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  • "Hibernians on the March":Irish America and Ethnic Patriotism in the Mid-Twentieth Century
  • Matthew O'Brien (bio)

Over the last several decades American and European scholars have been especially successful in demonstrating the role of transatlantic links, reflected in a two-way flow of migrant letters, especially during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Yet such a transnational approach provides a misleading static image of European ethnicity in the US, reviving the well-worn determinism of "ethnic fade." Ironically, European ethnicities continued to shift and change in the generations after the age of great immigration came to a close in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Ethnicity remained an important issue in American society, and in some cases grew even more prominent, as wars against monolithic totalitarian regimes spurred a new national self-image of the US as "the nation of immigrants." The pervasive effect of this sea-change brought a new series of influences for second- and third-generation Americans, who moved from what might be understood as a multicultural society to one ideologically committed to ethnic pluralism.

This momentous shift was particularly important for Irish-American ethnics. The shock of the Great Depression and the resulting disruption of transatlantic links left Irish immigrants and their descendents confused and disoriented. By the early 1960s, however, Irish-American achievements were celebrated as a collective patriotic success story. This transition has often been attributed to a [End Page 170] growing generosity toward European ethnics (and especially Catholics) during the middle decades of the twentieth century, fueled by economic prosperity and a commitment to democratic freedoms asserted in the successive wars against right-wing and left-wing totalitarianism. Once again, American nativists railed against the pernicious influence of "internationalism," but this time the dangerous conspiracy operated out of Moscow rather than Rome.2

But there were also important internal forces at work, just as there had been with the migration process itself. Irish-American responses to the Depression, World War II, and the fight against communist expansion varied, with several distinct groups' attempts to reconcile Old World traditions and perspectives with New World conditions. For decades the prevailing understanding of the Irish-American role in this process has been dominated by the malevolent shadow of Senator Joseph McCarthy. But while McCarthy sharpened the edge of the longstanding begrudgery held by previously excluded immigrant groups, his ethnic antagonism marked only one facet of a larger transformation that was taking place within Irish America and American society as a whole. McCarthy's spectacular atavism contrasted sharply with lesser known and more progressive campaigns among Irish Americans to redefine their relationship with American patriotism, and eventually redefine the American national self-image itself. While McCarthy used his political grandstand to denounce outside threats to the US, other Irish Americans worked to admit new groups into the core of American national identity.

The Depression and Irish America

The disruption of transatlantic networks during the late 1920s and early 1930s left many European-born immigrants disoriented and disillusioned. The quantitative restrictions of the National Origins system imposed during the late 1920s are well known, although support for those measures among second- and third-generation ethnics and the variance among national quotas have raised questions about their overall impact. Ironically, there has been much less discussion of the less ambiguous and more universal impact of the ensuing [End Page 171] Great Depression, which inflicted damage on almost all forms of transatlantic ties. Correspondence and editorials in the ethnic press during the early and mid-1930s articulated a powerful sense of shame among those expatriates who could no longer afford to provide the remittance monies that traditionally kept family farms afloat back in their European homelands. Unable to fulfill this role, many foreign-born workers found themselves rootless and embittered, as transnational ties became a burden that most workers could not bear to carry. On the other hand, European frustrations provoked angry accusations on each side, as many diasporic communities became estranged from their homelands.

This embittering experience created an especially disheartening dilemma for Irish traditionalists in the US during the 1930s. Fr. Charles Coughlin, who initially rose to national fame as a champion of the New Deal, gradually...


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