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