What I’m Reading – “The Irish Americans: A History” by Jay P. Dolan

I first encountered Jay P. Dolan’s The Irish Americans: A History while working at Goodwill.

Being of mostly Irish descent and a fan of nonfiction, I took the book off the shelf and flipped through its pages. Part of me (most likely the Irish side) was interested in learning more about the Irish’s relationship with America, however, I was hesitant to commit because, to my observation, the text was more academic than narrative. As I considered buying it, I came across a passage that described how Irish Americans, before and during the Civil War, were largely pro-slavery.

Pro-slavery? What?! That’s controversial!

As it turns out, the Irish immigrants at that time were pro-slavery because they were concerned that, if freed, the slaves would compete for and eventually take their terrible, menial jobs. While white Irishmen were not as abused, disrespected and violated as black slaves in nineteenth century America, they were almost just as disliked by the white Protestant majority.  As their anti-abolition sentiments suggest, the Irish at the time took comfort in the fact that, although they were far from the top of the American hierarchy, they were also not at the complete bottom.

The history of oppression against Irish immigrants is perhaps the greatest revelation that I’ve had while reading Dolan’s book. The prevalence and influence of Catholicism among the Irish did not surprise me, however, I did not anticipate how much their belief in Catholicism excluded the Irish from the American mainstream at the time.

I’m not a religious person myself, so I have a tendency to lump Catholicism and all other forms of Christianity into one giant group. They all like Jesus, so they are all pretty much the same thing in my mind. Nineteenth century (and probably current) Protestant Americans would not agree with me.

At the dawn of the 1800s, many Protestant Americans were still riding the high of the Revolutionary War and the founding of a new country and were a little hesitant to embrace the Irish Catholic. I don’t support intolerance, but I get where the Protestants were coming from — had I just violently separated from a monarchy, I too would be a little concerned about the hoards of immigrants coming from Ireland who obey a pope and believe in his divine powers.

To use a modern analogy, the Irish were eager to leave their home and start a new relationship with America, but America really did not like how much the Irish were still texting with that guy back home, even though they claimed that he was nothing to worry about.

The Irish, of course, were used to being treated like second-rate humans, thanks to their centuries of experience with England. As I’ve learned, many Irish citizens lived on land controlled by greedy English landlords and, as a result, lived in overpriced squander. In addition to this, during the catastrophic Great Famine, plenty of potatoes were being successfully grown in Ireland…and then shipped to England. I always assumed that there were no potatoes to be had anywhere in Ireland during the Famine but, as I’ve found, there were potatoes, they just didn’t belong to the Irish, so instead the Irish were left dying on top of each other in the streets. Nice one, England!

In fact, although circumstances improved for many Irish Americans over the course of the nineteenth century, the Irish did not receive full, unconditional acceptance from the American mainstream until the beginning of the twentieth century. As you might be able to gather from the cover, the eventual election of JFK was a major moment in Irish American history. Nowadays, over ten percent of Americans report Irish ancestry and no one really cares who is or isn’t Irish. That is, unless you’re an Irish Catholic grandparent.

As for the book itself, it’s clear that Dolan comes from an academic background, in that he does a fantastic job of offering a detailed, well-researched account of the Irish in America, however, it is rather dry at times. Dolan, as an author, keeps the narrative voice objective and authoritative, which naturally makes the text far more educational than entertaining. His intended audience likely contains more scholars than casual enthusiasts.

While I would encourage my fellow Irish Americans to learn about their history if they haven’t already, I would only recommend this book to those who are seriously interested in reading about history.

– Chris


(I have been looking at this book on my nightstand for months and I just now realized that the cover’s color scheme is supposed to look like a Irish flag.)

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