We all really are Irish

With St. Patrick’s Day fast approaching, this is a good time to discuss how Irish immigrants shaped our lives in Chicago. And it’s not just about seeing the Chicago River turn green.

The story of the Irish in America has been told countless times but in his book, The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City, James R. Barrett tells a less familiar story. Many of us have deep-rooted images of the various 19th century ethnic immigrants–Eastern European Jews, Italians, Poles, among others–clustering in their own isolated enclaves, sticking to the ways of their country of origin as they struggled to make it in the major American cities of New York and Chicago. What we may not realize is how much the Irish immigrant experience influenced the lives of these other immigrant groups.

As America’s first ethnic group, the Irish set up a framework for surviving and prospering in the major American cities during the 19th century and early years of the 20th century. Looking at the major areas of Irish American life–neighborhood, church, work, government and entertainment–Barrett describes what it meant to be Irish American, from the first wave in the 1830s through later mass arrivals of Irish immigrants and their descendants.

When other ethnic groups arrived, they lived in close proximity to communities, usually slums, where the Irish already were established as public and parochial school teachers, leaders of the Catholic Church, cops, fire fighters, politicians and vaudeville showpeople. Later immigrants learned becoming an American to some extent meant learning to be Irish. Barrett quotes the Jewish writer Harry Golden reminiscing about the Lower East Side:

“it was the Irish and the Irish alone we Jews admired . . .we identified the Irishman not only with the English language but also with the image of what an American looked like. The Irish were the cops and the firemen and the ballplayers.”

As the product of an old-school Chicago Jewish neighborhood, I was unaware of any Irish-American influence on my neighborhood experiences or in the many stories about the neighborhood that I’ve collected here on this blog. We seemed so far removed from any Irish-American communities. In remembering life in Hollywood Park and Albany Park, all we talk about is how overwhelmingly Jewish our neighborhood was. During the fifties and sixties, you could go all through Peterson Elementary School without setting eyes on an Irish kid. (Most people mistakenly thought I was Irish, given my maiden name of O’Cherony. The name comes from Spain by way of Cuba and it’s a long story.)

An earlier generation of Chicago Jews, however, had first-hand experience with people of Irish descent. At the turn of the century the Jews living around Maxwell Street were right in the thick of it:

“The Maxwell Street area on Chicago’s old West Side boasted the second-highest crime rate of any police court in the nation, most of it due to juvenile delinquency . . . Much of the violence was territorial, and gangs gradually incorporated members of newer ethnic groups as they settled in.”

Barrett also quotes Ron Michael on growing up Jewish on the West Side between the wars:

“There were unwritten boundaries and my problem was that my route to public school went past Resurrection Parish. Some of the older Catholic kids would stop me on a regular basis.”

As West Side Jews migrated into Albany Park and North Park, these Irish-American concepts of turf and toughness and gangs migrated northwards as well. When I interviewed former Albany Park resident Syd Lieberman, he told me being tough was the most important thing for the Albany Park Jewish boys of his day. One reason was they had to defend themselves.  He recalled the anti-semitic insults and threats hurled at the visiting Roosevelt boys during an away basketball game at Lake View High School.

Other men who attended Von Steuben in the 1950s recall similarly motivated fights with guys from Amundsen High School. I’ve been told that in the 1950s the river running through the middle of River Park was a dividing line: Jews on the west side and Gentiles to the east.

According to Barrett, the early Irish immigrants invented the idea of a precise boundary between neighborhoods, and the practice of defending it with violence. They even invented social athletic clubs, so near and dear to the hearts of the Von Steuben and Roosevelt students of the fifties and sixties.

In Chicago, as elsewhere, people say, “everybody’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.” It’s truer than we knew.

The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City by James R. Barrett

The Penguin Press

March 5, 2012

400 pages

Disclosure: I was given a copy of this book to review as part of a book tour hosted by TLC Book Tours.

Read more Chicago Book Review.


11 Responses to We all really are Irish

  1. Bonnie McGrath March 6, 2012 at 11:53 pm #

    this is really an interesting premise.. that becoming american for jews meant learning to be irish… it’s giving me a lot to think about and i look forward to talking about it more when we get together!!

  2. Frances Archer March 7, 2012 at 6:11 am #

    Hi, Bonnie. What is surprising is how extensive and how little we’re aware of the influence, mostly because we’re removed in time and space from when the Jewish community was literally next door to the Irish community. Over by Senn it was a little different, I suppose, because there were Irish areas and of course churches, but by us there was no Catholic church.

  3. Allan Zirlin March 7, 2012 at 10:28 am #

    To sum up; we are NOT all Irish on any day of the year, nor do I want to be and I make a conscious effort not to wear anything green on St. What’s-his-name day. I’ve come across enough anti-semitism in my life to know that being exactly what I am is just fine.

  4. Frances Archer March 7, 2012 at 10:41 am #

    Allan, I certainly understand what you are saying. For me, my generation at Von really didn’t have those experiences of antisemitism. It came as something of a surprise that Jews in Chicago lived near Irish communities.

  5. john erickson March 7, 2012 at 6:28 pm #

    Our Irish friends in the 30s went to St. Hillary grade school east of the canal on Bryn Mawr rather than Peterson. And, of course there is St. Hillary Church , There was also the Catholic Girls’ School on Peterson north of the Tb San. I don’t recall whether Queen of All Saints parish had a grade school in the days it was a white frame church builing on Peterson.

  6. Frances Archer March 7, 2012 at 7:27 pm #

    I guess by my time the Irish families had mostly moved out of Hollywood Park. Did you ever see the new Queen of All Saints? It’s a very beautiful building. I looked up their website, and it says the original church was located on the northwest corner of Peterson and Knox (the building had been relocated there in 1929 from Oak Park).The website says there were 40 families in the parish in 1929, 450 by 1940. The school opened in 1940. John, I don’t know how long it’s been since you’ve seen Sauganash, but the area looks great and has very nice homes. All these old brick buildings from the early 1940s have held up well, at least on the outside.

  7. john erickson March 8, 2012 at 9:54 am #

    Sauganash was a very classy enclave in my day, and yes, Queen of All Saints has come a long way since the days of that frame building.

  8. Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours March 8, 2012 at 10:16 pm #

    My mom, an Italian-Irish New Yorker, grew up in a a Jewish part of New York City – talk about a mix of cultures!

    I love histories like this that expose influences on American life that have been overlooked for so long. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book for the tour!

  9. Frances Archer March 9, 2012 at 6:25 am #

    Heather, thanks for stopping by to check out my blog. Sounds like your mom was a “textbook” example of what this book is all about!

  10. trish March 10, 2012 at 12:49 am #

    It’s so interesting to me that when you peel back layers of history, you end up with someone completely unexpected, such as the Irish influencing the Jews.

    This history seems very relevant today, given the influx of Hispanic immigrants the US has. I wonder how the two cultures would be similar/different in regards to their influences? Something interesting to think about!

  11. Frances Archer March 10, 2012 at 6:54 am #

    Trish, thanks for stopping by. I agree, this book offers another lens to view urban ethnic culture and history. Very good, very readable book.

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