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Transatlantic connections and the sharp edge of the great depression.

IRISH transatlantic migration has inspired a number of impressive works in a variety of fields, from the humanities to the social sciences. Yet the vast majority of these accounts end early in the twentieth century, often immediately after World War I. Although some works mention the sharp drop in traffic in the late 1920S and early 1930s, most simply attribute this trend to changes in American immigration policy. According to Kerby Miller, one of the foremost scholars of Irish transatlantic migration, "The Easter rising and the Anglo-Irish war occurred just before the well of Irish-American memories, duty, and guilt ran dry," as if seventy-year-old transatlantic diasporic links abruptly unraveled in the years immediately following World War I. (1) Patrick J. Blessing, another major contributor to the field, also sees 1920 as the point at which "the story of the Irish in America had become the story of Americans of Irish descent." (2)

The reliance on immigration restriction legislation as a monocausal explanation of the drop in Irish migration to the United States stems from an underestimation of the multifaceted and persistent nature of this transatlantic connection. Rooted in decades of postfamine movement, the transatlantic migration network continued to involve not only those Irish-born crossing the Atlantic themselves but also the Irish at home and Americans of Irish descent in the United States. The wide array of transatlantic links built up in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries functioned as far more than mere conduits of immigration. The network served as a two-way connection, with Irish-born labor moving predominantly westward while information and remittance money flowed in the opposite direction. These connections remained central to the lives of Irish men and women both at home and abroad and continued to function after the Immigration Restriction Acts of the 1920S. Even after the stock market crash of 1929, thousands of Irish men and women continued to arrive in the United States.

Nonetheless, the interwar period brought a momentous change in Irish migration history. The various and diverse bonds between Ireland and the United States emerged relatively unscathed from the restrictionist legislation of the 1920S, only to unravel from the ensuing social tensions of assimilation and the economic strains of the Great Depression. In sharp contrast to the temporary ebbs and flows of the late-nineteenth century, the depression permanently disrupted the westward flow of postfamine migrants. By the time the American economy began to recover, the outflow from Ireland had been diverted eastward, setting the pattern for almost a half-century.


Postfamine transatlantic migration was dominated by one-way westward movement in the seventy years after the mid-nineteenth-century famine, with the departure of an estimated 3.7 million Irish-born men and women to the United States between 1851 and 1921. (3) Despite improvements in Irish conditions in the seventy years after the famine, the return rate for Irish transatlantic migrants was the second lowest for all immigrant groups in the United States between 1908 and 1923. (4)

The westward flow of Irish men and women across the Atlantic created a reciprocal eastward traffic in correspondence and remittances. Letters from the Irish in America carried usually reliable information about current economic conditions back to Ireland, providing potential migrants with the latest news and advice about employment prospects in the United States. This responsiveness of transatlantic links became especially important during times of economic distress in the United States, reacting with "stop-and-go" fluctuations in volume and even in direction during the instabilities in the early 1860s, the middle 1870s, and the late 1890s. (5)

The counterflow of remittances and information from the United States to Ireland played a vital role in the lives of the Irish at home and abroad. Contemporary observers in the United States noted with amazement the large share of American earnings sent home, while accounts of rural life in Ireland described the vital role remittances from America played in the maintenance of the family farm. (6) In addition, the "American letter" linked expatriates with their families at home, providing the main connection to home in a system in which there were often severe societal strictures against permanent return to Ireland. (7)

Contrary to conventional understanding, the restrictions imposed on European immigration into the United States during the 1920s did not directly affect most Irish immigration. The National Origins System, established and modified by the Immigration Restriction Acts of 1921, 1924, and 1929, imposed numerical limits on each sending country. These caps adversely affected the "new immigration" from eastern and southern Europe, however, rather than those western and northern European countries of "old immigration." (8) Irish-American leaders exerted their influence successfully to secure a relatively generous allotment of visas to the Irish Free State. With an initial allotment of 28,567 slots annually through the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 reduced to 17,583 in 1929, the Irish demand for visas never exceeded the supply during the forty-year existence of the system. (9) Although the effect of the Immigration Restriction Acts has often been exaggerated to provide a monocausal explanation of the decline in transatlantic migration between Ireland and the United States, the new criteria for admission would eventually be overshadowed by long-term assimilative pressures and the calamitous event of the Great Depression. (10)

