Robert Kennedy speaks at a Presidential campaign rally in 1968 (Wally McNamee/Corbis/Getty)

Published in partnership with The Clinton Institute’s America Unfiltered:

In March 1964 Attorney General Robert Kennedy gave a speech at a St Patrick’s Day dinner organised by the Friendly Sons of St Patrick in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He asked his Irish audience to remember the famine in Ireland, the mass emigration to the US, and the hardships endured by the new Irish immigrants: “As the first of the racial minorities, our forefathers were subject to every discrimination found wherever discrimination is known.”

Kennedy looked at racial injustice in the US of 1964 and appealed, “It is toward concern for these issues — and vigorous participation on the side of freedom — that our Irish heritage must impel us. If we are true to this heritage, we cannot stand aside.”

We do not know how Kennedy’s listeners responded that night. However, as racial division and violence unfolded across the 1960s and early 1970s, there is little evidence that Irish America did much other than “stand aside”. Far from empathetic action, Irish Americans hastened their movement away from the Democratic Party, partly in response to its perceived support of the civil rights movement.

By 1969 journalist Pete Hamill was reporting that white working-class Irish in New York were feeling increasingly alienated and resentful and “talking darkly about their grievances”.

See also The Last Hurrah Podcast: The Future of Irish America

Irish on the Inside

Of course, there were exceptions to the move to the right. One was Tom Hayden, a former leader of the New Left in the 1960s. In 2001 he published a memoir, Irish on the Inside: In Search of the Soul of Irish America, as an alternative history of Irish America. He uncovered the “Irish radical past” in the US via his family history and his political activism in the 1960s. This was his ethnic awakening as a form of epiphany, connecting protest in Chicago in 1968 with televised scenes of civil rights protests in Northern Ireland:

I was transfixed by the sight of it. Suddenly I realized what had been denied. These marchers were somehow kin to me. Under the void of my identity I was Irish, and being Irish need not mean identifying with New York’s Cardinal Spellman, Birmingham’s police “Bull” Connor, the 1930s demagogue Charles Coughlin, or Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley. It could mean being an American rebel not in spite of being Irish, but because of being Irish.

Hayden’s “discovery” that he was “Irish on the inside” fit the ethnic revivalism of the period, though he did more than most to sharpen this with a progressive political vision. He argued that Irish-Americans should not claim their Irish roots unless they also claimed the radicalism of those roots: a “new Irish revival” in the US meant “reassessing our racial identification with whiteness” and rejecting the comforts of assimilation.

See also The Last Hurrah Podcast: Tracking Irish America in the 20th Century

Irish Stand

Liberal and progressive Irish Americans continue to raise the flag of ethnic bad faith today. However, it is increasingly articulated in a defensive fashion against the aggressive nationalist visions of more conservative Irish-America. Hayden’s progressive Irish American vision has dimmed in relation to shifting class and race politics and allied cultural warfare.

Joan Walsh, a journalist with The Nation, provides a pertinent example in her 2012 book What’s the Problem With White People. She charts growing political divisions in the US through the story of her extended working-class New York Irish Catholic family, many of whom move from Democratic to Republican affiliations across two generations.

The family and political memoir maps the fears and aspirations of white ethnic Americans onto national discord, from the unravelling of the New Deal coalition and socio-political upheavals of the 1960s to the rising social inequality and racial tensions in the 2000s. It is a story of personal frustrations for Walsh, who struggles to square the claims of class and identity politics as a radicalized Irish American.

See also The Last Hurrah Podcast: What’s The Matter With White People?

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, Walsh participated in a coalition of Irish and Irish-American politicians, activists, and artists under the banner “Irish Stand”, with the aim of “reminding Irish-America we are an immigrant people”. On St Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2017, they organised an event at Riverside Church in Manhattan, advertised as “Irish, American and Global voices raised in unity for justice and equality”.

Irish Stand has continued as an active online presence, organizing follow-up events in Ireland such as support for protests in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. However, efforts to organize a similar event in New York in March 2018 fizzled due to insufficient funding. The biggest challenge, not yet overcome, has been to galvanise Irish-American communities with radical messaging.

A Politics of Empathy

While Hayden’s progressive vision of Irishness has not taken significant political hold in Irish America, a more mainstreamed liberal Irishness is drawing on the immigrant past to buttress narratives of ethnic identity in the present.

Throughout his political career Joe Biden has been one of the most expressive examples of this liberal Irishness, personifying a politics of empathy in which his Irish ancestry and Catholicism are moral touchstones. As George Blaustein notes, “What is distinctive about [Biden] is not his politics but something more elusive: the chords of grief and mourning that he plays in the culture and that the culture hears in him.” Biden articulates this clearly, both in his personal tragedy of the deaths of his wife, daughter, and son and in his Irish Catholic identity.

In his 2020 run for the Presidency, Biden promised to be a redemptive figure, healing the wounds of a disunited and fractious nation. He frequently connected his sense of tragedy and suffering with current social crises and traumas. In his first press conference as President on March 25, 2021, when asked about the plight of migrants at the US-Mexico border, Biden said:

When my great grandfather got on a coffin ship in the Irish Sea, expectation was: Was he going to live long enough on that ship to get to the United States of America? But they left because of what the Brits had been doing. They were in real, real trouble. They didn’t want to leave. But they had no choice.

This promotion of empathy can have powerful political as well as moral appeal but it also elides structural and material realities of suffering and injustice. The Irish element of the Irish Catholic identity does significant ideological and emotional work to disavow burdens of historical responsibility and guilt.

The radical reclamation of an Irish past projected by Hayden is hollowed out in Biden’s tellings of his Irishness. It is a deradicalized ethnicity, a benign and redemptive political narrative that bespeaks and promises to restore the hegemony of liberal whiteness.

Comfortably on the Sidelines

In the wake of protests in summer 2020, Irish-American organisations were stirred to voice support for Black Lives Matter. A public letter signed by 60 Irish-American political and cultural figures was sent to Representative Karen Bass, the Head of the Congressional Black Caucus, after the death of the civil rights leader John Lewis in July. The text outlined the influence of the American civil rights movement in the formation of the Northern Irish Civil Rights Association in the 1960s, and the inspiration of Martin Luther King on leaders of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland:

Irish America still has much to learn about the depths of discrimination faced by our African American brothers and sisters. And we have our own history of racial prejudice that we must examine and acknowledge.

We urge the great institutions of Irish America, particularly our colleges and universities, as well as our civic and fraternal organizations to address their role in maintaining the institutional racism that has plagued this nation.

The letter concludes, “Irish America cannot remain comfortably on the sidelines as America seeks to finally put an end to the racial discrimination that has haunted our country.”

These are tentative but symbolic steps by what the liberal wing of the Irish-American establishment. Whether it signals a fulsome review of Irish America’s investments in institutional racism in the US — past and present — is too early to determine. However, this seems unlikely. The reference to Irish-America residing “comfortably on the sidelines” glosses the realities and costs of those investments.

This is not to deny the intentions and efforts of Irish-Americans to promote anti-racist actions and solidarities. But there is little evidence that the mainstream of Irish-America supports a reckoning with racial injustice in the US.

We need to forge a compelling political messaging and agenda that moves beyond chastising Irish-Americans for their bad faith and failure to live up to their values and history. Illuminating hypocrisies in claims to Irishness are an insufficient politics.

So how “not to stand aside”?