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NYU lecturer charts Irish Americans’ rise to prominence

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Michael Washburn

Irish America can do anything in the new millennium. It has survived as a distinct, cohesive community and is quite successful, too. These facts came across in a talk Professor J.J. Lee gave last week at New York University. But while charting the rise of the American Irish from a time when people spat on them to a time when it is almost chic to claim Irish descent, Lee mentioned problems that still cry out for resolution, such as the "curse" of alcohol and the need for more competitiveness in the realm of scholarship and education.

A former Irish senator and former professor in County Cork, and now Glucksman Professor of Irish Studies at NYU, Lee spoke to a huge audience Thursday under the auspices of Glucksman Ireland House. Co-sponsored by the New York Times Co. Foundation, Lee’s talk — entitled Irish America: From Rags to Riches to What? — kicked off the Ernie O’Malley Lecture Series, a program aimed at casting light on the saga of the Irish in America. The series is the brainchild of Glucksman board member Cormac O’Malley.

Lee began by asking why the American Irish have such a strong presence these days. Ireland’s population is small, after all. According to Lee, the rate of Irish resettlement in America in the 1800s and the early years of this century was often less than half the rate of, say, German immigration, and many more Germans than Irish were born in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and other cities early in the 1900s. The great waves of Irish immigration into America did not survive the 1920s, and although there was a small influx after World War II, this petered out in the 1970s. By Lee’s estimate, there have been only 300,000 or so Irish newcomers in the U.S. since 1930, a tinier number than in any decade of the last century.

Yet regardless of Lee’s figures, Irish America has been one of the most visible minorities from its origins to the present. Today it has one of the highest profiles of any ethnic group. The Irish are everywhere, as Lee put it, with a dominant presence in some areas of professional and political life and a cohesion matched by few other groups.

To Lee, this cohesion came from a number of things. A vast majority of the Irish who came to the U.S. in the years after the Famine were Catholics, and the church gave these men and women a sense of identity that helped break down any barriers among them. As immigrants, they also tended to face common enemies — namely, nativist bigotry — which also provided a reason to band together and fight for their common interests.

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But more than those factors, the shared ordeal of the Famine gave the Irish a sense of national identity. Having fled it, they talked about it often and told each other their personal stories, which formed a common history of suffering and a strong unifying bond.

Moreover, the men and women who left Ireland did not bring all the customs of their homeland with them. Contrary to the custom in Ireland, where marriages tended to involve men and women who lived within three miles of each other, the Irish in America found mates from all regions of the home country. This practice helped them and their children feel that they were not people from Mayo or Kerry first and foremost, but were Irish above all. Its fruits can be seen everywhere — Lee mentioned the late Tip O’Neill, former New York Gov. Hugh Carey, and many other offspring of parents from different parts of Ireland.

Not only did the Irish enjoy a high degree of cohesion and unity, but they were geared for success from the start. In contrast to many other immigrants, said Lee, they spoke the language of public discourse in their new land. Having arrived in the U.S. with less money than other newcomers, they had to work harder. And having fled awful conditions in Ireland during the Famine or in later decades, they did not plan to do what other immigrants did — make their pile and then go back home to their families. They were in America for the long haul, and they knew they had to make a success of it.

And that is what they have done. The toil and struggle have paid off, in economic terms and in terms of the changing public image of the Irish which, in Lee’s eyes, John F. Kennedy’s 1960 victory reflects. The Irish are at the top, said Lee, and they are everywhere.

Irish Americans can be anything they want now. Just as important is the need to combat alcoholism, for to Lee, alcohol is a "curse," he said, which has "seeped through the fabric" of Irish America. It is perhaps the only thing that stands in the way of further achievement by the Irish in the new millennium.

Following the lecture was a humorous talk by Peter A. Quinn, a writer and native of the Bronx. In general he seemed to agree with Lee, but he suggested that cohesion and success might not always go well together. Now when Irish people fail, he said, "they fail upward" — into upper-classdom and away from their original, authentic immigrant subculture.

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