'The Irish Way': How Hibernians made it here

A comprehensive and unsentimental history
March 4, 2012 12:00 am
  • Professor James R. Barrett: not one for literary "wearin' o' the green."
    Professor James R. Barrett: not one for literary "wearin' o' the green."
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"Because you are white you think you will be treated equally." The man who said this, the famous liberal New York politician Paul O'Dwyer (1907-1998) did not always find this to be the case, reports James R. Barrett, author of this comprehensive history of the emerging Irish over a 100-year period, beginning roughly in 1820.

It may seem a stretch to even Irish readers below the age of 30, but in some cities, where the Protestant establishment had held power for centuries -- Boston particularly comes to mind -- there were subtle barriers in corporations and clubs almost until the new millennium. The Irish, perhaps not the most thick-skinned group, have been very attuned to their place in American society from the beginning until just a couple of decades ago.

By James R. Barrett
Penguin Press ($29.95).

Mr. Barrett, a professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Illinois, meticulously traces the changing fortunes of the Irish in our major cities, particularly New York and Chicago. And with those changing fortunes came succeeding periods of antipathy and empathy toward other groups, particularly Italians and African-Americans.

One negative manifestation of this was the adaptation of the minstrel performer on stage. Fortunately, many young Americans are likely ignorant of this practice in which white performers in "blackface" (makeup) gave their interpretation of black culture. Some of these were almost benign, even by today's standards, but as Mr. Barrett notes, it established a differentiation with blacks, allowing the Irish to "earn a more secure place in the racial hierarchy." Even my own Catholic high school, in relatively broad-minded western Massachusetts, produced "minstrel shows" until the late 1950s.

First Published 2012-03-03 23:02:47

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