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The Green Flag In America
For more than a century, Irish-Americans were whipsawed between love for their tormented native land and loyalty to the United States. But no more .
June/July 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 4
The Honorable Hugh L. Carey, Democratic governor of the state of New York, made a speech in Dublin on April 22, 1977. After declaring himself unalterably part of “that segment of the human family called Irish,” Carey denounced extremists on both sides of Northern Ireland’s guerrilla war as practitioners of the “politics of death.”
The next day, in a newspaper interview, Governor Carey made his neutrality even more specific. He condemned the Irish Republican Army terrorists and said that they did not deserve “a nickel’s worth of support in the United States.”
Earlier in this century, had a Democratic politician made such a statement, he simultaneously would have announced his resignation from the party and his departure from the country. Huge rallies would have been organized to denounce him. He would have been called a “yellow dog” and a “contemptible cur”—two of the more printable epithets used to describe James Michael Curley of Boston when he said that he favored an English victory in World War I.
Instead, Governor Carey was congratulated by Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Speaking at a dinner in New York on May 18,1977, Kennedy praised Carey’s courage and urged a compromise peace in Northern Ireland. The senator from Massachusetts then paid elaborate tribute to Ireland’s Protestant heritage, citing the eleven Presidents from Andrew Jackson to Jimmy Carter who were descended from Ulster stock. Piling the heretofore unimaginable on the unprecedented, on June 8, 1977, Kennedy and Carey joined Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Speaker of the House Thomas P. O’Neil to tell Secretary of State Cyrus Vance that they backed the Carter administration’s hands-off policy in Ulster.
The four most powerful Irish-American politicians in the United States were telling the government to do nothing for bleeding Ireland. It was enough to set coffins spinning in cemeteries from Boston to San Francisco. The Irish-Americans were at last publicly abandoning their century-long effort to use their political power to alter Ireland’s destiny. Gone are the days when Edward Hannegan of Indiana rose in the U.S. Senate to roar “Delenda est Britannia” (“Britain must be destroyed”) and Irish-American voters were advised to choose presidential candidates on the basis of which man hated England most bitterly. No more is seen the likes of Congressman John Finerty of Chicago, whose absorption in Ireland’s cause was all-consuming. Someone once asked him if anything of note had happened recently in Congress. “No,” Finerty said, with obvious disgust. “Nothing but American business.”
The Irish were never more than one-twelfth of the total number of Americans, a percentage which immigration from other countries reduced to 4 per cent by 1920. But they made up in political expertise what they lacked in numbers. In 1880 they elected their first mayor of New York, and in 1884 Hugh O’Brian took charge of Boston’s City Hall. By the end of the 1880’s, the Irish controlled the government of sixty-eight Massachusetts cities and towns. They managed this feat by joining the Democratic party en masse and turning it into a vehicle to satisfy a hunger for power that only the hitherto powerless could appreciate.
When it came to turning this political power to Ireland’s benefit, the Irish had another advantage: rage. Even before the holocaust of 1847, the famine that killed a million and a half people out of eight million, almost a million Irish Catholics had come to America with bitter memories of being second-class citizens in a land dominated by a comparative handful of Protestants backed by British bayonets. Forbidden to vote or hold office, harassed and evicted by landlords who charged exorbitant rents, these refugees had large scores to settle. Henry Grattan, the son of the eighteenth-century Irish patriot, told of a conversation with some Kildare men about to emigrate. “We are going to another country to get that subsistence which we could not get in our own,” they told him. “Our graves may be in a foreign land but our children may yet return to Ireland; and when they do we hope it will be with rifles on their shoulders.”
In spite of these ferocious sentiments, Irish-Americans’ first great effort on behalf of their homeland was in the name of a peaceful solution. They rallied behind the nonviolent tactics of Daniel O’Connell, the “Liberator.” With his Catholic Association, which gathered funds from the pennies of the peasants, O’Connell organized enormous mass meetings that frightened the British into yielding the Emancipation Act of 1829, permitting Catholics to sit in Parliament and to hold other offices. O’Connell’s next target was the Act of Union, which the British had passed in 1801 to punish the Irish for the rebellion of 1798. It abolished the Irish parliament, theoretically making the two islands one nation.
The Irish parliament had been subordinate by law to the British parliament, but in practice the British had let the Protestant Irish run Ireland’s internal affairs. O’Connell was a realist. He understood England’s dread of an independent, potentially hostile Ireland on her Atlantic flank. Accepting geography as fate, O’Connell only sought to enable the Irish to participate in the empire with dignity. Home rule, with an Irish parliament and something like dominion status for Ireland, would achieve this reasonable goal.