Ideas and Observations

Francis Morrone
The New Irish
Summer 1993

The 16,000 residents of Norwood, a middle-class community in the north central Bronx, can boast of many amenities: the visual delights of a hilly topography, vast sylvan expanses, two municipal golf courses within easy walking distance in Van Cortlandt Park, Montefiore Medical Center, and the New York Botanical Garden. The people of Norwood can also boast of the city’s most dense concentration of Irish bars. Bainbridge Avenue, where most of the bars are located, is the center of the young Irish community that has unexpectedly arrived in New York over the last decade.

The new Irish are making their presence felt. The clash between their political and social attitudes and those of traditional Irish-Americans was evident in the recent controversy over the St. Patrick’s Day parade. And their cultural influence extends beyond the Irish community. In the purlieus of downtown chic, the young Irish are hot. The movie of last year was Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game; its preoccupations and aesthetics are those of the young New York Irish. Irish-born Karl Geary, whose cavorts with Madonna in her book Sex, is co-owner of Sin-é Cafe, an East Village hangout for hip Irish where Sinead O’Connor, the antipapist pop chanteuse who is immensely popular with the young Irish, can occasionally be seen. And Irish rock-and-roll bands are disproportionately represented not only in the bars of Bainbridge, where one would expect to find them, but also in the trendiest Manhattan clubs.

Throughout its history New York has had a large Irish-American population. Ireland’s great famine emigration took place from 1846 to 1850; by 1855, there were about 176,000 Irish-born New Yorkers. That amounted to 28 percent of the city’s population, a figure not matched since by any nationality. (By comparison, the highest estimate of today’s Irish-born population, legal and illegal, comes to about one-half of one percent of the city’s population, or about 35,000.) In 1890, 410,000 New Yorkers, or about a quarter of the city’s population, were of Irish parentage.

Early Irish-Americans experienced extreme ethnic discrimination and horrific living and working conditions that led many to embrace Irish nationalism as "a system of apologetics that explained their lowly state," in the words of historian Thomas N. Brown. From its beginning, Sinn Fein, the Irish political party most closely associated with the violently nationalist Irish Republican Army (IRA), could not have existed—financially or philosophically—without its American base. New York Irish, and in particular a secret organization called Clan na Gael (which today holds its meetings at the Tower View Ballroom in Woodside, Queens), actively promoted the Easter rising of 1916. The Irish revolutionary leader Eamon da Valera, in fact, was born in New York.

With eventual Irish success in America—described by economist Thomas Sowell as “one of the great social transformations of a people”—Irish nationalism ebbed, displaced in large measure by American patriotism. The American Irish urban type, exemplified by James Cagney, came to be seen around the world as quintessentially American. Irish prowess in the American military led to the expression “Fighting Irish,” which in turn became the sobriquet of the mighty Notre Dame football team—today as all-American as that German import, apple pie. The Irish were at the forefront of the anti-Communist movement, and, after decades in which they had all but taken over the Democratic Party, began to vote Republican. It is seldom noted that in the 1960 presidential election, John F. Kennedy received only a bare majority of the New York Irish vote.

Irish immigration had already slowed to a trickle by the time of the Immigration Reform Act of 1965, which severely limited immigration from Europe in favor of Asia and Latin America. Nineteen sixty-five was also the year of the landmark Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement; eight years later, Ireland was admitted to the Common Market. The opening of new markets to Irish goods led to the modernization of the Irish economy during the 1960s and 1970s. From 1971 to 1981, Ireland actually had a net in-migration of over 100,000 people. But by establishing a full-scale welfare state while its economy was still shaky, Ireland depleted its economic gains shortly after achieving them. By the 1980s, the economy was again teetering. In 1983, unemployment was nearly 16 percent, with 200,000 Irish out of work. By 1987, 30,000 Irish were emigrating each year, mainly to England, West Germany, and the United States. Having arrived with limited tourist visas, 150,000 to 200,000 undocumented Irish were estimated to be living in the United States in 1990, about one-third of them in the New York area.