Changes in American immigration policy contributed to the sharp reductions in Irish inflow in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but these restrictions were of an administrative, not a political, character and stemmed from earlier laws. The two main operative clauses pertained to the issuance of American visas by consular officials. First, an immigration restriction bill passed by Congress in 1917 allowed for the assignment of American medical staff to overseas consulates in order to regularize the medical exams administered to visa applicants. Second, during the late 1920s the consular staff was instructed to apply a "Likely to Become a Public Charge" (LPC) test to reduce the number of indigent arrivals. Both clauses allowed for a considerable range of administrative discretion in their application, unlike the clear (albeit politically determined) caps established in the National Origins System.

According to the Dublin consular staff, the effect of the latter change in screening, the LPC clause, could be "neither so clearly expressed nor so easily measured" as the appointment of American medical examiners. The initial criterion used for this requirement in 1917 merely denied visas to Irish men and women who were not able to demonstrate that they had enough money to cover the cost of the transatlantic voyage. The Immigration Bureau workers classified almost three-fourths of all Irish visa holders as unskilled laborers or domestic servants, but less than one-half of one percent of them were turned back on account of the LPC clause. (11)

Economic instability in early 1929 brought further steps to increase the stringency of the LPC test, and officials now required migrants to show proof of material support or the necessary skills to guarantee self-sufficiency in the United States. Cornelius Ferris, the U.S. Consul General in the Irish Free State, admitted increasing reliance on the LPC clause for screening potential migrants during a June 1929 interview before the stock market crash. (12) A State Department circular explicitly spelled out the new, higher standard one year later. (13)

This reliance on administrative consular judgment rather than on congressional legislation set a precedent for American policy as the economic situation deteriorated in 1930. Unprecedented levels of joblessness forced even the most liberal opponents of restriction to yield, and the political debate shifted to the means of reducing inflow. Hard-line restrictionists pressed for reducing national quotas by 60 to 90 percent, and a proposal for a five-year moratorium on all non-relative immigration lost in a surprisingly close U.S. Senate vote, 37 to 29. Meanwhile, the erstwhile opponents of restriction contented themselves with an ad hoc approach through the tighter administrative enforcement of preexisting screening clauses, relying mainly on the LPC qualification. In the end this latter argument carried the day, as the first Democratic-majority Congress in fourteen years became preoccupied with matters of immediate and direct relief. (14)

Furthermore, the proponents of this ad hoc policy took steps to ensure that these new conditions remained temporary. The higher standard for the LPC qualification was explicitly tied to the high unemployment of "abnormal times, such as the present, where there is not any reasonable prospect of prompt employment for an alien laborer or artisan who comes hoping to get a job and live by it." (15) Instructions from Washington established a "waiting list" for prospective migrants who been denied visas because of the higher LPC standards, arranged by occupation in order to facilitate the process. (16)


The sharp drop in Irish inflow during the early years of the Great Depression followed a decade of challenges and changes for previous Irish migrants and their American-born offspring. Despite the resurgence of nativism during World War I and the early 1920s, the Irish-American middle-class continued to grow during the 1920s, building on the socioeconomic advance toward "respectability" during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. By the end of the decade the popular press recognized the pervasive effect of Irish-American influence in wider American culture--an achievement proudly celebrated by the Irish ethnic press. In part driven by xenophobic resistance to non-Anglocentric patriotism, as well as by expatriate disillusionment with the cause of Irish nationalism, their rise to prominence through the assertion of ethnic pluralism effected a change in outlook for many Irish Americans. Old World tenets gave way to New World motivations, and by the time the depression ended American experiences had taken a formative role in redefining Irish-American identity.

