Eire apparent

By MIKE MILIARD  |  March 14, 2007

They’re words that capture an emerging Irish-American sensibility: smart, stylish, cheeky, brass-balled. Quinn points to a little jig Cagney does when he sees Jean Harlow in The Public Enemy — a “blend of musicality and menace” — that’s emblematic of Jimmy’s élan.

“To me, that’s the Jimmy attitude,” says Quinn. “You never look like you’re afraid; you always look like you belong.”

BROTHERS UNDER THE SKIN: After the Civil War, “Sambo” and “Paddy” had a long fight ahead of them.
Carving out a niche
But at first, of course, the Irish didn’t belong. “If there had existed in the 19th century a computer able to digest all the appropriate data,” writes O’Connor in The Boston Irish: A Political History (Northeastern, 1988), “it would have reported one city in the entire world where an Irish Catholic, under any circumstance, should never, ever, set foot. That city was Boston, Massachusetts.”

But here they came. Arriving en masse and soon going head to head with an entrenched Yankee elite who loathed them. That struggle reinforced a fierce clannishness in the Irish that in some ways can still be felt. “Bostonians tended to be, and many still are now, much more defensive than other groups,” says O’Connor. “Much more xenophobic. They always felt like they were an oppressed minority. And occasionally today this sense comes through. [That] as Irish, as Catholics, they’re still being dominated. Their numbers disprove it, but still they’re convinced of it.”

In other cities, notably New York, “there was obviously some antagonism against the Irish,” O’Connor says, but “it was not to the extent that was true in Boston.” In enormous, polygot New York, even as early on as the 1820s and ’30s, the Irish carved out a place among other rival ethnic groups — Germans, Dutch, and some Jews.

When he was growing up in Boston, O’Connor says, “a marriage between an Irish guy and an Italian girl was out of the question.” In fact, the Irish were in such control at the beginning of the 20th century that local historian William Marchione’s great-great uncle, Donato Salvucci, was compelled (as Marchione told the Christian Science Monitor in 2004) to change his name to Dan Sullivan. In New York, on the other hand, Quinn writes that “The parish school I attended in the east Bronx was made up of both Irish and Italians, so that by the 1940s, in addition to classmates named Caesar Di Pasquale and Dennis O’Shaughnessy, there was the Italo-Hibernian Salvatore Monaghan.”

Since Boston wasn’t affected as much as other cities by the northern migration of blacks in the first half of the 20th century, the Irish here sustained a sense of class consciousness that in places like New York, Chicago, and Detroit was transformed and diffused by race. Even the South Boston busing crisis of the mid ’70s had as much to do with class tension — with Arthur Garrity and Ted Kennedy lording it over fellow Irish-Americans in blue-collar Southie — as it did with racial tension.

In Boston, Yankee domination “kind of rubbed off on [the Irish], says O’Connor. “Sort of twisted them. In order to deal with this, in order to maintain themselves, in order to get anywhere, they had to be fiercer and tougher and angrier and more defensive than the Irish in other places. They couldn’t give an inch, or they thought they’d be taken advantage of.”

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