- An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians by Paul Moses
An Unlikely Union is a superb discussion of the complex, ever-changing, and peculiar relationship between the Irish and Italians that developed in the streets and neighborhoods of New York City. The Irish and Italians were forced to develop interpersonal relationships which required a host of compromises, ranging from how they practiced the Roman Catholic faith, garnered political power, raised their families, competed for jobs, and accepted “mixed-marriages.” Paul Moses, a journalism professor at Brooklyn College, provides a thoroughly researched and thoughtfully written account of the alternating currents of resentment and attraction that marked the historical interaction between Irish and Italians. The narrative is part autobiographical since Moses (a descendent of southern Italians and German Jews) married into an Irish family and can detail first-hand the complexities of this relationship.
There are multiple factors that contribute to the initial resentment that existed between Irish and Italians in New York City. The Italians did not speak English, drove down the wages of Irish laborers, practiced [End Page 91] a pietistic form of Catholicism (with little desire to support the church), and contributed to the collapse of Irish neighborhoods, to name only a few. The newly arrived Italian immigrants were pierced by the condescending attitudes of the Irish (including Catholic clerics), insulted by the dismissive attitudes of employers and politicians, offended by Irish control of civil service jobs, and slighted by the lack of respect for Italian culture.
The transition to the “love” side of the dichotomy emerges from the creative ways that Irish and Italians navigated and resolved their cultural differences. Both groups gradually recognized that a brokered unity, based primarily on a shared faith, would contribute to prosperity and progress for each group. The Italians increasingly mirrored the Irish in politics (Fiorello LaGuardia), Roman Catholic Church affairs (Mother Cabrini), entertainment (Frank Sinatra), police work (Lt. Joseph Petrosino), labor unions (Paul Vaccarelli), and sports (Joe DiMaggio). The development of a “middle ground” where the Irish and Italians could meet with confidence and equality supported intermarriage, conflated cultural differences, and produced a genuine New York culinary delight – a pizza pie on Friday night. This “middle ground” rested on “churches, schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces, [where] the barriers of suspicion can eventually break down, replaced by cooperation and even love” (310).
An Unlikely Union analyzes the encounter between the Irish and Italians in four phases: “In the Basement,” “Turf Wars,” “Sharing the Stage,” and “At the Altar.” The first two segments highlight resentment and conflict while the final two periods represent reconciliation and accord. The narrative is generously punctuated with mini-biographies of notable Irish and Italian figures in New York City history who helped build bridges between love and hate. The end of the so-called war between the Irish and Italians coincided with the defeat of the Axis Powers in 1945 when both groups marched proudly, often arm-in-arm, into the middle class suburbs of New York City.
An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Relationship of New York’s Irish and Italians is a welcome and magisterial account of the evolving and [End Page 92] improving relationship between two important immigrant groups in New York City. Moses’s smooth and engaging prose carries the reader from encounters where Irish mothers encouraged their children to throw bricks at Italian immigrants to the point where the “Irish and Italians became the two most intermarried ethnic groups in America” (7). The arguments are supported by archival sources, secondary literature, and interviews. The ideas presented are novel and compelling and will be of interest to a wide range of scholars – historians, sociologists, theologians, immigration scholars, etc. Most important, however, Moses provides a narrative that is accessible and engaging to an audience outside of academia.