Cracker Culture

Ian Jackman

  • Irish America by Reginald Byron
    Oxford, 317 pp, £40.00, November 1999, ISBN 0 19 823355 8
  • Remembering Ahanagran: Storytelling in a Family’s Past by Richard White
    Cork, 282 pp, IR£14.99, October 1999, ISBN 1 85918 232 1
  • From the Sin-é Café to the Black Hills: Notes on the New Irish by Eamon Wall
    Wisconsin, 139 pp, US $16.95, February 2000, ISBN 0 299 16724 0
  • The Encyclopedia of the Irish in America edited by Michael Glazier
    Notre Dame, 988 pp, £58.50, August 1999, ISBN 0 268 02755 2

Before he became Senator for New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was an academic and the author, with Nathan Glazer, of Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians and Irish of New York City, published in 1963. Moynihan’s chief contribution was the chapter on the New York Irish, a lament which begins: ‘New York used to be an Irish city. Or so it seemed. There were sixty or seventy years when the Irish were everywhere. They felt it was their town. It is no longer, and they know it. That is one of the things bothering them,’ The great Irish achievements, he said, had been the American Catholic Church and the Democratic machine, but the Church was cautious and backward-looking and drained the people’s resources, while the Irish knew how to get political power, but not how to use it, and were interested only in climbing to the next rung of the ladder. Weakened by booze, softened by Catholicism, enervated by politics, Irish culture in America was in decline. Its major celebration, the St Patrick’s Day parade in New York City, served only to embarrass Irish people visiting America by its ‘Top o’ the Mornin’ sensibility. For their part, Irish Americans were embarrassed by the conditions they found when they visited Ireland.

The Irish may be less ethnically visible in New York than they were, but they haven’t disappeared. In the 1980 census, 40 million Americans said they were descended from Irish people; by 1990, the figure had jumped to 45 million and this year’s census may well mark another leap. Irish pride and nationalism have always been magnified in the United States. In her autobiography, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the leader of the American Communist Party, described the attitudes of her Irish-born mother and American-born father: ‘Mama did not deny the faults or glorify the virtues of the Irish, as our father did. We were amused at this and often said, “Papa is more Irish than Mama and he never saw Ireland.” ’ Irish-Americans seem especially proud of their success, but they also cling to their feisty underdog image – even though there are 45 million of them.

The political machine Moynihan described may no longer be run by the Irish, but politicians still have to take them into account. In New York, an appearance at the St Patrick’s Day parade is mandatory. For Democrats, this has been tricky in recent years because the Ancient Organisation of Hibernians, which runs the event, won’t let the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organisation march under its own banner. Hillary Clinton, who’s running for Pat Moynihan’s old seat, marched this year in an alternative parade in Queens as well as in the official version. Politicians often try too hard to get the Irish vote. In No News at Throat Lake,[*] his account of a year spent working on a small-town Irish newspaper, Lawrence Donegan gleefully reports Newt Gingrich staging a visit to the Doherty Clan Centre on the Inishowen peninsula, where he was to be publicly presented with his family tree: he had to retreat when the clan chieftain told him they couldn’t trace it.

In the last ten years fifty places have started a St Patrick’s Day parade – among them Fairbanks, Albuquerque, Honolulu and Palm Beach. But how Irish does taking part in a parade make you? This is the concern of Irish America, which asks whether people who identify themselves as Irish-Americans have distinctive ways of behaving or thinking, five, six or seven generations down from the period of heaviest immigration around the time of the Famine.

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[*] Penguin, 272 pp., £6.99, 27 July, 0 14 027753 6.

[†] The paperback will be published in the UK next month by Flamingo.