These new Irish are young and far better educated than previous immigrant generations. They are often bitter at having to accept “off-the-books” jobs, for which they are clearly overqualified, owing to their undocumented status. Indeed, in spite of their superior education, their occupations are not very different from those of earlier Irish immigrants. Men often have jobs in the construction industry; the women are domestic workers and waitresses. As one Queens Irishman told the New York Times, “This was to be Ireland’s generation of hope. The first to be so well educated, they were to lead Ireland into the next century. But they’re all leaving, and there’s nothing certain for them here.”

In the great tradition of Irish political organizing, the Irish Immigration Reform Movement was started in New York in 1987 to lobby for the legalization of the new Irish immigrants. Representative Bruce Morrison (D-Connecticut), chairman of the House Immigration Subcommittee, sponsored the 1990 Immigration Reform Act, which created the Morrison Visa Lottery. Under this program, limited numbers of green cards are issued by lottery to citizens of countries from which immigration is believed to have been too severely restricted since the 1965 Immigration Reform Act. Forty percent of the visas are set aside for the Irish, who were the principal campaigners for the new legislation. Four years of Morrison visas appear to have legalized a substantial percentage of the 1980s Irish immigrant wave.

The current wave of Irish immigration has been going on for just over a decade, and has transformed whole neighborhoods, including Norwood and Woodlawn in the Bronx and Woodside in Queens. These neighborhoods had long had large Irish-American populations, but were well en route to the ends of their population life cycles. The influx of young Irish confounded the standard ecological model of neighborhood change, since such an interregnum of several generations in the immigration of a particular group is virtually unprecedented in New York’s history. Commercial strips, such as those on Bainbridge Avenue in Norwood and Roosevelt Avenue in Woodside, had long been noted for Irish bars, but their number had been dwindling until the new Irish influx. These strips have been rejuvenated, though the sweet melancholy strains of “Danny Boy” have been replaced by rock and roll.

In many respects, however, the new immigrants are unlike their Irish-American neighbors and their immigrant forebears. Whereas American-born Irish have become quintessentially American, the new Irish hearken back to an older tradition of resentment and nationalism. Well-educated, they bring with them the intellectual fashions popular on European university campuses. It is generally conceded both within and outside the church that the new Irish immigrants are basically irreligious, even antireligious.

Economics is only part of the explanation for the emigration of young Irish. In particular, some young women, influenced by the Irish feminist movement, have left their homeland in recent years because of its strict abortion and divorce laws. Similar “lifestyle” reasons account for the emigration of many men as well. “People want to get out of Ireland to be independent . . . to have space and independence away from [their] culture, away from the ’valley of the squinting windows’ kind of thing,” says an Irish-born immigration counselor in Boston. “For a lot it means sexual freedom.”

The young New York Irish are also fiercely nationalistic. New York’s Irish papers, which exhibit a peculiarly Celtic mixture of blarney and bloodthirstiness, are filled with news of Irish “political prisoners” in U.S. jails. Invariably portrayed as fine, upstanding, God-fearing souls, these prisoners—mostly gun-runners—are said to be victims of the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States. One marvels at the sheer number of allegations of unjustly imprisoned Irishmen in this country. References abound to groups with names like the Tucson Six and the Boston Three. (One of these groups, by the way, is accused of assisting the IRA in developing surface-to-air missile technology.) In the wake of the worldwide condemnation of the recent IRA bombing in Warrington, England, in which two young British boys were killed, the letters columns of the New York Irish weeklies were flooded with indignant assertions of moral equivalency between the Warrington bombing and any number of historic atrocities perpetrated against the Irish people by England.

The differences between the new Irish-born New Yorkers and the older Irish-Americans came to a head in the recent controversy over the St. Patrick’s Day parade. The demand by young Irish leaders that homosexuals be allowed to march under the banner of the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization was not only an attack on the religious beliefs of traditional Irish-Americans. It also represented an attempt by Irish activists to form an alliance with New York’s gays in order to enlist their support in the cause of Irish nationalism.

