Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Irish Americans and politics

Brian Hornback’s entry several days back about Plunkitt of Tammany Hall got me to thinking about the larger picture of the impact of Irish-Americans on politics and society in this country. I have long thought that people of Irish/Gaelic extraction have some sort of “political gene” that causes us to take an unusually high interest in politics, and that while our women carry this gene, it causes a permanent infection in Irish men when inherited. (My wife is if Irish and Cherokee lineage, for example, and while she does have some interest in things political, more than enough to carry on a good conversation, it is nothing compared to mine.)

Some of my old friends and political associates (on both sides) have borne surnames that gave away that they were also had the gene and were infected with the disease: Harris, Bashore, Kress, Fitzgerald, Flannigan, O’Brien…just to name a few. I think I got the “gene” from my mother’s side (Neelys) because as a family, they were heavily involved in politics in years gone by. My Grandfather certainly took a keen interest in politics, and he fostered my own.

I am not sure just where it comes from. Part of it may be those years of fighting each other back in the Old Country. We were a stubborn lot back in the 16th and 17th Century, and we continue to be today. The North of Ireland is still very much a war-torn place, largely because of British interference. Originally, the Brits oppressed Catholic and Protestant alike in Ireland: The Catholics were seditious, they said, and the Presbyterians they tried to bring over from Scotland (also a Celtic people) to breed out the Irish Catholics turned out to be dissenters from the Establishment. When the Brits finally decided to give one group privilege over the other, that became the root of the present conflict (Note to Irish scholars: Yes, I know there is much more to it than that, but for the sake of brevity, this is but a tiny overview).

We did not bring our religious and political differences with us to the New World, we couldn’t afford to. When our ancestors came to this country, some were discriminated against for their religion (the Know-Nothings didn’t particularly like Catholics, and Irish Catholics were an easy target-while many Presbyterians from Northern Ireland changed the spelling of their names to prevent people knowing they came from Ireland…or might be Presbyterian), the majority were discriminated against because they were from Ireland and came here with nothing.

It has been said that studies have shown that the Irish and Scots-Irish of East Tennessee are among the most stubborn people on earth. I can buy that, but I’ll go further: The Irish are the most stubborn people God ever created, wherever they may live. In the New World, rather than having their arguments lead to shooting wars (with the exception, perhaps, of the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790’s and the Late Unpleasantness of 1861-1865), the Irish learned to use their known ability to argue in a constructive way, through politics. This is one theory…

Another theory is that politics became a way out of poverty for so many Irish people in America that it became a way of life and it has never been undone. To their credit, the old Democrats saw the benefit of involving the newcomers right off the bat. In the age before FDR destroyed it forever, the Dems used political patronage as a way to win Irish loyalty. The process started under Andrew Jackson and continued unabated until the New Deal. The New Deal destroyed the old patronage system, because in the old days, the Ward Boss or the Precinct Captain might be able to get a jobless Irishman a job at the library, the school, or the courthouse, the auditor’s office, etc. Once a man had a job, he was on his own, and when he worked his way up the system, he was expected to help others in turn the way he was helped. In this way, the Irish built up their political influence and power by putting other Irish-Americans in government jobs when they had the authority to do so, then working their way up, and repeating the process. This led Irish people to see politics as a way to success, and generations of Irish-Americans became involved in public life at some level or other.

The New Deal effectively put an end to this system, because the federal government used New Deal programs to take patronage out of the hands of local officials in the name of “reform,” and instead they put it in the hands of the federal government. It made the Feds big and bad, but it weakened the power of local authorities. Local politics, of course, is where Irish-Americans have traditionally thrived, so the Democrats didn’t know it at the time, but the de-localization of politics brought about as a result of the New Deal was at the root of the ultimate end of the Democrats’ lock on the Irish vote.

A good book (a novel) that talks about the last of the old Irish patronage politicians is The Last Hurrah by Edwin O’Brien, about an old Boston mayor, Skeffington, in his last political campaign.

Whatever it is that causes Irish men to take such a keen interest in politics, we nonetheless do. If the great Irish contributions to America are politicians and whiskey, we’ve still given America some of the greatest contributions to its culture and public life. We’re too stubborn to do anything less.


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