt for the tenement dwellers who constituted the great majority in New York and other cities. Neighborhoods like East Harlem — for more than half a century the largest Italian enclave in America, with 200,000 residents at its peak in the 1920s – and the equally packed Jewish Lower East Side were notorious. Folks in Kansas and Tennessee and Ohio looked from afar at these foreign-language ghettoes and shouted: “This is not America!”
Back in 1924, Congress passed an immigration act that effectively ended the mass influx of Eastern and Southern Europeans. The debate, though, had been going on for decades.
In 1896, Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, arguing that the nation was accepting “strange peoples from strange lands,” introduced a bill that mandated newcomers be literate in their own language. Lodge said in the Senate: “[T]here is a limit to the capacity of any race for assimilating and elevating an inferior race and when you begin to pour in unlimited numbers of people of alien and lower races of less social efficiency and less moral force you are running the most frightful risk that a people can run. The lowering of a great race means not only its decline, but that of civilization.”
The state’s only Democratic member of Congress, one Rep. John Fitzgerald, attempted to counter Lodge’s “insidious arguments.” He attacked the literacy requirement, which he said would have excluded his own mother, an Irish immigrant.
Fitzgerald said on the floor of the House: “It is fashionable today to cry out against the immigration of the Hungarian and the Italian and the Jew; but I think the man who comes to this country for the first time – to a strange land without friends and without employment – is born of the stuff that is bound to make good citizens.”
Congress passed Lodge’s measure. However, President Grover Cleveland vetoed the bill just before he left office and many millions more were accepted into America before World War I.
Nowadays, the immigrants’ great champion is Fitzgerald’s grandson, Senator Edward Kennedy. And not in 111 years have the battle lines on the issue between progress and reaction been so sharply drawn.