At the same time, American nativists targeted Irish Americans on a national basis in the years immediately after World War I. In the early 1920s anti-Irish Catholic sentiment expanded beyond its earlier provincial basis, as shown in the geographical incursions of the Ku Klux Klan. (17) Responding to these attacks, Irish Americans challenged the Anglocentric conception of American patriotism by emphasizing the immigrant experience as crucial in appreciating the land of opportunity. The Irish-American response redefined American patriotism with the assimilationist image of the "melting pot," although barriers to Irish-American assimilation or even acceptance remained strong among the upper classes throughout the decade. The incomplete nature of acceptance had long-term repercussions for Irish-Americans, fostering a sense of insecurity and often defensiveness among later generations. (18)

Soon after the end of World War I the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan strategically expanded their rhetoric of intolerance to include American Catholics in an attempt to attract members outside the Old South. As new chapters started up in northern and western states outside the old Confederacy, Klan leaders shifted their bigotry from racism to anti-Catholicism and xenophobia. The organization often garnered recruits in the major cities like Chicago (50,000 members at its peak), Detroit (35,000) and even seemingly Irish-dominated cities such as Philadelphia (35,000) and Boston (3,500). Over half of those enrolled in the postwar incarnation of the Klan came from metropolitan areas with more than fifty thousand residents, and about 32 percent lived in cities of over one hundred thousand people. In 1928 Hiram Evans, the imperial wizard of the Klan, boasted, "There is not a single eastern state where we do not have a strong and effective membership." (19) In contrast to the provincial night-riders of the Reconstruction era, Evans's Klan operated on a national scale, with the forty thousand marchers gathered in Washington, D.C., outnumbering any World War I parade.

Anti-Catholic prejudices also came in the form of several state attempts to close Catholic schools. Oregon passed the only compulsory public-school education measure in American history in 1922, with the Rev. James R. Johnson issuing sectarian threats: "I warn the Catholic church now, keep your dirty hands off the public schools." (20) Even for those Americans uninvolved in the parochial school debate, the backlash against Europe often included insinuations against, or open condemnations of, Catholicism. With the retrospective collapse of the American rationale for involvement in the war, disillusioned Americans condemned any "foreign entanglements" with Europe. Nativist attacks on Catholicism stressed the foreign nature of this religion, characterizing the Catholic church as "the Church of Rome" and characterizing American Catholics as subjects of a foreign head of state.

Irish Americans, particularly those striving to enter middle-class occupations, responded to such attacks on their loyalty with defensive public declarations of American patriotism, shying away from controversial organizations like the Clan na Gael and the Friends of Irish Freedom and instead emphasizing their ethnic identity through nonpolitical means. (21) Irish-American social and cultural groups consciously placed their members' Irish ethnicity in an explicitly American perspective. Assimilationist institutions such as the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick in Philadelphia and the American Irish Historical Society placed their nonideological emphasis on "affirming Irishness [in] a particular way, with [their] emphasis on charitable activities, inter-religious fraternity, and concern for Ireland's well-being." (22)

The Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) was among the most prominent of these Irish-American associations. The AOH took an active role in the broad consensus for Irish independence during the second and third Irish Race Conventions. After a split between Eamon de Valera and the editors of the Gaelic-American, however, the Hibernians tried to distance their organization from the increasingly fractious state of Irish republicanism, "lest the harsh discord be transmitted to our side of the ocean." (23) Instead the AOH redoubled its efforts to foster immigrant assimilation. The revised Hibernian constitution in 1923 pledged members "to uphold and sustain the loyalty to the government of the United States of America" before mentioning the general cause of Irish independence. It also restricted membership to American citizens and those involved in the naturalization process. (24) In his sermon at the opening mass of the 55th National AOH Convention in 1927, the Archbishop John J. Glennon of St. Louis, the national chaplain of the AOH, reasserted the Hibernian commitment to the United States:
   Here I am in an American city speaking to Americans whose memories,
   sometimes attenuated, may be of the Ireland of your forefathers, but today
   who claim, and justly so, their first love and their service to the land in
   which they live, and the nation of which they are honored citizens. Be it
   so! ... The struggle of the one nation parallels the struggle of the other,
   and ... the ideals of both are identical. (25)

As part of this attempt to redefine Irish-American identity within the context of the American ethnic melting pot, the celebration of Saint Patrick's Day gained new prominence, especially within the Irish-American ethnic press. In 1929 the Gaelic-American proclaimed the following in its coverage of festivities:
   Saint Patrick's Day, observed as the great racial holiday of the Irish race
   in America, has been practically taken over and adopted by the entire
   American people of all races, classes, and creeds.... The observance of
   Saint Patrick's Day is more general and widespread than that of some of our
   legal holidays ... [in contrast to] the numerous attempts to popularize
   Magna Carta Day in this country. (26)

