In 1845, Boston had an Irish-born population of only one in 50. Ten years of immigration later, the Irish figure had become one in five.
A semi-predictable political reaction took place. By 1855, the anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party had captured every statewide office in Massachusetts and 378 seats in the lower house of the state legislature. That was the official welcome wagon pulled together for the first real batch of non-Protestant immigrants.
To be an immigrant at any time is to be the outsider, separated from the familiar and surrounded by the foreign. Immigrant settlements do not generally percolate with self-confidence. At such times, religious faith can provide genuine solace and comfort. For the Irish Americans of that time, their religion was introduced as conclusive proof of their treason. They didn't call the place New England for nothing.
The immigrants, too, reacted. Today their response would be called a textbook example of over-compensation. Never again, they seemed to pledge, would anyone dare to question their national allegiance. No Americans, natural born or naturalized, would outdo the Irish Americans in support of America. That promise, made in 19th century reaction, has been kept well, if not always wisely.
With time, a lot of Irish Americans became 110 percent Americans. In many cases they consciously shucked their "Irishness." Ireland, for many of them, became a place frozen in time, a romantic battlefield where their ancestors had fought valiantly and unsuccessfully. Many Irish Americans became thoroughly involved in American politics while most were thoroughly indifferent to the politics of Ireland. Without the interest in or the influence of Irish Americans forcing the United States' attention to the question, which has always had a generous complement of Anglophiles, seemed content to leave Northern Ireland where it had been: a matter of domestic British policy. You may have noticed that recent State Departments have regarded very few disputes to be matters of domestic policy anywhere.
By the late 1960s, thanks in large part to the liberal scholarship programs of British Labor governments, there organized in Northern Ireland a group of Catholics who were educated, motivated, self-confident and even assertive. Their objectives included an end to discrimination against their coreligionists in jobs and housing. In the North, the Protestants have the best of both and the Catholics have too little of either. The movement's meetings ended with the singing of "We Shall Overcome."
Analogies are always seductive and frequently wrong. The Catholic civil rights movement is committed to achieving justice through the political process. The respected John Hume is a recognized leader of the civil rights movement. "There is a very anti-politics Irish tradition," Hume once observed. "Many people who are anti-politics and anti-politician do not realize that they are unwittingly pro-violence because the alternative to politics is violence." That's not what might be expected from a legendary "fighting" Irisman. But John Hume has had a profound and positive influence on Irish Americans. Speaker O'Neill, Gov. Carey and Sens. Kennedy and Moynihan have been restrained and responsible on the Irish question. And they have been able to involve the American presidency in seeking a solution to the problem of Northern Ireland.
Old myths and old ghosts still plague all the players in the Irish drama. On Washington television recently, the thoroughly decent British ambassador to the United States sought to explain Catholic poverty in Northern Ireland this way: "For a long time, the Catholic schools produced a type of education that equipped people less to do lots of modern types of industry than the Protestant schools." Those lyrics do sound terribly familiar. But, on the other hand, Irish Americans must disabuse, themselves of the destructive notion that there is anything romantic about a machine gun.
In an earlier and, yes, a more complicated time, people sometimes got to be U.S. ambassadors after writing a check. Usually, a very large check. A third-rate burglary led to a new election law and the permanent suspension of that old practice.
That was good for William V. Shannon, who could not have written a very large check. Instead, he did write a very good book. "The American Irish." Shannon, as our ambassador to Ireland, advanced the cause of peace and reconciliation. Now it is time for Irish Americans to remember their Irishness and give a hand to the work of John Hume and Bill Shannon and the people of good will on both sides. Because the alternative to politics is violence.