Book Review: The Irish Americans

The Irish Americans, by Jay P. Dolan

One thing about this book that speaks highly in its favor is that it is a very honest book. Given the political nature of ethnic studies designed for a mass audience, this volume seeks to avoid blarney will giving an account that in many ways is highly unsympathetic to many of its potential readers. To be sure, a book about the Irish is something that is likely to strongly interest that 18% of Americans who identify themselves as Irish. That said, while some of them are likely to praise the point of view of this book (which certainly does seek to give the Irish legitimacy), this book does not in any way sugarcoat the failings of the Irish, and shows some major biases in seeking to portray the Irish particularly as politicians (Democrats, generally) and as deeply corrupt and interested in using power for clannish purposes. This book does not in any way shy away from the unsavory nature of the Irish politically as well as the characteristic split between crony capitalism and the politics of division and ethnic hatred as being the two characteristic modes of behavior regarding the Irish in any sphere of activity.

This book is divided in both a chronological as well as in a topical fashion. It begins by discussing the first Irish immigrants, namely the Scot-Irish, but even in the beginning there is a great deal of attention paid to the comparatively small Catholic Irish immigrant population as well as an attempt to cheer on just about every famous Irish person in American history aside from Frank McCourt (who is, surprisingly enough, not discussed at all in these pages) [1]. Although a great deal of the book is dealt with the narrative of Irish Catholic immigration from its humble colonial beginnings to the apogee of Catholic political strength in the early 1960’s with the election of John F. Kennedy to the presidency, the book ignores the many Scot-Irish presidents that we have known once the period of the early 1800’s is discussed. For those who are not well-disposed to vile popery, this book is far too interested in parishes and Catholic politics to be of interest in many of its pages.

This book has a lot to say about politics in general, whether one is dealing with the politics of labor unions, of ward bosses and corrupt Democratic mayors, or priests and cardinals, and most of what it has to say is extremely unsavory. The Irish come across as manipulative political players who engage in rampant nepotism and have used taxpayer dollars regularly in what amounts to massive graft as well as vote-buying and jobbing on a massive scale. Massive amounts of wasted money are what made the Democratic machines of such places as Boston, New York City, Jersey City, Chicago, and Albany operate, where politicians and machines rose and fell in ethnic political maneuvering as well as the personal politics of picking the right candidate for high office and the fickle tides of people wanting government that seems responsive to them (even if it is grossly inefficient and corrupt) or being having stern reformers who aren’t fun enough to stay in power for too long. Over and over again this book talks about “reformist” Irish Democrats who continually are corrupt in their political dealings in different ways, without any sort of reprieve. Indeed, many of the contemporary political problems of our present administration demonstrate that the Irish taught a great deal of corruption to other members of the Democratic coalition that continue to be practiced to the present day, including strategies of divide and conquer and the use of taxpayer money and government intervention for personal political gain for cronies.

In many ways, the Irish (like many people) are shown to be a people of great contrasts. For example, they early fought against their portrayal as unequal or subhuman, but throughout their history they have deeply discriminated in particular against blacks, whether one is looking at the draft riot of 1863 in New York City or the white flight away from living in mixed-race neighborhoods when the blacks of many cities started demanding integrated houses in the 1960’s. Likewise, the traditional loyalties of the Irish to Catholicism have been greatly tempered by their growing liberalism in terms of cultural politics, which has led to a sharp schism in Irish politics, with cultural views overtaking ethnicity as the key element in determining the voting profile of Irish. Also of interest here is the fact that the prestige of the Catholic Church as a moral arbiter was greatly hurt by the moral corruption of many priests, who condemned immorality even as they practiced it assiduously. Readers of this book will find a fair amount of repetition, especially in terms of concepts, but will also find that the patterns discussed in this book are deeply interesting as a way of explaining how America lost its way as a nation in terms of its politics—this book shows the Irish as a major culprit in everything from FDR’s corrupt behavior before and during WWII to McCarthyism to the priestly scandals of recent decades. This book is also very excellent in pointing to the reciprocal ties between the United States and Ireland and the key role of Irish-Americans in seeking and funding Irish freedom as well as peace in Northern Ireland. At the very least as well, when this book gets too political in its discussion, one can at least put on the Chieftains or the Corrs [2] and enjoy a peaceful break from discussions of lace-curtain Irish families or parochial school discipline. Many readers might need the break in the 300 pages of reading here.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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7 Responses to Book Review: The Irish Americans

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