Category: Archive

Their kind of town

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Or at least, so claims Alderman Ed Burke, speaking to the Irish Echo in his office at City Hall.
And he points to two Irish-American businessmen who are leading Chicago’s effort to host the 2016 Olympic Games — Patrick Ryan, the head of Aon Corporation, and Andrew McKenna, the chairman of McDonald’s. (The IOC placed the city on a shortlist of four last week.)
Burke himself is not one to depart from the city’s great tradition. “The first thing that strikes people when they come here and they compare us to New York is the cleanliness, the beauty of the city, the wisdom of the city leaders to keep our lakefront forever open, free and clear,” he said.
Irish-born Chicagoans speak in similar terms.
“It has the buzz of a big city, but the feel of a larger town,” said Dolores Connolly, a County Longford native, who came to Chicago in 1979.
“People are always surprised at how esthetically pleasing it is,” she added.
“The city is easy to navigate, both geographically and psychologically,” said Ferdia Doherty, a Donegal man who arrived in 1994 to visit relatives and didn’t leave.
Today, according to best estimates, the Irish immigrant population is 30,000 in Cook County (which covers the city and much of its suburban area) that is a half of one percent of the almost 6 million who live there. But about 10 percent or so of the residents of Cook County claim Irish roots and many other descendants of the original Irish Chicagoans have settled elsewhere in the Midwest.
However, while hundreds of thousands of immigrants made Chicago their home, it’s hard to tell the Irish story without referring to the Daley dynasty, which has occupied the city’s top job for 40 of the past 53 years.
The incumbent Richard M. Daley was named one of the nation’s top five mayors in a Time magazine article in 2005. The newsweekly said that in his years in power, Daley “has presided over the city’s transition from graying hub to vibrant boomtown, with a newly renovated football stadium, an ebbing murder rate, a new downtown park, a noticeable expansion of green space and a skyline thick with construction cranes.”

Rule by diktat

The basis was laid by his father, Richard J. Daley, who began his 21-year reign in 1955. The era of the big-city boss was coming to a close everywhere else, which was the theme of Edwin O’Connor’s best-selling novel “The Last Hurrah,” published a few months later. The 53-year-old Daley, however, was just getting started.
Daley may have been an anachronism even in the mid-1950s, but his defenders said he made the modern Chicago possible. And controversial though he was in life — he died suddenly in 1976 — historians and political scientists labeled him one of the great mayors of the 20th century.
“He was a benevolent dictator,” Burke said. “If you have the power you run with it.”
Burke was a 24-year-old policeman in 1968 when he inherited his late father’s position as Democratic Committeeman for the 14th ward and he was elected to his aldermanic seat the following year.
Up close, the rookie politician could see that Daley was “super smart,” particularly when it came to matters of finance.
And Burke defends the late mayor over police actions against demonstrators during 1968 Democratic Convention.
“He got a black eye nationally, but locally he could never be beaten after that because the people of Chicago recognized that he was proud of his city,” the alderman said. “He stood up against the people who were going to seize power almost like anarchists.”
Another controversial issue was race. When Martin Luther King Jr. decided to bring his campaign for civil rights to the North, Chicago became his focus.
A recent biography quotes Daley’s former press secretary saying his late boss’ idea of affirmative action was “nine Irishmen and a Swede.”
Burke laughed when told this, but added the reality was more complicated. Daley’s administration was inclusive in its own way. “It was a big tent,” he said.
Eventually, a woman, Jane Byrne (1979-1983, whom Burke supported) and an African-American, the late Harold Washington (1983-1987, whom he didn’t), would become mayor. Like Daley senior, Washington died suddenly in office, but in 2008 one of his admirers, Barack Obama, has become the first black presidential candidate of a major party.
Through it all, indeed since 1953, a Burke has ruled the roost in the 14th Ward.
“Voters here in Cook County tend to vote for an Irish candidate if they know who the opponent is,” said the veteran alderman, adding that the tendency is even stronger if the office-holder or office-seeker is a woman.
“I think somehow or another, other ethnic groups feel a sense of unity with the Irish,” he said about that statistical phenomenon. “Is it that they’re perceived to be fair people, or a generous people, or an honest people? I couldn’t put my finger on it, but the fact is that it’s true.”

From West to Midwest

But things have moved on. The mystique of the Democratic Party machine is a thing of the past, said Burke, as is much of the world of his youth.
“Our neighborhood was heavily Irish. I grew up in Visitation Parish, which at the time was the largest Catholic parish in America — 2,400 kids in the grammar school, 1,400 girls in the all-girls high school, 400 kids in the kindergarten, 78 nuns, 6 priests,” he said.
Burke’s own Irish roots go back to his grandparents, who were turn-of-the-century immigrants. One set were from Listowel Co. Kerry, and the other from Kilrush, Co. Clare.
In this, he’s a typical Irish Chicagoan: most trace their roots to the Western seaboard and Western counties.
The Rev. Michael Leonard, who has worked as a chaplain in the Chicago area for the past few years, said the tradition was maintained when new, if smaller, waves of immigrants arrived in the second half of the 20th century.
“A lot of it has to do with family ties,” he said.
The Flagmount, Co. Clare, native is a priest attached to his local diocese of Killaloe, but has spent most of his career since 1984 ordination outside of it.
His particular concern these days is the estimated 3,000 to 5,000 undocumented Irish immigrants who live in the consular region, which essentially covers the central states of the country.
“Up until last June when the [McCain-Kennedy] bill collapsed, I was in Washington at least one week out of every month advocating for immigration reform amongst politicians,” Leonard said.

