How The Irish Built A New National Identity in America

By Richard Lee

March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. In between, the month is filled with parades, shamrocks and leprechauns. St. Patrick’s Day may fall on March17, but the entire month has become a celebration of Irish heritage and culture. St. Patrick Day festivities have become “must attend” events for governors, senators, congressmen and other public officials (Vandiver).

Scholars contend that holidays such as St. Patrick’s Day provide a “major and relatively accessible source of global data about the beliefs and other attributes of a given society (Etzioni)”. Others have described St. Patrick’s Day parades as “complex urban rituals that commented upon the socio-economic and political conditions in Ireland as well as the U.S. and Canada. (Marston)”.

What then does St. Patrick’s Day indicate about the Irish? About Irish-Americans? About the United States?

The answers lie in a common theme that unites a series of otherwise diverse academic studies of St. Patrick’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day parades and the Irish. Scholars contend that Irish-Americans have forged their own identity, separate and distinct from the Irish men and women who reside on the Emerald Isle across the sea. Although they share common roots and values – and take great pride in their Irish traditions and cultures – Irish-Americans have built their own national identity in the United States.

“The various economic, political and religious roles which give this group ‘high visibility’ among European-derived ethnic groups are not exclusively the product of Irish cultural traits acquired and transplanted from Europe,” Milton L. Barron observed in Intermediacy: Conceptualization of Irish Status in America (p. 257).

“Irish and Irish-Americans do not automatically share a consistent and coherent sense of what it means to be a member of an Irish national community,” Sallie A. Marston wrote in Making difference: conflict over Irish identity in the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade (p. 378). And in the United States, events such as St. Patrick’s Day parades have been “instrumental to the construction and maintenance of an Irish national identity in North America,” Marston added (p. 374).

In fact, as early as 1847, Irish immigrants in America were using St. Patrick’s Day to create this new identity. Timothy J. Meagher, writing about the origins of St. Patrick’s Day parades in Worcester, Massachusetts, said the parades provided “a means for Irishmen to respond to a new environment that threatened to loosen their bonds of ethnic and religious loyalty as well as respond to a pluralistic society of diverse ethnic groups competing for status and power (p. 25).”

Although the creation of this new Irish identity in America evolved gradually over a long period of time, there were many benchmarks and milestones in the process – and the State of New Jersey played an important role, albeit somewhat indirectly, in one of the more significant ones. The details of this important, but often-overlooked, chapter in Irish-American history are contained in Woodrow Wilson, Irish Americans, and the Election of 1916, an article that William M. Leary Jr. wrote for The Journal of American History.

Leary describes the political atmosphere leading up to the 1916 Presidential election, when Wilson, a former New Jersey governor, was seeking a second term as the nation’s chief executive. At the time, it was widely believed that Wilson had lost the support of Irish-American voters (a large voting bloc that traditionally supported Democratic candidates), thereby dimming his chances of gaining re-election.

Irish-American leaders, as well as Irish-American newspapers, had become critical of Wilson for policies and decisions that negatively impacted Ireland and its struggles with Great Britain. In addition, most Irish-Americans were Roman Catholics, and the church was opposing Wilson for his Mexican policies and his alleged discourtesy toward Catholic prelates.

“Their (Irish-Americans’) deeply engrained allegiance to the Democratic party conflicted, as never before, with their sympathy for the plight of Ireland and their loyalty to the church,” Leary wrote (p. 57).

Irish-American newspapers endorsed Wilson’s rival, Republican Charles Evans Hughes. They also backed Senate candidates whom they considered sympathetic to the plight of Ireland. Among this group was U.S. Senator James E. Martine, who was seeking re-election to his New Jersey Senate seat. Martine, who frequently was at odds with the president, had gained support in the Irish-American community by sponsoring a resolution asking the British government to grant clemency to Roger Casement, a nationalist who had been arrested for his role in an Irish revolt. By contrast, Wilson was harshly criticized by the Irish-American press for failing to take more aggressive action on behalf of Casement, who eventually was found guilty and executed.

