Before he was president, Barack Obama was an ambitious young politician who learned a valuable lesson thanks to the Chicago Irish.
The year was 1999. Obama, a state senator, announced he was going to challenge Congressman Bobby L. Rush, a legend in the working-class African-American wards of Chicago’s South Side.
Decades earlier, the South Side was heavily Irish. It was the world that James T. Farrell recreated in his famous Studs Lonigan trilogy of novels from the 1930s.
In fact, for all the changes in Chicago, the same rules have always applied when it comes to politics: you have to pay your dues before you challenge a veteran.
Meanwhile, though it’s true that the district that Obama hoped to win was 65 percent black, it also had “several relatively affluent Irish-American neighborhoods,” as The New York Times noted recently.
Obama (himself Irish on his mother’s side) was ultimately trounced in the South Side race, and learned that when it came to Windy City politics, he still had some dues to pay.
Obama’s loss illustrates key facts about the Chicago Irish experience. First, the Irish have been playing a crucial political role in Chicago for over 150 years. Furthermore, the Irish have always had to build coalitions among other racial, ethnic and religious groups. Often, they did so successfully, though other times, the result was tension and violence.
Either way, from Studs Lonigan, Michael Flatley and Mrs. O’Leary’s infamous cow to Comiskey Park and O’Hare International Airport, the Irish have left a deep impression upon Chicago.
“City on the Prairie”
Unlike Boston, New York or Philadelphia, Chicago was not settled until the 1800s. So the Chicago Irish did not face the worst kind of anti-Catholic, anti-Irish bigotry from established, native-born elites. This also allowed early Irish immigrants to, in a sense, get in on the ground floor of Chicago.
“For the Irish, Chicago’s emergence as the nascent city on the prairie was timely,” writes John Gerard McLaughlin in his book Irish Chicago. “The construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, which would connect the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River, began in 1836, drawing Irish laborers. . . . The completion of the canal in 1848 coincided with the mass emigration from Ireland caused by the Great Famine.”
Kerry native Dr. William Bradford was among the earliest boosters of Chicago and the opportunities presented by the canal’s construction. Bradford, a physician, was also one of Chicago’s earliest successful real estate speculators.
Canal work brought hordes of additional laborers – as well as class tension and cries for unionization. It also meant that when the Great Hunger struck Ireland, some Chicago laborers were able to send money, food and other materials back to Ireland.
“Depraved, Debased, Worthless”
Although Chicago was spared the anti-Irish violence of other large American cities, there was no lack of rabid anti-Irish sentiment. The Chicago Tribune, edited by Joseph Medill (a descendant of Scotch-Irish Presbyterians), regularly dismissed the Irish as lazy and shiftless.
“Who does not know that the most depraved, debased, worthless and irredeemable drunkards and sots which curse the community are Irish Catholics?” the Tribune sneered. This came even as Irish laborers worked feverishly to complete Chicago’s stately St. Patrick’s church at Adams and Desplaines Streets in the mid-1850s.
Besides Dr. Bradford, another example of Chicago’s Irish rising class was Cork native James Lane. In this city which would lead the nation in meat production, Lane is said to have opened Chicago’s first meat market in 1836. He marched in the city’s first St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1843 – and was still doing so five decades later, in the 1890s.
Meanwhile, decades before Jane Addams and Hull House became synonymous with Chicago charity, Carlow native Agatha O’Brien and nuns from the Mercy Sisters worked in hospitals, schools and asylums caring for victims of cholera and other diseases.
By the 1870s, the Irish-born population of Chicago was approaching 70,000 – over 25 percent of the people. Then came a calamity which transformed the city forever.
The Great Fire
According to legend, the Great Chicago Fire was started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. The immigrant family was ultimately exonerated, but the O’Learys were subjected to awful harassment. The fire scorched large swaths of Chicago, including a dressmaking business owned by Cork native and future labor leader Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, who entered the labor movement soon after the fire. The newly rebuilt city saw further upward mobility for the Irish.
A priest at St. John’s parish on the South Side, Father Woldron, watched “in sorrow as hundreds of beloved families surrendered their humble homes and moved.”
By the 1880s, 30 percent of Chicago’s police force and other civil service jobs were held by Irish Americans. Many of Chicago’s Irish Americans now earned enough money to move to neighborhoods such as Englewood, where (much to the dismay of local Protestants) they laid foundations for working- or middle-class parishes such as St. Bernard’s.
Politics, Labor and Religion
The Irish, as they did in many other cities, proved adept at politics, as well as parish life.
Again, Chicago is unique in that, while the Irish were the largest immigrant minority group in other large cities, they were just one of many in Chicago. Germans, Poles, Jews and other Eastern Europeans flocked to Chicago in large numbers.
