The Unstoppable Irish
Songs and Integration of the New York Irish, 1783–1883
308 Pages, 6.00 x 9.00 in, 35 b&w illustrations
- Published: January 2024
- ISBN: 9780268105747
- Published: April 2019
- ISBN: 9780268105730
- Published: April 2019
- ISBN: 9780268105754
This unique book captures the rise of New York's passionately musical Irish-Catholics and provides a compelling history of early New York City.
The Unstoppable Irish follows the changing fortunes of New York's Irish Catholics, commencing with the evacuation of British military forces in late 1783 and concluding one hundred years later with the completion of the initial term of the city's first Catholic mayor. During that century, Hibernians first coalesced and then rose in uneven progression from being a variously dismissed, despised, and feared foreign group to ultimately receiving de facto acceptance as constituent members of the city's population. Dan Milner presents evidence that the Catholic Irish of New York gradually integrated (came into common and equal membership) into the city populace rather than assimilated (adopted the culture of a larger host group). Assimilation had always been an option for Catholics, even in Ireland. In order to fit in, they needed only to adopt mainstream Anglo-Protestant identity. But the same virile strain within the Hibernian psyche that had overwhelmingly rejected the abandonment of Gaelic Catholic being in Ireland continued to hold forth in Manhattan and the community remained largely intact. A novel aspect of Milner's treatment is his use of song texts in combination with period news reports and existing scholarship to develop a fuller picture of the Catholic Irish struggle. Products of a highly verbal and passionately musical people, Irish folk and popular songs provide special insight into the popularly held attitudes and beliefs of the integration epoch.
List of Illustrations
- Colonial New York
- The New York Irish in the New Republic
- Irish Famine and American Nativism
- The Civil War, and Draft Riots of 1863
- The Road to Respectability
"Unstoppable Irish is the only work I am aware of that analyzes lyrics over such a sustained—not to mention crucial—period of Irish American history. The analysis allows us to see the process of Irish Americanization reflected in an evolving cultural arena, and it shows how song lyrics contribute to the development of what Raymond Williams has called the 'structure of feeling' of any given epoch. In doing so, Milner not only offers insight into the connection between popular culture and American political development, but also leads the way for other cultural historians of Irish America to follow." —Peter O'Neill, author of Famine Irish and the American Racial State
"Songs litter the archives of urban history. Apart from mining them for colorful quotations, however, most historians don’t quite know what to do with them. Dan Milner has found an answer by combining the microhistory of the Irish in New York City with a close reading of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century song lyrics from the city’s popular press and stage. Milner’s weaving together of local politics, urban sociology, popular entertainment, and Irish song culture provides insight into how the image of NYC’s Irish Catholics moved from that of unwanted poverty-stricken immigrants to acceptable new citizens, who, by the end of the nineteenth century, were taking charge of the city." —William H. A. Williams, author of 'Twas Only an Irishman’s Dream: The Image of Ireland and the Irish in American Popular Song Lyrics, 1800–1920
"Dan Milner caps decades of performing and collecting traditional folk music with an insightful analysis of how songs illuminate the Irish journey from outsiders to insiders. This book is essential for understanding New York City and Irish America." —Robert W. Snyder, Rutgers University-Newark
"Music and song is the royal road into the psyche of the Irish and this book is a profound meditation on the journey toward becoming that was taken by the Irish of New York in the 19th century. In all of us that journey lives and these songs and what they tell us about the hopes and dreams of our forebears, as well as the heartache they endured, reward the scrutiny that Milner brings to them here." —Irish Central
"An incisive and enlightening exploration of immigrant culture and integration. Dan Milner offers insights into popular song as a means of protest and pride, which echo from nineteenth-century music halls to present-day rap. This is cultural history at its demotic best." —Peter Quinn, author of Banished Children of Eve: A Novel of Civil War New York
"An excellent, well-researched work that tells a fascinating story about the early Irish Catholic experience in America. . . . The way Milner traces this history is fascinating. Rather than relying solely on dry sources like archival newspapers and secondary scholarship, he incorporates song texts—folk songs, street songs, and early variety theater lyrics, all taken from period sources such as broadsides, songsters, and published songs—to create a deeper and more nuanced reading of the Irish Catholic experience." —The Irish Echo
“In this fascinating study Dan Milner focuses on the songs of the New York Irish and uses them to uncover the experience of that immigrant community in the century from 1783. The Irish experience over that period was essentially a struggle for Catholic incomers to achieve acceptance from a Protestant establishment.” —Dublin Review of Books
"[A] treasury of mini-essays on many indelible songs from throughout the nineteenth century. . . . Milner brings Irish American history to life, through song, in this compelling book." —New York Irish History
"MIlner offers evidence—largely through folk and popular period songs of the era—of how New York City’s Irish Catholic community gained acceptance in the city, culminating in the election of its first Catholic mayor, William R. Grace. Milner’s central premise is that the Irish integrated, rather than simply assimilated, within the larger New York population." —Boston Irish Reporter
“The study focuses on the century-long period from the withdrawal of British troops from New York at the end of the American War of Independence to the first term of Irish-born William R. Grace, New York’s first Catholic mayor. Milner is clearly knowledgeable on the subject.” —Choice