When Martine won the New Jersey Senate primary in September 1916, Irish-American leaders considered the victory a repudiation of Wilson’s “anti-Irish” policies. One of the leaders, Jeremiah A. O’Leary, summarized these sentiments in a telegram to the president.

 “Again we greet you with popular disapproval of your pro-British policies,” O’Leary wired. “Senator Martine won because the voters of New Jersey do not want any truckling to the British Empire nor do they approve of dictatorship over Congress (pp. 63-64)”.

Wilson, who received the telegram at his summer home in Long Branch, New Jersey, personally typed a strong and sarcastic response, in which he told O’Leary: “I would be deeply mortified to have you or anybody like you vote for me. Since you have access to many disloyal Americans and I have not, I will ask you to convey this message to them (p. 64)”. He then held a press conference to underscore his point.

For the Irish-American press, as well as for Wilson’s Democratic campaign, the exchange provided rallying cries that continued though the Nov. 7 election. When the votes were counted, Wilson was the winner. The Irish-American press, however, declared the election a moral victory, noting that Wilson had lost in six states with the high concentrations of Irish-Americans, among them New Jersey.

Leary contends that that analysis is too superficial. “To some Irish-Americans, although they were born abroad, affairs in Ireland meant little,” he said (p.66). To support his theory that Irish-American voters placed a high priority on domestic issues that directly impacted their quality of life in the United States, as opposed to issues regarding their native land, Leary cites a series of factors:

Martine, who had been strongly endorsed by the Irish-American press, lost the U.S. Senate election in New Jersey by more than 70,000 votes.

Although Wilson lost six of the eight states with the highest concentrations of Irish-Americans, these states traditionally supported Republican candidates in national elections. Only twice between 1896 and 1924 did the Republican presidential candidate fail to win all of these states.

Although he did not carry these states in 1916, Wilson had a larger number and a higher percentage of votes than any previous Democratic presidential candidates in seven of the eight states.

Wilson also fared well in individual election wards with large Irish-American populations, including sections of Newark and Jersey City.

“The weight of the evidence, then, indicates that Irish-Americas, despite the exhortations of their leaders, voted for Wilson in as great or greater numbers than they ever had voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in the immediate past,” Leary concluded (p. 71).

Leary suggests that Irish-Americans, most of whom were laborers, backed Wilson because they viewed him as a friend of the working class. Indeed, during the 1916 campaign, Wilson signed both the Child Labor Law and the Eight-Hour Day into law.

In addition, for Americans, including Irish-Americans, the predominant national issue during the campaign was peace, and Wilson, at this point in history, had kept the nation out of war.

“They (Irish-Americans) responded to American issues and not to those of Ireland,” Leary wrote. “Certainly they sympathized with their cousins across the sea, but they were now citizens of a different country, and their fortunes were linked to their new homeland (p.72).”

Nearly 100 years later, Leary’s words still ring true as Irish-Americans celebrate St. Patrick’s across the United States.

Richard Lee is an associate professor in the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonmaventure University.

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References

Barron, M. (1949). Intermediacy: Conceptualization of Irish Status in America. Social Forces, Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. 256-263.

Etzioni, A. (2000). Toward a Theory of Public Ritual. Sociological Theory. Vol. 18, No. 1, pp 44-59.

Leary, M. (1967). Woodrow Wilson, Irish Americans, and the Election of 1916. The Journal of American History, Vol. 54, No. 1, pp. 57-72.

Marston, S. (2002). Making difference: conflict over Irish identity in the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade, Political Geography, Vol. 21, pp. 373-392.

Meagher, T. (1985). “Why Should We Care for a Little Trouble or a Walk Through the Mud”: St. Patrick’s and Columbus Day Parades in Worcester, Massachusetts, 1845-1915. New England Quarterly, Vol. 58, No. 1, pp. 5-26.

Vandiver, J. (2006, March 3). Bash brings N.J. politics’ big names. The Asbury Park Press.

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