The Irish Americans A History

Jay P. Dolan

Bloomsbury Press




368 Pages



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Jay Dolan of the University of Notre Dame is one of America's most acclaimed scholars of immigration and ethnic history. In The Irish Americans, he caps his decades of writing and teaching with a magisterial history of the Irish experience in the United States—the first general-reader's account to be published since the 1960s.

Dolan draws on his own original research and much recent other scholarship to weave a fresh and vivid narrative. He follows the Irish from their first arrival in the American colonies through the bleak days of the potato famine that brought millions of poor immigrants; the years of ethnic prejudice and "No Irish Need Apply;" the rise of Irish political power and the heyday of Tammany politics; to the historic moment when John F. Kennedy was elected to the highest office in the land.

Dolan evokes the ghastly ships crowded with men and women fleeing the potato blight; the vibrant life of Catholic parishes in cities like New York and Chicago; and the world of machine politics, where ward bosses often held court in the local saloon. Rich in colorful detail, balanced in judgment, and the most comprehensive work of its kind yet published, The Irish Americans will become a must-have volume for any reader with an interest in the Irish-American heritage.


Praise for The Irish Americans

"Will probably become the standard reference on the history of Irish America."—San Francisco Chronicle

"Jay P. Dolan tells this familiar story with the care and consideration befitting someone holding the title of professor emeritus of history at the University of Notre Dame . . . He is judicious and accurate, unemotional and lucid."—The Wall Street Journal

"[Dolan] brings . . . decades of research and teaching, the wisdom and judgment that come with such lifelong endeavors and the confidence that translates into an easy, entertaining and very informative read."—America: The National Catholic Weekly

"Jay Dolan has written a superb history of the Irish in this country, both scholarly and popular. Indeed, it is the best available story of the Irish in America. He covers the poverty of the immigrants, their loyalty to one another, their struggles to create a place for themselves in this country against intense hostility and deep-seated prejudice, and their ultimate success despite all their enemies. The book explains why so many Americans who have an option to choose their own ethnic identity decide that they want to be Irish."—Andrew M. Greeley, author of The Irish Americans: The Rise to Money and Power and Irish Tiger

"An impressive synthesis of recent scholarship and his own lifelong research, Jay Dolan's The Irish Americans: A History is the ideal book for Americans of Irish descent who want to learn more about what being 'Irish American' really means."—Kerby Miller, author of Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America

"Jay Dolan here distills the ripe fruit of a lifetime's learning in a fast-paced, wide-ranging narrative that provides an illuminating account for the general reader of one of the most remarkable immigrant experiences in all of American history."—Professor John Joseph Lee, co-editor of Making the Irish American: History and Heritage of the Irish in the United States

"Whether you know a lot or a little about the Irish in America, Jay Dolan's The Irish Americans: A History will engage and enlighten. A foremost chronicler of American Catholicism, Dolan has produced a concise and incisive account of an immigrant group whose impact has been profound. This lively and clearly written contribution to a full understanding of how the Irish have changed America (and vice versa) deserves the widest possible audience."—Peter Quinn, author of Looking for Jimmy: A Search for Irish America

"Jay Dolan has achieved a remarkable feat: He has told the sweeping story of the Irish in America with a great appreciation for its complexity, its tragedies, and its triumphs. The Irish have transformed the United States, and have been transformed themselves into something we call Irish-America. Dolan explains how that process worked and why the story of Irish-America remains relevant at a time when we continue to argue about immigration and assimilation."—Terry Golway, author of The Irish in America

"A leading authority on American Catholicism distills a complete history of the ethnic group that constitutes a major portion of the religion's adherents. Dolan offers a lucid blend of political, religious, labor and national history. He keeps a firm grip on a wide array of material, shifting neatly between Ireland and America, as well as between large narratives of change and particular stories of representative individuals. In a major contribution, Dolan gives fresh emphasis to the forgotten period before the Great Famine of the mid-1840s. He begins his account with the migration of 250,000 Irish to America before the Revolution, a time when both Catholics and Protestants regarded themselves as Irish. He then shows sectarianism and bigotry taking hold after 1790 as Irish immigrants were exclusively identified as Catholics, commonly viewed as inferior and un-American. These conditions prevailed when the Great Famine intensified Irish migration to urban America in the mid-19th century. Nevertheless, the Irish made themselves a success by establishing their loyalty to the United States, building potent political machines, leading labor movements and developing a powerful Catholic Church marked by a new style of devotional worship. In 1928 the failed presidential campaign of Al Smith, the Democratic Party nominee, demonstrated how far Irish Catholics had come, but also how far they still had to go. In contrast, Kennedy's victory in 1960 was an unequivocal moment of triumph for Irish-Americans. By the end of the 20th century it was positively chic to be Irish, asserts Dolan. His balanced, inclusive book is clear and well organized . . [this] strong work [is] accomplished and encompassing."Kirkus Reviews

"Dolan doesn't whitewash history: he notes the ‘rogues' gallery of Irish politicians and continuing pockets of Irish-American poverty. His writing is colorful and comprehensive with impeccable scholarship evident throughout."—Publishers Weekly

"This compact, well-written, and enjoyable survey of three centuries of Irish American history is a celebration of [their] experience . . . [An] excellent work of ethnic history."—Jay Freeman, Booklist

"Drawing on his own extensive research as well as recent work by numerous colleagues, Dolan offers an important contribution to American ethnic history. Tackling a large and complex story, he manages to retain readability amid solid scholarship. He clearly establishes the significance of the Church in the history of Irish Americans. In addition to its role, the author explores two other central themes: the enormous influence extreme poverty had on the lives of these people, and the gradual, often rocky, road to full assimilation and social acceptance. Dolan begins his story in Ireland, detailing how conditions went beyond harsh to intolerable. Driven out of their homeland by starvation; an antiquated system of land ownership; and cruel, misguided British politics, thousands of Irish immigrated to the United States in the latter half of the 19th century. For most, their lot improved, but only slightly. The next generation, however, fared better, and, by the mid-20th century, was not so much poor Irish as middle-class American. By the end of the century, it even became ‘chic to be Irish.' Many teens will find this book accessible and at times engrossing, and it will be valuable to those engaged in ethnic studies."—Robert Saunderson, Berkeley Public Library, California, School Library Journal

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Jay P. Dolan

  • Jay P. Dolan is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Notre Dame, where he founded the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism. He is the author of several books, including his best-known work, The American Catholic Experience: A History from Colonial Times to the Present.