“Second generation Chicago Irishmen assumed the role of buffers between the strange speaking newcomers and the native, older residents,” Paul M. Green has written.
Affairs in Ireland were also profoundly important to the Chicago Irish. The revolutionary group Clan na Gael had a strong presence in the city, where support was strong for controversial measures such as the London bombing campaign of the 1880s, meant to draw attention to the cause of freedom for Ireland. This became a tougher stance to defend, however, in the wake of the infamous Haymarket Square bombing of 1886, when Irish nationalists in Chicago struggled to draw distinctions between anti-British nationalism and homegrown American anarchism. Meanwhile, Irish pride in Chicago was not merely confined to the continued struggle against the British.
According to Ellen Skerrit: “Since the 1890s, the city’s Irish have played a leading role in the cultural revival of traditional music and dance.”
Cork native Francis O’Neill, a police chief, was one of the driving forces behind reviving traditional Irish music in the Chicago area.
Meanwhile, as Charles Fanning has noted, Chicago writer Finley Peter Dunne created one of the great voices in American letters at the turn of the century: Mr. Dooley, the saloon keeper/philosopher with the exaggerated brogue who was beloved by millions in nationwide newspapers and books.
Finally, early 1900s labor leaders included Margaret Haley, president of the Chicago Teachers Federation, and John Fitzpatrick, leader of Chicago’s Federation of Labor.
Gangsters and “Studs”
There was also a dark side to Chicago Irish life, painted most memorably in the 1930s Studs Lonigan trilogy of novels by James T. Farrell. Particularly disturbing is the racism, violence and narrow-mindedness we see among Studs, his family and friends. It should be added, however, that Farrell also wrote another series of novels about a youth named Danny O’Neill, who escaped Chicago and chased his dreams. Chicago groups such as the Catholic Interracial Council also showed that some Chicago Irish were promoters of racial justice.
Meanwhile, by the 1920s, though many Chicago Irish moved into the American mainstream, another group chose a very different path. This was evident on the morning of February 14, 1929 – Valentine’s Day – when two men dressed as police officers ushered six gangsters into a garage on Chicago’s North Side. A hail of bullets followed.
The famous massacre had been ordered by Al Capone. He was gunning for Bugs Moran, but the Irish crime boss had escaped. The St. Valentine’s Day massacre was the culmination of Irish-Italian turf wars which dominated the 1920s. Prohibition, and competition over the sale of illegal booze, led to these gang wars, and Chicago was the center of Irish organized crime. (Jimmy Cagney’s electrifying film The Public Enemy, from 1931, was set in the Windy City.)
Deanie O’Banion was the era’s most prominent Irish gangster. He grew up in a notorious neighborhood known as Little Hell. Even when he became a full-time murderer, O’Banion sported a rosary in his pocket and a carnation in his jacket. In fact, O’Banion so loved flowers that he opened a flower shop on North State Street, which was where he was killed in 1924, after he had swindled members of Capone’s crew.
The Daley Dynasty
All in all, Chicago has had a dozen Irish mayors. Early city leaders include John Comiskey (father of White Sox baseball owner Charles Comiskey), John Coughlin, “Foxy” Ed Cullerton and Johnny Powers. Later, in 1979, Irish-American Jane Byrne was the first woman to serve as Chicago mayor.
The most powerful Irish-American mayor ever was Richard J. Daley, who ran Chicago for over 20 years, beginning with his 1955 election. Daley was a humble, devout Catholic who raised his family not far from the South Side Irish enclave where he grew up. As a multi-ethnic town, Chicago required a mayor who knew how to reward all ethnic groups, a task which Daley mastered.
Daley became such a key figure in the Democratic Party that he was known as a “president-maker,” whose support was needed to nominate any White House candidate.
Daley’s image was tarnished by the violent events of the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention. But in the mayoral election of 1971, Daley received nearly 60 percent of the vote. He died while in office in 1976. Fittingly, his son, Richard M. Daley, was later elected Chicago mayor in 1989.
The New Chicago Irish
By the 1980s, many Chicago Irish had been in the city three or four generations. But a whole new wave of immigrants then arrived, escaping an Ireland which was still struggling economically.
These immigrants breathed new life into Chicago’s Irish-American life and culture. A daughter of immigrants, Liz Carroll is a Chicago native who is one of today’s top Irish fiddlers. Then, of course, there is Riverdance star Michael Flatley. A native of the South Side, Flatley reinvented Irish dance and brought it to the international masses.
Dance is not something we would expect to arise from the streets once stalked by Studs Lonigan and his band of roughs. But history shows us that, when it comes to the Chicago Irish, there is one thing you should expect: the unexpected.