A Mature Constituency
Building America’s Cities
Irish immigration to the U.S. reached its peak in 1891 at 1.8 million. By the end of the 20th century 10.8% of the U.S. population will claim Irish ancestry. Clearly the Irish left their rural roots behind and assimilated into America’s cities. By 2000, states with the largest Irish population include New York, California, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Florida.
Politics continued to be the predominant “business” for Irish Americans. There seemed to be a particular talent for running America’s great cities. John Thomas Browne of County Limerick, served as the Mayor of Houston, Texas. New York’s Irish Mayors included James Duane, William Jay Gaynor, Thomas F. Gilroy, William R. Grace, Hugh J. Grant, John F. Hylan, John Purroy Mitchel, John P. O'Brien, William O'Dwyer, Jimmy Walker and Robert F. Wagner Jr. Boston’s Mayors included Hugh O’Brien, Patrick Collins, Daniel Whelton, John Fitzgerald, James Curley, James Kerrigan, John Hynes, John Collins and Raymond Flynn. Chicago’s Irish Mayors included Edward F. Dunne, William E. Dever, Edward J. Kelly, Martin J. Kennelly, Richard J. Daley, Jane Byrne and Richard M. Daley. Interestingly, San Francisco Mayor Frank McCoppin of County Longford, Ireland was not only the first Irish Mayor of San Francisco, but was the first Irish Mayor elected in the U.S.
The First Irish Catholic President
Of course, the height of the political ascendancy for Irish Americans in the 20th Century was the election of the first Irish Catholic President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Both Kennedy’s maternal and paternal roots are firmly embedded in Ireland. The Kennedy political dynasty in America comes out of Boston in the form of his grandfather James “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, first elected Mayor of Boston in 1906.
The Irish in the Movies
Irish Americans in the 20th century also had a great influence on American culture through literature, the movies and the arts. In the first half of the 20th century, Irish and Irish American actors, directors and playwrights, shaped the Irish and indeed the American identity.
John Ford, the great director of westerns such as Stagecoach and The Searchers was the son of immigrants from County Galway and the Aran Islands. He explored Irish themes in his memorable movie The Quiet Man, starring Dublin born actress Maureen O’Hara. Maureen O’Hara made many important films including How Green Was My Valley, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Miracle on 34th Street. The list of 20th Century actors from Bing Crosby to Joan Cusack with Irish roots is simply too long for these pages. However, their influence will continue well into the next century.
Writers & Artists
Twentieth century literature also provided a springboard for Irish influence on the American cultural scene. Almost too numerous to mention, authors William Kennedy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Frank McCourt, Eugene O’Neill and Alice McDermott have created the voice of Irish American literature.
American artists of Irish descent include Georgia O’Keeffe and Thomas A. O’Shaughnassy, an American Celtic revival designer whose stained glass windows at Old St. Patrick’s Church in Chicago recall the designs from the ancient Book of Kells. Louis H. Sullivan, a modernist architect and father of the skyscraper became one of the most influential voices in American architecture.
At the close of the 20th century, Irish Americans have taken their place among the most accomplished members of society. In creating the Irish American Hall of Fame, we will have the opportunity to preserve their individual stories and contributions.
The 2010 census confirmed that a significant part of the American population continues to identify with their Irish roots. More importantly, however, is the expression that the bond between Ireland and America brings to the global community. We see this when young Irish dancers, six generations removed from the Great Hunger, travel back to Ireland to compete in the All Ireland dance championships. We see this when Irish born actors such as Gabriel Byrne and Pierce Brosnan play American characters in television dramas and movies. We see this when an Irish singer named Bono can fill every stadium from New York to California.
The Irish American Hall of Fame will be a place where we can preserve the story of those that make a difference in American culture and American life. We celebrate them and look forward to continuing to tell their stories.