J.W. Mason, a special correspondent to the Irish Advocate, went further in an open letter to the English press magnate Lord Beaverbrook, responding to allegations of sectarianism among Irish Americans. Mason proclaimed that "the hard political strife which formerly allowed itself in Ireland has not been carried into the Irish male of New York. Toleration has been the foremost principle for New York's Irish." (27) The New York Daily News took note of the new multi-ethnic character of the holiday with a description of the parade's audience: "Between lines of applauding citizens of English, Irish, Polish, Jewish, Swedish, Italian, and Russian extraction, the sturdy Sons of Saint Patrick swept up 5th Ave." The same article described the parade as uniquely American: "something that cannot be, nor has ever been duplicated in any other place in the world." (28)

Throughout all of these accounts Irish Americans tempered their ethnic pride in Ireland with American patriotism, as they defended themselves against xenophobia with an aggressively confident loyalty to the United States. This meant the aggrandizement of their adopted country in comparison to old Ireland, a stance that even influenced early academic works. In his 1932 book, Ireland and the Irish Emigration to the New World from 1815 to the Famine, William Adams imbued the story of Irish migration to the United States with a tone of Darwinian self-congratulation. Adams attributed Irish-American success in the face of Old World misfortune to the qualitative self-screening aspect of the migration process: "The superior development of the Irish in America suggests either that opportunity brought out the latent qualities of the race, or that America was getting the best Irish." (29)

Yet Irish expatriates also struggled with the special sacrifices required of Irish expatriates in the realization of American aspirations. In contrast to his satirical treatment of the professional Irish, Frank O'Malley's description of the ethnic cost of upward social mobility was poignant, verging on pathetic. Even if O'Malley challenged the veracity and sincerity of an Irish-American nationalist identity in the late 1920s, his account of the sacrifice of Irish Catholic ethnicity on the part of socially ambitious Irish Americans was far from liberating:
   These grueling, intense, quick climbs to the social register pages at which
   we Irish Americans are so adept call too for a unique and heroic trait of
   character that is unknown and necessary among American climbers of other
   blue bloods. In our struggle up the ladder we must leave behind us, even
   trampled savagely under foot, our earlier and most cherished prides. This
   sacrifice of ours is heartrending at times and always embarrassing. (30)

This sacrifice was made even worse, according to O'Malley, by the re-identification of the Irish Catholic climbers as they emulated their sectarian critics:
   So many of us financially--and therefore socially--successful in America go
   Scotch overnight because, I suppose, the Scotch route is an easy way
   out.... The Irish Catholics are so pitifully few on the top rungs of the
   ladder. The `pervert' McCartney, a Protestant, shins up the ladder much
   more quickly than his cousins, the McCarthys, of Saint Rose of Lima's
   parish. (31)


During the early 1930s, however, the Great Depression compounded the changes taking place within the transatlantic relationship between Ireland and the United States. Just as the assimilative forces in American society reached their peak, massive layoffs and bank closings severed the transatlantic migration and financial network in a catastrophic blow. The depression was particularly damaging in manufacturing and factory employment, on which many of the disproportionately urban Irish had come to rely. For the first time in the seventy years of postfamine migration, a steady flow of thousands of migrants recrossed the Atlantic as "Returned Yanks." The inflow of male and female workers from Ireland to the erstwhile "land of opportunity" almost completely disappeared, halting the resurgence of Irish immigration to the United States that had taken place after World War I.

The disruption caused by the depression also went far beyond the dramatic drop in net migration figures in the early 1930s. The loss of faith in American opportunity had traumatic sentimental effects for the Irish at home and abroad as well as economic repercussions. The prospect of a permanent return to Ireland was a dismal last resort for most Irish expatriates--an admission of failure that would marginalize them in their native society for decades. Those Irish migrants who did return usually carried the derogatory label of "Returned Yank" in their native country. This opprobrious identification often remained decades after their return to Ireland, as insinuations of failure in America often combined with the begrudgery of the initially spurned native society to deny full reacceptance into Irish society. The stigma of failure in America could not be hidden easily, as it was betrayed by Americanized accents, clothes, or phrases.