Nowhere more than New York was the change from Crown to American democratic control so involved, because it was the most diverse of all colonies, and "probably the least unanimous in the assertion and defense of the principles of the revolution" (Jay 1833, 41). The roles of religious institutions in particular were due for examination. Most colonies had maintained established churches, and otherwise regulated religious activities within their boundaries. The Church of England was established in much of New York. Most colonies also had some laws detrimental towards Catholics, however the goodwill engendered by the French alliance generally brought about "a favorable attitude toward the Roman Catholic Church on the part of American Protestants, and this was encouraged by Washington, Franklin, and other leading men" (McGreevy 2003, 11; Morison 1965, 292-93). But the new goodwill was hardly overriding, uniform in application or especially long-lasting for there was no obvious, direct connection between the root cause of the Revolution – American unwillingness to be taxed and regulated without legislative representation – and the promotion of liberal social ideology. In New York, chief amongst those who sought to prolong discrimination against Catholics, a growing majority of whom were Irish, was John Jay, leader of the conservative faction at the state constitutional committee meeting of 1776-77, an assembly to which no Catholics were called. During the debate over the state constitution, Jay sought to include an oath requiring Catholics to deny "the power of an ecclesiastic to absolve from sin," which was rejected; and to add an amendment to the provisions on naturalization (then a state prerogative) requiring immigrants to "abjure and renounce all allegiance and subjection to all and every foreign king, prince, potentate, and state in all matters ecclesiastical and civil" (Ryan 1935, 16); in effect to disown the Pope and necessitate the formation of an American Catholic Church (just as the Church of England in America reorganized as the Protestant Episcopal Church). Jay's amendment on naturalization was agreed and remained law until superseded by the United States Constitution. A critical influence in shaping Jay's views was that his great-grandfather, a Huguenot of La Rochelle, was imprisoned and afterwards fled from France to England following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 (Jay 1833, 3-5). Thereafter, staunch support of the Protestant cause (including anti-Catholicism) was a family trait. John Jay's great-uncle Isaac died of wounds received fighting alongside William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne (Jay 1833, 6). The new goodwill engendered by the Revolution "made overt discrimination against Catholics… contrary to the cause of American republicanism" (Duncan 2005, 69); so, it is noteworthy that legislation was introduced into the New York Assembly a decade later that would have required election inspectors to administer a test oath to potential voters renouncing civil and ecclesiastical foreign allegiances (a precursor to nativist initiatives in the 1840s and 1850s). The bill was aimed at urban Catholics and was the work of rural Whigs who were countered by city Federalists. Alexander Hamilton, Jay's younger and more progressive Federalist fellow, took the opposing position arguing that American-born Catholics were unencumbered by "that dangerous fanaticism, which terrified the world some centuries back; but which now dissipated by the light of philosophy" (Duncan 2005, 69-70). Hamilton was a strong nationalist who well perceived the dangerous implications of creating a potentially divisive religious underclass. He was also a capitalist who held a positive view of the city's merchant traders, a number of whom were Irishmen and some of them Catholics (Burrows and Wallace 1999, 272-73).
Because the New York State Constitution of 1777 was based on the preceding colonial charter, it was far from an egalitarian document. Electoral rights were granted only to property-owning, white males. The tension between the expectations of working-class citizens for a new republic that benefited all, and the aristocratic traditions characteristic of colonial New York boiled over on the banks of the East River in November 1795 when city Alderman Gabriel Furman requested two employees of the Brooklyn ferry to take him to Manhattan prior to the scheduled departure time. They refused at first, then complied, but an argument erupted during the passage and Furman had the two ferrymen, Timothy Crady and Thomas Burk, arrested. Recent immigrants from Ireland, they were charged with insulting an alderman and threatening a constable. The case was tried before the Court of General Sessions with the mayor and three of Furman's fellow aldermen – all Federalists – sitting in judgment. Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace (1999, 323-24) write, "Neither man was allowed legal counsel, there was no jury (and) Furman was the only witness." The judgment was that Burk and Crady should be jailed for two months with Crady also receiving 20 lashes on his bare back (Pomerantz 1938, 264-65). The harshness of the sentence and the authoritarian tone of the proceedings made clear that vestiges of the old order continued to exist, only in different guise. Crown forces had departed New York 12 years earlier but the city had not made real progress towards resolving the question of who should rule and how; for the divide between those who felt only a select few were qualified to lead, and those who, like Crady, believed that they were "as good as any buggers" (Burrows and Wallace 1999, 323) was inherently systemic and needed to be resolved through legislative action.
Crady and Burk may have been marked for such cruel and unusual punishment because of their known ethnicity and presumed religion – Catholic Irishmen were still considered troublesome and the aldermen's actions indicate they believed an example should be made of them – but the case had broader implications. While on one hand the ferrymen presented an immigrant issue, on the other, the plight of Crady and Burk was not just restricted to newcomers but relevant to New York working-class society at-large. The treatment received by the Irishmen could have been levied on anyone without a connection to power or money. Crady and Burk fled prison but their cause remained, ballooning when a Republican lawyer, William Keteltas, denounced the proceedings in a city newspaper and petitioned the Assembly to impeach the mayor and aldermen. The Federalist-heavy Assembly declined and jailed the attorney, however, 2000 supporters rallied around him, chanting "The Spirit of Seventy-Six" along his route to confinement (Burrows and Wallace 1999, 324). The case of the ferrymen was an important episode in Catholic Irish community settlement because they had yet to be adopted into a sponsor-client relationship by a political party. Catholics represented potential votes but they also carried the residual stigma of foreignness, which did not suit every American. Supporting issues closely related to Catholic interests risked alienating the core Protestant base of any political party. Hitherto, Federalists had occasionally shown a modicum of encouragement for middle-class Catholic Irish members of their organization but this backing was unreliable and infrequent. The Brooklyn ferry affair marks the first instance when the rights of Catholic Irishmen were defended by Republicans (soon to become Democratic-Republicans and, later, simply Democrats). Though Catholic Irish numbers were still small, they were rising, causing Republicans "to think in terms of the common adversary they shared with Irish Catholics: Anglo-Americans known as Tories in Britain and Federalists in the United States" (Duncan 2005, 94). (excerpted from chapter 1)