Inward investment

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The priest said that many of younger people – working in the construction and hospitality industries mainly — were giving up on the United States, and trying elsewhere. Those who are in the U.S. more than five years, though, take a different attitude.
“There are more than 12 million undocumented people in the country they’re going to have to sort this out sooner or later,” the priest said, summing up their attitude. “We’re here. We’ve established lives. Our families are here. Our kids are at school. It’s not a simple thing for us to leave. We’re here for the long haul.”
He knows of some legal families who went home “only to find after a year or year and half or two that they couldn’t settle.”
All sorts of issues sent them back to Chicago. Chief amongst them were the price of property, the unfavorable exchange rate and the high cost of living generally. He even knows of cases of children being bullied because they couldn’t speak Irish.
And there’s the climate. That might seem odd given Chicago’s famously inhospitable winter weather, and some Irish immigrants complained that the most recent was particularly rough. But Leonard said: “People are totally geared for it.”
If the strong Irish economy lured people home, it also had an impact on Chicago.
“There’s a lot investment coming in from Ireland in recent times. Condos and office space being launched at home before it’s launched here right now,” he said.
“There’s a lot of opportunity here. And if the city gets the Olympics, it will take off big time,” Leonard said. “People who have visited and people who’ve come here [to live] said that even the way the whole structure is designed.
“It’s much more attractive,” he said. “It’s got much more space that the typical city, most especially if you compare it with the East Coast.
“It’s not nearly as cramped. It’s very clean.
There’s a lot of good quality housing available very close to the center of the city and it’s reasonable,” the priest said.
“I found it very easy to settle here — the Irish community here are very close-knit,” said Leonard, who has worked in Zimbabwe, Derry City, and back home in Kilkee, Co. Clare, and has had spent time as a postgraduate student in Minnesota and Israel.
“They’re very supportive of one another,” he said. “One of the big features here is that they’re very quick to come to the help of anybody who’s in need.”

Egalitarian values

Longford native Connolly, who’s long been active in Concern USA, agreed that the Irish community is a supportive one, but added it goes for the city as a whole.
“You don’t feel like an outsider. It’s egalitarian. The lakefront is there; it’s for everyone,” she said.
And she added: It has all the wonderful, rich, aspects of a great city: the music, the architecture, the visuals arts, theater.”
Connolly’s Chicago story begins with the Irish postal strike of 1979, which she blames for not hearing back from several job applications as a Montessori teacher on the West and East Coasts.
It’s true, her sister was there and she had some more distant family connections in the city, but the concrete job offer kept her there.
Eventually, after a series of two-year contracts, and marriage to a Scot, she committed to the city.
Aside from her sister, who married a Brooklynite, she knows of only half-dozen Irish immigrants of her generation. But the 1980s and 1990s saw an influx of new immigrants and the creation of new organizations, many of which have overlapping memberships.
Most recently, Chicago Celts for Immigration Reform joined the scene campaigning on one of the nation’s hot-button issues.
“Immigration is very close to me,” said bar-owner Billy Lawless, who’d been active in the Fine Gael party back home. “I’ve strong views on it.”
But he’s hopeful, mainly because the candidates still left in the 2008 presidential race (three at the time of interview) are pro-reform.
Lawless relocated from Galway a decade ago with his wife Anne and their two sons and two daughters, who are now aged between 35 and 30. After college, all four children joined the family business, which comprises the Irish Oak bar and restaurant near Wrigley Field, a favorite of baseball fans, and the Gage downtown, which is three times the size.
He had considered New York and Boston, where he had some family connections. But he also had a cousin in Chicago, which was one reason he decided to try the city. “I fell in love with it,” he said.
So did Ferdia Doherty when he visited 14 years ago. And he also fell in love with and married a local. Doherty, the CEO of Rain Communications, which also has offices in London and Dublin, helped set up the Ireland Network in the city.
No group can network socially better than the Irish, Doherty said, but amongst themselves and particularly with regard to business, they are rather inhibited.
But that’s changing.
“I got my lawyer and my accountant and many of my clients from the Ireland Network,” Doherty said.
Fr. Leonard said this is a more confident immigrant generation than any that went before. Most of the undocumented have a second-level education and some have degrees, which they can’t utilize.
But for those with their papers in order, there’s every reason to relocate to the Midwest.
“Chicago is a wonderful place,” Leonard said.

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