The return of thousands of economic refugees from the American Depression discouraged many prospective emigrants, embodying the human cost of failure in the United States. Contemporary commentators described worn-out returnees as "old people before their time," and many of the failed expatriates could not conceal their bitterness and dismay at the misleading image of the United States as a "land of opportunity." In November 1931, the Donegal Democrat mourned the arrival of failed Returned Yanks:
   Patriots foretold that a time would come when the exiles would come back to
   the motherland; they were only waiting for the dawn of freedom; then they
   would return. That day has arrived, but how very different from the one the
   prophets foretold. The wild geese are returning, but their footsteps are
   slow and their faces are haggard. They are here because they can no longer
   get bread or work in the land of their adoption. (32)

One returnee recounted having to walk the seventy miles from Dublin to his place of birth in Kilkenny after having arrived penniless back in Ireland. Another migrant who had lost his savings in an American bank collapse could not contain his bitterness: "He hates to talk about it, and he even hates the Yanks that come home. He said America ruined his life." The influx of return migrants, broken by their misfortunes in the United States, spread warnings of desperation and disillusionment, warning would-be transatlantic emigrants that the depression had killed American opportunity. (33)

The mounting economic hardships effectively cut Irish Americans off from friends and family in Ireland, including those people formerly dependent on remittances from the United States. Those failed migrants who remained too ashamed to return often cut off contact with family members back in Ireland because they were too embarrassed or guilty about their inability to meet their familial responsibilities. Even the Irish-American ethnic press vented exasperation at perceived recriminations from domestic Irish newspapers in its coverage of the disappearance of American opportunity.

By the early 1930s the depression had leveled the hopes of even the most responsible, prudent members of the Irish-American working and middle classes. Not only did cities cull their job rolls and industries close factories, but many of the families who had seemingly reached respectability over the previous twenty years lost their life savings with the widespread bank collapses. Labor unions, traditionally an important institution of upward mobility for many Irish-American workers, were quickly humbled and forced to accept wage cuts. Generations of hard work and saving came undone within a few years in a calamity from which many formerly ambitious migrants never fully recovered. (34)

Although the depression struck all American ethnic groups in the early 1930s, Irish Americans were among the hardest hit. Because of their overwhelming tendency to settle in American cities and rely on Irish-American support, Americans of Irish descent were particularly vulnerable. The traditional dispenser of public welfare, the urban political machine, proved inadequate in the face of declining revenues and widespread joblessness. Throughout the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries the vast majority of Irish migrants settled in the large cities in the northern and midwestern United States. Census figures from 1920 and 1930 show that 87 percent and 90 percent of all Irish-born men and women lived in urban environments, with 39 percent of all the Irish-born living in Boston, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, or San Francisco in 1920. (35) These migrants, most of who came from rural areas of Ireland, responded especially quickly to the calls to political participation issued by urban machines.

Irish immigrants who settled in large cities during this period were even likelier to become American citizens than earlier Irish arrivals, who traditionally had very high naturalization rates compared to other immigrant groups. According to the 1940 census, Irish-born men and women (from the twenty-six counties) were the likeliest to initiate naturalization proceedings of any foreign-born population in New York City. They were second only to those born in Northern Ireland in Boston and Chicago that same year. The Irish constituted the second smallest share of alien residents in Cleveland, the third smallest in Detroit, and the fourth in Philadelphia (where Northern Irish migrants had the smallest share of aliens). (36)

As urban budgets resumed their expansion after World War I, the machines had retained an indelible Irish-American character. The Tammany Hall-controlled leadership of New York City expanded the municipal budget by 125 percent between 1918 and 1932, and "sachems" (leaders of the Tammany organization, which had styled itself after Native American tribes when founded in 1789) channeled much of the money ($631 million in 1932) to Irish-American employees. The "American dream" for the Irish in the United States was a vision provided by public-sector employment, with over one-third of all Irish-American residents in the nation's fourteen largest cities making their living through patronage jobs. (37)

