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Irish, Catholicism and the US Presidency

Author-  Marie-Therese Cryan.

As I write this the American Presidential Election is over but there is still no confirmed winner.  It is the main story of the day making a welcome change from Covid-19, even though it seems there may well be some rocky, even worrying days ahead.  Already there have been protests, demonstrations and threats of future disorder.   We can but hope and pray that violence will not erupt in the streets and that the much over-used term, democracy will prevail.

Should Joe Biden win he will be only the second Roman Catholic to hold the position of the most powerful political leader in the world.   His ancestors emigrated from Ireland in the 1800s.  He came here on visit in 2016 when the centenary of the Easter Rising was being celebrated in and he visited Kilmainham Gaol.

The first Roman Catholic was of course the charismatic John Fitzgerald Kennedy who was cut down in his 47th year by an assassin’s’ bullet in Texas in 1964. Ireland’s ‘love affair’ with the Whitehouse really began at this time, because JFK was not only Catholic but had Irish roots. His 4 grandparents were all children of Irish immigrants who left their native land during the mid-nineteenth century for distant shores.  His own parents Joe and Rose Fitzgerald retained a deep sense of heritage and “Irishness” and connection with their Catholic faith.

Irish Immigration

When the potato famine took hold of Ireland in 1845, it initiated mass immigration to the US.   Records show that in 1850 a record 369,980 people made the then-perilous journey across the Atlantic.  Many of these ‘coffin ships’, as they came tellingly to be called, had been used to transport African natives to a life of slavery.  The Irish immigrants would in turn be seen as slaves by many.  They were poor, unskilled and destitute, but worse they were Catholic.

This meant they were to be particularly vilified by the American Anglo-Saxon Protestants whose ancestors had boarded ‘The Mayflower’ two centuries beforehand.  The country’s oldest citizens could still remember when America was an English colony and papal effigies were burned in city streets during annual Guy Fawkes Day celebrations.

The Irish newcomers were stereotyped as ignorant bog- trotters loyal only to the pope and ill-suited for democracy.  They were exploited by employers and in turn resented by the working-class Americans who saw them as competitors for their jobs.  In cruel and popular cartoons they were portrayed as bestial ape-like figures, hot-headed, old-fashioned drunkards.  Many ads for employment were accompanied by the order ‘No Irish Need Apply’.

During the mid-nineteenth century anti-Catholic riots struck the major eastern cities and vandalism against Catholic institutions became such a common practice that many insurance companies refused to cover Catholic schools and churches.  Riots in Philadelphia resulted in dozens killed and over a hundred wounded plus two churches burned to the ground.

In the early twentieth century the backlash against Catholic and Jewish immigrants found its most powerful expression in the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.  Unlike the original terrorist group, the new organization sought a national profile and identified several groups – not just African Americans – as alien threats to family and nation:  Catholics and Jews, immigrants, “new women”, bootleggers and criminals.

No Catholics on Capitol Hill

Democrat Al Smith became the first Catholic presidential candidate when he ran against Herbert Hoover in 1928 and the Klan distributed anti-Catholic literature directed against him right up to the November election.

There was a general belief, even among decent ordinary citizens, that when it came to decision making a president who was a Catholic would ultimately be more loyal to the Vatican because the fate of his eternal soul was at stake.

This was the thinking that prevailed when John Fitzgerald Kennedy ran for election in 1960.  If Kennedy were elected he would criminalize birth control and funnel tax money into Catholic parochial schools.

It was Kennedy’s power over the press that enabled him to overcome the prejudices that some sections of American society held against him due to his Catholic upbringing.  One writer remarked, “The stereotype of the Irish Catholic politician, the pugnacious, priest-dependent representative of an embittered, embattled minority, simply does not fit the poised urbane, cosmopolitan young socialite from Harvard.”

Kennedy was forced to address the ‘issue’ of his religion to assuage Protestant fears.  When he did so he made a prophetic statement, “Today, I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you”, thus foreshadowing a future in which evangelicals would come to see themselves as victims aggrieved by attacks against “ Christian America”.

An Irish Hero

In Ireland JFK was a hero, the stuff of legend who received a tumultuous welcome when he toured here before only 5 months before he was gunned down in Dallas.  He was the first foreign leader to address the House of the Oireachtas and also received 2 honorary degrees during his short 4 – day visit.

For a long time in Ireland in many a house you would find an image of the Pope on one side of the mantelpiece, or other place in the home, and an image of JFK on the other. In such esteem was he held.  This of course pointed more volubly than anything else to his identity as a Catholic which made the Irish so proud of their American ’son’.

He told his relations on that visit, “When my great-grandfather came to America and my grandfather was growing up, the Irish Americans had a song from the familiar sign which went, “No Irish Need Apply”.  He then continued, “In 1960, the Americans took the sign down from the last place it was still hanging – the door of the Whitehouse.”      

Written By Marie – Therese Cryan


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