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Making the Irish American

Jacket: Hardcover
Pages: 733 pages
Publisher: New York University Press (February 2006)
Genre: US History/Immigrants

Comments about the author: J. J. Lee is Director of Glucksman Ireland House, Glucksman Professor of Irish Studies, and professor of history, at New York University. He is the author of the award winning The Irish Experience in New York City: A Select Bibliography.

Marion R. Casey is assistant professor, Glucksman Ireland House, New York University, and co-editor of The Irish Experience in New York City: A Select Bibliography.

Review: This comprehensive volume is co-published with Gluckmans Ireland House, which is the center for Irish Studies at New York University.

For anyone with the slightest interest in the history of Irish immigrants in America, Lee and Casey’s book is a wonderful foundation on which to build a knowledge base. In the first section, The Irish Background, Eileen Reilly offers an overview of Irish history beginning with the Earls of Kildare and moving to present day Ireland. Ms. Reilly, associate director and adjunct assistant professor of Irish studies at Glucksman Ireland House, may appear to have slightly whitewashed certain aspects of these time periods, but I believe that due more for the need of a concise account rather than a deliberate turning a historical eye the other way from unsavory details.

In the second section, Foundations, David Noel Doyle starts by defining the term Scots Irish or Scotch-Irish, referring those immigrating from Ulster and generally Protestant, and he continues by delineating the consequences of this subdivision of the immigrant group as a whole. In the next two chapters Doyle turns an economic historian’s eye on the widespread effects of Irish immigrant to North America and the United States in particular, using pre and post famine dates as a dividing line. As for how the Irishman was viewed in various parts of the country: “Employers though highly of him; the wealthy distanced themselves from him; those of recent, unstable position slighted him; New Englanders disdained him – but most Americans from New York southward and westward took him as he was, more or less.”

To understand the conflict of identity, the theme of the third section of the book, one must understand the “two traditions”. According to Kerby A. Miller, “one is Gaelic, Catholic, nationalist, and ‘Irish’ “ the second “English and Scottish, Protestants, unionist or loyalists, and ‘British’”. His thought provoking essay challenges the tradition of strict adherence to interpreting these two groups as mutually exclusive. Other issues are addressed in this section – the immigrant bank, the role of women in domestic service, labor organizations, and prejudice against the Irish and the resulting violence. Growing up I heard women referred to as “old biddies” never dreaming it was a reference back to the hard working Bridgets that took up domestic service to survive in their new country; in addition, racial issues in my school history classes centered around black and white – it was a surprise to come across the terms “Celtic Caliban” and “toasted Irishman” and the concept of the Irish becoming white.

The last two sections cover areas more in current public awareness – Irish dancing, music, festivals and reflections by familiar names such as Pete Hamill, Calvin Trillin, and the late Senator Moynihan. The exploration of these subjects will appeal to a broad range of readers, and tempt them into the subjects covered in the first half of the book which are equally fascinating.

— Reviewed by: Pamela Crossland


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