"The Irish Way" by James R. Barrett is a tightly written, informative text on the role of the Irish in America's main urban enclaves during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mainly those in New York and Chicago (though there are mentions of Boston scattered throughout). The one major aspect of this work is the text-book feel with which it was written. As Barrett is a history professor at the University of Illinois, I am assuming that this book was written for the classroom as a text, rather than something to be picked up as casual reading suitable for the den. That isn't to say that I didn't enjoy the book, only that the style was so dry, and information packed so densely, that for an informal reader the book definitely drags a bit. I actually found myself keeping notes (as I did in my college days) because summarized paragraph feel makes much of the information hard to remember unless the book is read very slowly (at least for me it was). The fact that I did want to keep notes (because there is so much of value regarding the Irish American experience) yet found the read more of a task than a pleasure, sums up the work as a whole.
Barrett's main contention in writing this book (which is divided into 6 chapters covering all aspects of experience) is Irish Americans (mostly Catholics) were the first true ethnic minority in the United States, so they essentially created political opposition to the right wing nativists. All other immigrants that came after the Irish had this mold from which to base their socio-political organizations. This brings about one of the primary points that Barrett focuses on, which is the ambivalence the Irish have towards new immigrant groups. One the one hand, there was fierce competition for jobs and living space that took place when new migrants arrived in the US in the late 1800s from Eastern Europe (as well as African Americans from the south).
This bred a lot of parochial attitudes that kept the Irish separate, preserving a sense of solidarity (though where other immigrant groups had centralized neighborhoods such as Chinatown and Little Italy, the Irish Catholic parishes were scattered throughout different areas of New York and Chicago). Though there was often violence in the streets over turf, Barrett shows that the Irish communities were willing to acculturate new immigrants as long as the Irish had control over their development, and retained positions of importance in the Democratic Party. They would tolerate other ethnicities so long as they "Americanized in the Irish mold," which was often displayed in athletic clubs/street gangs such as "Ragen's Colt's, which proved to be valuable as election day muscle in Chicago.
Religion was a prime means of uniting the immigrant communities in opposition to hostile nativist agitations. Though many parishes in New York and Chicago became multi-ethnic, Irish still dominated the clergy at the turn of the 20th century, as dissident groups within the Italian and Polish communities distrusted the Irish domination and wanted ethnic autonomy within the church. Though the church was mainly a conservative institution, there were still many Irish priest such as Edward McGlynn and Thomas Farell who fought for change; the former was a supporter of radical labor reform NYC mayoral candidate Henry George in 1886, while the latter was among the first Catholic priests north of the Mason/Dixon line to assemble a black congregation with St. Benedict the Moor in Manhattan.
The workplace was another area where the Irish first staked their claim, establishing labor unions in the late 1800's, with John Fitzpatrick and his Chicago Federation of Labor leading the way as a quite progressive front for the Democratic parties' interests. As the industrial evolution developed and America's factories multiplied, cheap labor was needed, and the Irish stepped right in. But as they soon learned, conditions in many of the workplaces were less the adequate, with excruciating hours and unsafe conditions. The Irish response was to band together and strike through unions, mainly the conservative and church backed American Federation of Labor, but many Irish such as IRA martyr John Connolly and suffragette Leonora O'Reilly were out and out socialists (which put them on the government's radar during the Red scare of 1919-22 and WWI, as their subversion of British interests in Ireland called their allegiance into question).
The stage was an area that Irish shared with Jews in the early years of the entertainment business (both groups would come to dominate the early Hollywood industry). Many early productions were overtly racist and poked fun at stereotypes, but these often brought a multi-ethnic crowd together and allowed each side to laugh at their own imperfections. But as the Irish rose in respectability (their burgeoning middle class came to known as "lace curtain Irish"), fraternal organizations such as the AOH ( Ancient order of Hibernians) and Clan Na Geal boycotted Irish caricature based productions, which they viewed as demeaning to their race.
The political machine of the Irish is an interesting chapter, but again is among the most informative, yet dry forms of writing. The ward bosses became unofficial rulers of different parts of the city, as their connections to the police and political establishments gave them a lot of leeway to essentially became the prototypical racketeers of the American city. There are some decent profiles of leaders such as New York's Big Tim Sullivan of the notorious Tammany Hall and Alfred E. Smith, the first Irish Catholic presidential candidate, who ran from the Governor's office of New York.
The nation chapter is Barrett's conclusion, and shows the spirit of Irish nationalism that swept through the fraternal organizations such as AOH and Clan Na Gael in their funding of the IRA and independence from England. Despite this dislike of England, the Irish American contingent in the American Expeditionary Force of WWI was very high, as their sympathies for Ireland had been eclipsed by their love of their new home.
This book was extremely educational, but it was one of the thicker books I've read in a long time. 20 to 30 pages in one sitting felt like a lot of information to handle. Other than that, I think this is a valuable book that is probably among the best to show the full spectrum of Irish American experience in the years between the Civil War and WWII. Barrett's conclusion is excellent summary as he profiles two brothers, William and Paul O'Dwyer. One became a WWII US Army General, while the other a civil rights lawyer during the 1960's. Barrett shows the duality of Irish American experience, that has pushed the Irish race beyond affiliation to one political party. Though the one thing I did notice was the complete omission of President Kennedy in the entire book, which seemed odd considering he was the only Irish Catholic ever to become president. Other than this, I found Barrett's book to be a well-rounded perspective of every facet of Irish America during its formative years.