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The blarney beat: the press just can't get enough of those witty, charming Irish Americans.

"God Made the Irish No. 1" brags a St. Patrick's Day slogan. Perhaps, but the Lord has had plenty of help from the American press, which even in these multicultural times relentlessly celebrates the ethnic ethos of one group and one group only: Irish Americans.

One needn't be a newspaper junkie to notice that the Irish have a franchise on frequent, flattering and fatuous references in the daily paper. When writing about someone with roots in the Emerald Isle, reporters often fall back on the same hackneyed phrases that say less about their subject and more about lazy journalism.

Living or dead, it makes no difference. In eulogizing Richard Hughes, the former New Jersey governor and chief justice who died last December, the Philadelphia Inquirer hymned not only Hughes' "progressive politics" but also his "Irish charm." Fortunately, according to the press, that quality lives on in other public officials, such as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York. But where Hughes' charm was apparently unalloyed, the Wall Street Journal observed last year that Moynihan's Irish charm is accompanied by a "penchant ...for well-kept grudges."

That the traits ascribed to various Irish Americans are often mutually contradictory only adds to the mystique. In April 1991 the Ventura County edition of the Los Angeles Times profiled John K. Flynn, described in the headline as "the county supervisor with the Irish temper." A couple of weeks earlier, on the East Coast, Newsday had published a profile of Robert Gaffney, a candidate for Suffolk County executive, that focused on his bright Irish face" but offered little evidence of an Irish temper; on the contrary, the story described Gaffney as an "affable, low-key assemblyman." (Rather plaintively, Gaffney himself insisted in the article that he is "capable of indignation and outrage.")

Such inconsistencies are no more daunting to journalism's amateur anthropologists than is the fact that the exclamation "What a lovely Irish face!" can be evoked by countenances that look nothing alike. As with the U.S. Supreme Court and obscenity, journalists know an Irish mug - or an Irish personality - when they see one.

I first became aware of the fascination of my colleagues with Irishness, real and imagined, when I did a piece a few St. Patrick's Days ago that attempted to establish an operational definition of "Irish wit." In my spelunking through news stories amassed on a computer database I discovered a dirty secret: There is no such thing. Or, rather, Irish wit is anything and everything of a remotely humorous nature that can be attributed to a speaker of Hibernian extraction.

Far from constituting a Celtic fringe, Irish wit comprises everything from the scripted one-liners of Ronald Reagan to the donnish jests of Moynihan to the "flashes of Irish humor" Sen. William Cohen discerned in the Iran-contra testimony of that fey leprechaun Donald Regan. Meanwhile, a New York Times review of a monologue by comedian Colin Quinn praised Quinn for his "New York Irish streetwise humor," not to be confused with the "understated Irish wit" a Christian Science Monitor book reviewer found in the memoirs of that streetwise son of Massachusetts, Tip O'Neill.

What we had here, I concluded, was a convention, a habit of thought (or at least of writing on deadline) that was less than the sum of its parts. Nor was the compulsion to celebrate Irishness confined to chroniclers of Irish wit. In a 1982 colunm, James Reston, that wellspring of pious hopes, gushed about a scenario in which President Reagan and O'Neill would subordinate partisan interests to the national good. The clincher: "Together, they might even do it, and being Irish, they might even try."

Reston isn't the only New York Times writer to use Irishness as a crutch (or shillelagh). My favorite example of goofy Gaelophilia is an editorial published by the Times in 1981 after the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan. I quote the editorial, titled "Sons of Ireland," in full:

"If there was ever a paradigm for the emergence of the Irish in America, it is in the names of the four people injured Monday by the bullets of a would-be assassin. Reagan, Brady, McCarthy, Delahanty - it sounds like the guest list for the annual dinner of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick.

"McCarthy and Delahanty are in police work. Reagan and Brady are in politics. All four, then, have their feet set on the two ladders that traditionally led the descendants of Irish immigrants out of poverty. And one of them has climbed his way to the very top.

"Too bad another Irishman, William Butler Yeats, isn't here to comment on the sometimes terrible price of political success in the United States; that same Yeats who often celebrated what he called |the indomitable Irishry.'"

I have a theory about how the terrible beauty of this editorial was born. Someone noticed the coincidence of the Irish roots of the injured men and decided it was an irresistible peg. But what was hung on it was anachronistic and selective pop sociology.

Ronald Reagan's path to the Oval Office bore no relation to the ward heeler's progress, and the Secret Service position held by Timothy McCarthy was a decidedly more prestigious law enforcement assignment than walking a beat in Pittsburgh or Chicago. And if one shoehorns Reagan, Brady, Delahanty and McCarthy into the Times' off-the-boat scenario of Irish upward mobility, what is one to make of the fact, called to the Times' attention by a letter to the editor, that the George Washington University doctor who briefed the nation on Reagan's condition was named Dennis O'Leary?

I'm probably being too hard on what might have been a "filler" editorial (I've written them myself), but the Times' paean to the "indomitable Irishry" of four very different individuals speaks volumes about the news media's indiscriminate infatuation with Irishness - or their idea of Irishness.

The theme of Irish self-improvement, so belabored in the Times' editorial, is one distinguishing feature of this syndrome. In his book "The Catholic Myth," Andrew M. Greeley describes how Irish Catholics in America have gained ground on their erstwhile Anglo-Saxon oppressors to the point that the Irish are "even more successful than Episcopalians" when it comes to income, occupations and education. Yet the lore of "no Irish need apply" has a residual resonance for thoroughly assimilated Irish Americans and for profile writers for whom Irishness (as contrasted with WASP privilege) is accepted automatically as a humanizing credential.

Paradoxically, reporters can be free and easy with ethnic designations of Irish Americans because the sense of grievance is nothing more than a historical artifact. In 1990 a Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, Barbara Hafer, said at a fundraising event in Philadelphia that "I'm a prochoice Republican from the west and [incumbent Gov.] Bob Casey is a redneck Irishman from Scranton."

Hafer's comment was universally viewed as a gaffe, and may even have been a factor in her subsequent loss to Casey. But the umbrage taken by (Democratic) Irishmen and women seemed feigned, and most of my Irish friends were more bemused than besmirched. One can imagine how different the reaction would have been if Hafer had made a crack about African Americans, Hispanics, Jews or Polish Americans. The truth is that Irish Americans are almost as immune to insult as WASPS are - but more likely to be sentimentalized in the newspaper.

Of course, to explain why journalists feel free to trade on the Irishness of this or that individual is not to refute the existence of either "Irish wit" or a distinct "Irish character." For all the contradictory characterizations of the Irish psyche, the conviction that the Irish are somehow different persists, and not only among cliche-happy hacks and self-mythologizing Irish politicians. (And non-Irish politicians: In 1984 the New York Times quoted Gary Hart as saying, "I have a kind of Irish fatalistic sense of inevitability.")

You don't have to be a bigot to believe that generalizations can be made - cautiously - about various ethnic groups. Indeed, some commentators worry that an exaggerated fear of caricature has blinded journalists to the importance of group traits in human affairs. Yet those same ethnicity-blind journalists happily make an exception for the Irish.

Perhaps profile writers should attach more importance to the possible influence of ethnicity on their subjects. But it ought to be an ecumenical enterprise. If we have to read about the Irish wit of Joe Biden, then let's have equal time for the Italian intensity of Mario Cuomo and the WASP whimsy of Claiborne Pell. Where a monopoly on superficial stereotypes is concerned, it's time the luck of the Irish ran out.
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Author:McGough, Michael
Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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