This exceptionally thoughtful and interesting inquiry into Irish America, Peter Quinn writes, "is tentative, subjective and personal." Though it reaches certain broad judgments and conclusions about the Irish American experience, and though it draws heavily on the work of others who have written about that endlessly interesting subject, its primary source is Quinn and his family:
"The views and values it reflects were formed in the Bronx-based religious schools I attended from kindergarten through graduate school. A full account of the Irish in America would include the Protestant Scot-Irish and the many Catholics who settled outside cities. As worthy as their subjects are, they are not part of my tale. The Irish America of my search is the one into which I was born -- a cohesive urban Catholic community constructed from a peasantry fragmented, transplanted, transformed and defined by the Great Famine and its consequences."
The city and the famine: These are the central themes of Quinn's study. Carefully argued and handsomely written -- though marred by infrequent and inexplicable grammatical lapses -- Looking for Jimmy is more a meditation than a history, and thus does not displace William V. Shannon's invaluable The American Irish: A Political and Social Portrait (1964), which remains a standard reference. But lapses notwithstanding, Quinn is a better writer than Shannon, and he digs deeper.
Quinn is a novelist and speechwriter -- for two governors of New York, Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo, and for big cheeses at Time Warner -- who "was born in 1947, in Greenport, on the northeast end of Long Island, exactly a century after my first Paddy ancestor set foot in America." His father and namesake had just been defeated for reelection as Democratic congressman from the Bronx, and the family was vacationing when Peter and his twin brother were born. The family got back to the city as soon as possible, and Quinn has lived there for most of the ensuing six decades. He is an urbanite to the core, and a proud Irish American one.
"If there is any central theme in the story of the Irish in America," he writes, "it is . . . how they stayed Irish: how an immigrant group already under punishing cultural and economic pressures, reeling in the wake of the worst catastrophe in western Europe in the nineteenth century, and plunged into the fastest industrializing society in the world, regrouped as quickly as it did; built its own far-flung network of charitable and educational institutions; preserved its own identity; and had a profound influence on the future of both the country it left and the one it came to."
Today the Irish are so thoroughly assimilated into the larger American society that it is difficult for anyone to remember how harshly and unforgivingly they were greeted as they arrived in the great wave that began in the mid-1840s and lasted for a decade, but white America equated them with blacks and stereotyped them accordingly as "childlike buffoons, lazy, superstitious, given to doubletalk, inflated rhetoric, and comic misuse of proper English."
For African Americans and the Irish alike, "the stereotype became so ingrained in popular attitudes and perceptions that it passed from being regarded as a theatrical parody to a predeterminant of group behavior." Blacks were called Sambo, while Irish were stereotyped as Paddy. Gradually, though, Paddy evolved into what Quinn calls Jimmy, a blend of New York's flamboyant Mayor Jimmy Walker and Jimmy Cagney, "the actor-hoofer with the looks of a prize-fighter lucky enough never to have had his face smashed in." Jimmy "expressed the style of the urban Irish in its definitive form. These Jimmies had the blend of musicality and menace, of nattiness and charm, of verbal agility and ironic sensibility, of what today is known as 'street smarts,' that the Irish, as New York's first immigrant outsiders, had developed."
They achieved this after overcoming circumstances so dire as to defy description or comprehension. On the subject of the famine, Quinn again is descriptive rather than definitive -- the latter distinction belongs to Cecil Woodham-Smith's The Great Hunger: The Story of the Potato Famine of the 1840s (1962) -- but he fully evokes the terrible pain and horror it inflicted on millions of people, and he shows how those who fled Ireland for America "began the process of recovering from the shattering experience of the Famine, of unbending from the defensive crouch it had forced them into, of building a new identity in America that preserved their deep sense of being Irish as it prepared them to compete in a country in which the hostility they faced was interwoven with possibilities for advancement that had never existed before."
White Anglo-Saxons who regarded themselves as "native Americans" gave the newcomers a frosty welcome. In Boston, employers famously posted signs that read: "No Irish Need Apply." Irish women, who outnumbered men, "worked in factories and mills. Irish maids became a fixture of bourgeois American life. Domestic service became so associated with the Irish that maids often were referred to generically as 'Kathleens' or 'Bridgets,' " just as black railroad porters were universally, and equally patronizingly, called "George."
Politics proved to be the key to Irish assimilation, though certainly not in a way of which the Brahmins approved. In New York, Tammany Hall emerged as the great engine of Irish advancement. Viewed with disgust by Anglos of most classes, but especially by reformers and aristos, Tammany did indeed wallow in corruption, but, more important, it "was about practical things: about jobs, bread, influence; about the neighborhood kid who needed a lawyer; about the fees paid a subcontractor; and about the hundred cases of champagne and two hundred kegs of beer waiting in the basement of the Hall for those who endured five hours of July Fourth speechifying." Tammany was practical, unromantic and effective; Quinn correctly concludes that "for all its excesses, for all its thievery and knavery, Tammany afforded the poor what the rich and well-off had denied them throughout history: respect."
The other institution that gave aid, comfort and support to the Irish was the Catholic Church. Quinn, who was raised a Catholic, went through a brief period of collegiate apostasy and then returned to the fold, laments what has happened to the church and the priesthood after "the prolonged season of ugly revelations of sexual misconduct" but does not let that cloud his memory of the church in which he was reared: "The environment was sexually puritanical, ritually demanding, and often stultifying. It was also intensely comforting and secure, liturgically rich, a culture of moral absolutes, theological certainties, and religious devotions in which the answers to all life's questions were readily at hand." Quinn offers a surprisingly revisionist view of Cardinal Spellman, whose early and faithful support for civil rights he emphasizes more strongly than the cardinal's fondness for political meddling and his rigid approach to some moral issues.
In America, the Irish elevated the church "from an ingredient in Irish life to its center, the bulwark of a culture that had lost its language and almost disintegrated beneath the catastrophe of the Famine." The Irish "translated their numbers into control of the Democratic party in the major cities and turned municipal patronage into an immediate and pragmatic method for softening the ravages of boom-and-bust capitalism." They were "prime participants in the often intertwined professions of politics, entertainment, sports (along with its less reputable sister, gambling), as well as a major part of the local criminal underworld (which was not infrequently an ally of the local political machine)."
Like African Americans, Irish Americans have made contributions of incalculable dimensions to American society and culture. They changed and enriched the language, gave us our greatest playwright (Eugene O'Neill), some of our finest writers (Flannery O'Connor, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alice McDermott, William Kennedy) and our greatest movie director, John Ford, one of the "master interpreters of the [American] dream." Now they have given us, in this fine book, a way to help us understand them, and thus ourselves. ·
LOOKING FOR JIMMY
A Search for Irish America
By Peter Quinn
Overlook. 283 pp. $26.95