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  • "The Fabulous Irishman":Lord Mayor Robert Briscoe's "Unusual Religious and National Combination" in Cold War America
  • Rachel Gordan (bio)

Little remembered today, but much discussed at the time was the visit of the Jewish Lord Mayor Robert Briscoe of Dublin to the United States in the spring of 1957. Stranger-than-fiction, but also typifying what Cold War Americans wanted to believe was possible among their own Jewish citizens, Mayor Briscoe embodied an unexpected combination of religious and national loyalties. "The Lord Mayor," explained typical American newspaper coverage of Briscoe's visit, "embodies the unusual combination of a devout orthodox Jew and a zealous Irish patriot."1 The irony was that Briscoe was not American, proving that the freedom of opportunity and religion that Cold War Americans viewed as fundamental to their own purported exceptionalism, actually occurred to varying degrees in other countries—although often without the fanfare typical in the US context. Still, Briscoe's six-week American visit, the media's attention to it, and the television drama that Briscoe inspired, provide a view into Cold War American fears and desires around Jews, religious fealty, citizenship, and the particular way in which midcentury American discourses around religious freedom found a primary example in Jews, such as Briscoe, and their religion.

At a time when a tri-faith image of postwar America as a country of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews was widely accepted, Briscoe's presence and popularity in the U.S. helped to affirm America's embrace of religious freedom—albeit a freedom constrained to just three religions, and even more crucially, although rarely made explicit, to those individuals understood as racially white. As Kevin Schultz's study of "tri-faith America" explains of the era's credo: "The ethnic, religious, and racial divisions that had been predominant in pre-World War II America no longer had a place in the defining traits of good Americanism. With enemies such as Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito, the ideal of tolerance was sacrosanct, and during the war years the kind of tolerance that was [End Page 401] lionized most was that between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews."2 This tri-faith ideal had practical results, Schultz points out, challenging the nation to rethink the distribution of power and who was deserving of social, political, and cultural recognition. In line with this rethinking of American society, Robert Briscoe prodded American observers to reconsider their stereotypes of clannish Jews, and he affirmed postwar Jewish allegiance to religion as an ideological core of their identity. Although Briscoe was an "Irish import," America's reception of him during his spring 1957 tour symbolized the unusual role that Jews played in serving as evidentiary proof of midcentury America's ideal of religious freedom.3

Briscoe would spend six weeks in North America. In that time, he became a celebrity, as newspapers around the country followed his tour and as a result of his television and radio appearances. In its coverage of Mayor Briscoe, the media all over the country broadcast an image of the Jewish mayor as embodying religious freedom—an American value freighted with political saliency during the Cold War, which according to President Eisenhower's secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, was a battle between those who believed in the moral laws of the Judeo-Christian tradition and those who found value in materialist secularism. When quoted in the press, Briscoe's messages were about Ireland's religious freedom, but American embrace of Briscoe nonetheless symbolized America's attachment to these values. "Briscoe Says He's Live Evidence There 'Absolutely Is No Bigotry in Ireland'" ran one typical headline in the Los Angeles Times that connected Briscoe's celebrity with his embodiment of religious freedom.4 As Leo Braudy, a scholar of American culture notes, fame in Western society has long been associated with the ideal of freedom, because fame can be understood as the "social version of a love that absolves the loved one of fault, restoring integrity and wholeness." With fame, the celebrity is granted recognition and permission to be himself. "To be famous for yourself, for what you are without talent or premeditation, means you have come into your rightful inheritance...


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pp. 401-421
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