Have you ever read a blurb of a book, thought you knew what it was about and then read the book and realized that you were totally wrong?
Somehow, when I read the blurb about The Irish Way, I thought I was going to learn about how my Irish ancestors grabbed hamburgers, started playing baseball, and became “American” when they got here. Wrong. Not even in the right ballpark.
The Irish, by being the first massive wave of immigrants to America, paved the way for everyone else. They were the ones that lived in the slums first, took the worst jobs, imported Catholicism, and basically, took all the heat that later groups of immigrants faced. They even had to fight to be considered “white”.
Still, through sheer numbers, their being literate, dedication to education, and willingness to help others, they succeeded in carving a path to their own definition of what being an American meant. When the next wave of immigrants came, mostly from Eastern Europe, those Irish were the people they saw every day on the street. They were the cops, their neighbors, the fireman, the small business owners, etc. To the newcomers, they were the Americans. They followed the Irish Americans lead and slowly but surely, created their own definition of American.
The Irish Way was so much more than a story of how the Irish became Americanized, it is the story of blazing trails, of hopes and failures, of good guys and corruption, of one path that became the yellow brick road of many.The structure of the book makes it interesting as well. Barrett separated the sections in the ways that all immigrants would see them, The Street, The Parish, The Workplace, The Stage, The Machine, & The Nation.
The chapter on Catholicism (The Parish) blew me away. Call me naive, but I always thought that being Catholic was pretty much the same across the board; that it didn’t matter where you came from. Not so much. While the priest, to an Irish Catholic, is pretty much a direct line to God, for the Italian Catholic at the time, they were not as connected to or trusting of the clerics. For good or ill, if you were a Catholic in America, you were going to be an Irish Catholic, no matter where you hailed from. I always took that as a given, because there were so many of us. No, it was because we Irish-ized all Catholics. Not really nice.
The picture of the Irish American isn’t always pretty. It’s complicated and the terrain is rocky along the path. There is one thing that stands out though, they came, they saw, they changed the face of America, and they showed others how it was done. Pretty cool if you ask me.
Years ago I read, How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. Both that one and The Irish Way made me proud and humble at the same time for my heritage. We ain’t perfect, but we do have a certain panache that keeps the world smiling.
This book wasn’t what I thought it was; it was so much more. From Minstrel shows to unions, or Tammany Hall to nuns running orphanages, Catechism to the Fighting 69th, Irish Americans carved a niche, no make that a wide gap, through which everything is possible. There might not be a pot of gold, but it is The Irish Way.
The Irish Way by James R. Barrett
- Hardcover: 400 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The (March 1, 2012)
- ISBN-10: 1594203253
- ISBN-13: 978-1594203251
I received this book from TLC Book Tours.