In the second episode of The Clinton Institute’s Last Hurrah podcast, former Congressman Joe Crowley (pictured) speaks with Liam Kennedy and Scott Lucas about his Irish roots, Irish American political successes, and the future of the Democratic Party.
Crowley speaks with nostalgia about his Irish heritage. He grew up in Woodside, Queens — a “multicultural” neighborhood in New York City with a “very strong Irish lilt” — but is quick to note his ancestors hail from Counties Armagh, Louth, and Cavan. His grandmother, like so many Irish Catholics in the 1960s, decorated her living room with three portraits: Jesus, the Pope, and President John F. Kennedy.
Crowley describes “a strong element of Irishness” in New York City and specifically in Queens since the 19th century. Speculating on how and why Irish immigrants and their ancestors have become such a fixture in US politics, the former Representative notes the Irish are an “inoffensive” group, with an ability to connect and relate to others.
Crowley’s political career began in the New York State Assembly in 1987, and he was elected to the US House in 1999. From 2017 to 2019, he served as Chair of the House Democratic Caucus, the fourth most powerful position in the House Democratic Party. He brought “connect and relate” to Washington: his vernacular and mannerism are distinctly Queens — with a slight Bronx flair, given a portion of the area was in his district — but he recognized one of his strengths was to facilitate discussion “between inner cities and more rural, agricultural and interface districts”.
“That was, I think, one of my strong points that I brought to the [Democratic Caucus],” he says.
Crowley was, and continues to be, deeply involved in Irish American politics. In 1996, he successfully led a campaign requiring public and private schools in New York to teach The Great Hunger, commonly referred to as the Irish Potato Famine. In Congress, he was a member of the Friends of Ireland Caucus and was one of the Co-Chairs for the Ad Hoc Committee on Irish Affairs. In 2018, Crowley was named “Irish American of the Year” by the Irish Echo, a weekly newspaper dedicated to Irish American issues.
“Holding Dear to Irishness”
After more than 30 years, Crowley’s political dominance in New York was upended by a loss to progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the 2018 mid-term elections. The unexpected and, it must be said, resounding defeat begged some uncomfortable questions: was this the end of an era for Irish New York? For Irish American politics?
Irish New York may not be what it once was, Crowley concedes, but it’s by no means disappearing. The Irish have achieved success in the city beyond politics, embedding themselves in positions of power in business: “They are running corporate boards. They’ve reached the ascendancy.” But that is not to say they no longer hold sway on the political front. “There are many elected officials in New York who still hold dear to their Irishness,” he insists.
As for Irish America? Look no further than the current occupant of the White House to see the ongoing influence. Having recently spoken with Joe Biden, Crowley relayed the importance of having an empathetic President who, as a former member of the Friends of Ireland Caucus, is familiar with Irish issues.
Biden is the latest in a long line of Presidents and members of Congress who have built important relationships with Ireland. Crowley is confident that will continue in the current White House, and that Irish influence in the Democratic Party will remain for years to come.