America and the Irish


The battle of the Boyne in July 1690 decided the fate of James III, who fled to France, which assured the Protestant Ascendancy. How land ownership in Ireland moved into the hands of absent English aristocracy is a longer story, but it is the essential element in Irish history. At mid 19th century native Irishmen owned very little of the land that is Ireland. Most of it was in the hands of middlemen who collected the rents from the landlords and may never have visited the plantations.

The famine of 1842-1850 triggered an unprecedented immigration, mostly to the United States, but also to Canada. Thousands took ship from the northwest in vessels frequently unseaworthy. Their destinations were often Boston, where Irish Protestants were tolerated but Catholics were viewed as a threat, their religion being inimical to American freedom.

This was not the first time the Irish had immigrated to the United States. It had begun before the War of the Revolution and increased after the Rebellion of 1795.  Of particular interest is the immigration of Irish protestants during and immediately after the revolution, which established Presbyterianism in the American backcountry of Virginia and North Carolina.

Boston, where Catholic immigration threatened Puritan control of the city government, became a center of the Know-Nothing Party, which took control of the Massachusetts legislature in 1854. In the face of the great immigration between ‘42 and ‘50, the legislature passed laws barring Catholics from being buried in public cemeteries, denying church officials any control over church property, and requiring children to read the bible from the Protestant King James version in public schools. The legislature formed a nunnery committee that raided Catholic schools and convents on trumped-up pretexts. In the long run, several Catholic churches were burned. Interestingly, the intellectual founder of the Know-Nothing movement was Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, eminently respectable, respected American, and rabid anti-Catholic. In a screed entitled “Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States,” Morse accused the Vatican of seeking to subvert the values and ideals of Anglo-Protestant America.

Catholics lived through the Know-Nothing Movement (a total dislike of everyone who wasn’t an Anglo-Protestant). There was the task of providing churches for the unprecedented immigration, as well as schools and colleges. The only crisis in the development of the Catholic Church in America was Testem Benevolentiae Nostre, in which Leo XIII warned against what he considered “Americanism,” the claim that American Catholicism was different and needed room to engage the Protestant culture.  This sometimes included the thought that the more difficult teachings of the Church need not be represented. In his letter, the pope warned against valuing the active apostolate more than the apostolate of prayer, which was pursued in monastic devotion.

It’s possible to see Americanism as defining the fracture that has characterized American Catholicism for the last century. Americanism tended to divide the Church into Accommodationists—people who believe the American republic somehow was unique and deserved a place of special consideration—and the old-line Irish Catholics. Over the next century the Accommodationists were represented by America, the flagship magazine of American progressivism, and Father Hesburgh’s Notre Dame. The old-line Irish were represented by The Wanderer newspaper, and their control of the diocesan hierarchies.

The text of Testem Benevolentiae includes what Americans will always see as freedom of the press: “The confounding of license with liberty, the passion for discussing and pouring contempt on any possible subject, the assumed right to hold whatever opinions one pleases upon any subject and set them forth in print to the world, have so wrapped minds in darkness that there is now greater need for the Church’s teaching office than ever before, lest people become unmindful, both of conscience and duty.”


Having lived through the Americanist difficulty and the outbreak of modernism in the early 20th century, the Catholic Church enjoyed a century of what appeared to be real and solid progress. All this was disrupted in 1952 by the Second Vatican Council. In the wake of the council the fracture that could be discerned in the Americanist controversy grew wider. With the Accommodationists adopting the Land o’ Lakes Proposal that the only criterion for success in the universities was rejection of the role of theology in favor of a standard of secular success.

What happened to the Irish in all this? There is no scientific answer but anecdotally I would expect to see the Irish who remember grandmother’s religion clustered around EWTN and the National Catholic Register. EWTN is the most successful communications exercise sponsored by the Catholic Church. It is loudly detested by the Roman authorities as a purveyor of what Pope Francis called “backwardism.” Like the National Catholic Register, it promotes traditional Catholicism in the face of the Progressive Ascendency since 1955.

Now after five generations of immigration it is impossible to identify who is Irish and who is not because almost everyone is Irish to some degree. The religion to which the Irish clung for four centuries appears to have crashed, but we don’t know the end of the story. Meanwhile we can keep doing genealogy, some of which will lead back to Ireland.


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