Until recently, there had been a consensus among Irish-Americans rejecting militant nationalism. There was a considerable uproar in 1983 when Michael Flannery was chosen to be grand marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. As a young man Flannery had fought for the IRA and was leader of Noraid, the American fund-raising arm of Sinn Fein and the IRA. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Governor Hugh Carey, both Irish-Americans with deep roots in the community, denounced the selection and boycotted the parade. Archbishop Terence Cardinal Cooke did not make his traditional appearance on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral until Flannery had left.

But during the 1980s, the tone of Irish New York began to change. In 1991, a faction within the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the parade’s sponsor, invited the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization to march as its guest in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. To show his support for gay rights, Mayor Dinkins marched with the group and had a beer can famously tossed at him. More than gay rights were at stake, however. Fordham University historian John P. McCarthy has written that efforts on behalf of the gay organization were the means by which “a group of political activists hoped to gain control of this celebration of the Irish-American Catholic heritage and turn it into a militant political statement on Northern Ireland.” The activists hoped that the city, in an effort to protect homosexuals from discrimination, would turn control of the parade over to them. This was, in fact, what almost happened.

Late in 1992, the Ancient Order of Hibernians said it would defy the city’s Human Rights Commission, which had ordered that the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization be allowed to march in the 1993 parade. The city took the parade permit away from the Hibernians and gave it to a new group, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee, whose top brass included Noraid leader Martin Galvin and former New York City Council President Paul O’Dwyer. The media gave scant attention to the committee’s avowal that it intended to use the parade to make a statement about the political situation in Northern Ireland. Federal District Judge Kevin Thomas Duffy, however, eventually overruled the city on First Amendment grounds, and ordered the parade permit returned to the Hibernians.

The themes of nationalism and personal freedom are evident in Irish-American rock music, which is in tremendous vogue, having attained something of the cultural prestige of rap, Perhaps the chief exemplar of the new Irish-American rock is a hypertensive Bronx pub band called Black 47. The band, whose name refers to the famine year of 1847, laces its music with traditional Irish instrumentation—uilleann pipes, tin whistle, and bodhran—and snatches of traditional Irish melodies. Its unique sound, instantly identifiable as Irish, has become one of the hippest styles on the rock scene. In a cramped, smoke-filled New York Irish bar, the violent, over-amplified rhythms of Black 47 have an emotion-twisting power.

Then there are the lyrics. In “Funky Ceili (Bridie’s Song),” the narrator, who left Ireland for New York after getting his girlfriend pregnant, addresses her across the Atlantic:

    So here I am up on Bainbridge Avenue
    Still in one piece but glad I’m alive
    Drinkin’ dirty big glasses of porter
    Playin’ me jigs and me reels and me slides
    Think of you, Bridie, whenever I’m sober
    Which isn’t too often, I have to confess
    Take good care of the Morris Minor
    Bad luck to your Da and give the baby a great big kiss—from his Daddy in the      Bronx.

Another song on Black 47’s new CD is a paean to the Irish revolutionary James Connolly:

    So bold on to your rifles, boys, and don’t give up your drea-m-
    Of a Republic for the workin’ class and economic liberty.

The crescendo is reached in the band’s eponymous theme song:

    God’s curse upon you Lord Trevelyan
    May your great Queen Victoria rot in hell
    ’Til England and its Empire answer under heaven
    For the crimes they committed in Black ’47

By this point, if someone in the bar identified himself as an Englishman, the crowd would tear him limb from limb. In the annals of Irish popular music, we have come a long way from the Clancy Brothers.

What of the future for New York’s angry young Irish? Though they are well-educated and English-speaking, they seem to possess far less enthusiasm for any consensually defined American way of life than do most Third World immigrants. Indeed, many say they will gladly return to their homeland if the Irish economy improves and traditional restraints on personal behavior are relaxed.

On the other hand, once they have their green cards, the new immigrants are able to go after better jobs, and they face none of the discrimination with which the Irish of the previous century had to contend. Indeed, in this image-conscious city, one should not discount the undeniable charm of the characteristic Irish open face and lilting brogue. The harsh youth culture that characterizes New York’s new Irish is likely to mellow somewhat as they take on the responsibilities of family and career. Some may yet follow in the path of their predecessors.

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