The Unstoppable Irish: Songs and Integration of the New York Irish, 1783-1883, by Dan Milner, Notre Dame, 294 pp, £43.95, ISBN: 978-0268105730
Songs and ballads are hugely valuable sources for the study of popular feeling and values. In this fascinating study Dan Milner focuses on the songs of the New York Irish and uses them to uncover the experience of that immigrant community in the century from 1783. The Irish experience over that period was essentially a struggle for Catholic incomers to achieve acceptance from a Protestant establishment. The process was one of integration not absorption, as the Irish remained resolutely Catholic in the Protestant city.
The progress of acceptance faced two great disruptions in the form of mass immigration following the Famine and, before that, following the end of the Napoleonic wars. Waves of strangely dressed, impoverished Catholic peasants tended to reverse whatever level of acceptance the resident Irish had achieved. In New York the Irish encountered not so much a New World but a mirror of the old with much of the intolerance and bigotry of home very much present in their adopted land.
In the end, excluding the Irish became untenable and undesirable. The Irish in New York grew to become a substantial proportion of the city’s population, and being white, their potential to strengthen the racial bulwark could not be ignored. The author puts it succinctly in his conclusion:
How did the Catholic Irish finally manage to climb the ladder and integrate into the New York populace, while African Americans – likewise a long-standing, long-demeaned, and long-deprived group – remained on the bottom rung? The first factor is that, bigoted anti-Irish imagery and quack physical anthropology aside, the former were undeniably “white”, and colour still mattered greatly in what remained a “white man’s city”. The second is that, though they had been dispossessed and impoverished in Ireland, and sorely abused in America, the Irish did not have an actual slave legacy. Third, by the 1880s, many Irish Catholics were projecting a new, Americanized image, partly based on their service in the union army, partly as preservers of law and order during the 1863 draft riots, and largely because so many of them were now Manhattan-born. This persona was prominently expressed in the lighter, genial profile they now displayed as popular entertainers and sportsmen. They were now no longer just buffoonlike, stage Irish comedians and bestial boxers but also slick song-and-dance artists and heroic baseball stars. Fourth, transatlantic immigration patterns were changing, and Manhattan demography was beginning to undergo structural and material changes. The arrival of large numbers of New Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe meant Manhattan elites needed to find a basis of commonality with Irish Catholics if they wished to continue having a hand on the rudder than steered the city. The Irish were politically astute and by that time well placed politically to enrol and organize new immigrants. Fifth, entirely contrary to the expectation of American Protestants, William R. Grace performed well in his initial term as mayor of the City of New York – and their newspapers were forced to admit it. Sixth, Irish Catholics were simply far more numerous than African Americans. The 1880 US Census determined the population of New York City to be 1,206,299. African Americans represented only a small portion of that total – 19,663, or 1.6 percent – while the combined first- and second-generation Irish aggregate amounted to a massive 423,159 or 35%.