As the economic stagnation of the depression worsened in the early 1930s, however, the ensuing financial pressures forced urban decision-makers to cut municipal budgets radically. Urban real-estate values dropped by one-quarter through the early 1930s, and tax-delinquency rates more than tripled between 1929 and 1933. At the same time welfare costs mounted, consuming 25 percent of New York City's municipal outlays in 1933, up from a share of only 3 percent five years before. Caught between dropping revenues and rising welfare expenditure, politicians reluctantly turned to banking creditors who demanded retrenchment, most notably through deep cuts in municipal employment. In Chicago, Mayor Anton Cermak cut the number of city jobs by 10 percent over eighteen months and slashed salaries by one-fifth. The older political machines in cities like New York, Boston, and Worcester, Massachusetts, which had been the most Irish-friendly, were hurt the worst. Federal relief offered little respite to the old-time machine bosses. In President Hoover's Emergency Relief and Construction Act of 1932, only $3.5 million of the $300 million in federal loans trickled down to the municipal level. (38)

Even after Franklin D. Roosevelt started his New Deal spending, local and regional power-brokers like James Michael Curley in Boston found themselves ungratefully bypassed by their fellow Democrats. Instead, the president turned to his fellow Ivy Leaguers such as Harry Hopkins, a classmate of the president from Harvard. (39) To make matters worse, Curley's intransigence in resisting compromise with other Massachusetts elected officials, both as mayor and later as governor, meant that millions of dollars in federal relief went unclaimed. (40) Administrators drew Works Progress Administration districts purposefully to override congressional, county, urban, and ward district divisions. By the late 1930s it was apparent that urban politicians would have to abandon old-time ethnic loyalties in order to qualify for federal funds. According to the 1946 census, only 1 percent of all foreign-born workers was involved in public-relief projects, compared to 5 percent of native-born Americans. (41)

In contrast to the short-term panics of the late-nineteenth century, the depression maintained its hold on the American economy throughout the decade. American industries were still trying to recover as late as 1939, with lower levels of earned wages (22 percent), value of products (19 percent), and number of manual workers (11 percent) compared to the predepression levels of ten years before. (42) Mayor Maurice Tobin described the lasting effects to the Boston City Council in that same year in a succinct metaphor: "It's a quick ride down the toboggan chute, but it's a long way back." (43)

The survival of political machines usually rested on the amenability of federal supervisors. Chicago, for instance, where the Democratic machines evolved into a multi-ethnic organization, was rewarded with considerable patronage authority. There was a clear increase in the popular understanding of the responsibilities of the government, which could increasingly be met only by federal measures. (44) Edwin O'Connor focused on the correspondingly diminished stature of local-level power brokers, as illustrated in his thinly veiled account of James Michael Curley's career (with the main character, Skeffington, clearly modeled on Curley). O'Connor has a wizened politico explain this transition to Skeffington's nephew:
   The old boss was strong simply because he held all the cards. If anybody
   wanted anything--jobs, favors, cash--he could only go to the boss, the
   local leader. What Roosevelt did was to take the handouts out of local
   hands. A few little things like Social Security, Unemployment Insurance,
   and the like--that's what shifted gears, sport. No need now to depend on
   the boss for everything; the federal government was getting into the act.
   Otherwise known as a social revolution. (45)

The long-term effects of the depression struck with more poignancy on a personal level. Even when compared to the panics of the late-nineteenth century, the Great Depression of the 1930s was unparalleled in duration and scale, robbing a generation of working-class Americans of their ambition and confidence as workers and providers. An Irish immigrant who left Ireland for the United States in 1935 explained the permanence of the experience in an interview forty years after his arrival:
   One reason why I never got married, going through the horrible Depression
   and almost drowning to death myself, I couldn't see the responsibility of
   someone else.... I think the reason why I feel as I do is my upbringing, my
   childhood, what I went through when I came into this country--they left a
   scar. (46)

This dramatic fall in Irish-American fortunes had an immediate and lasting impact on the transatlantic relationship between Irish Americans and their ancestral homeland. Potential Irish immigrants could no longer rely on a large number of Irish-American sponsors to cover transportation costs and satisfy I.N.S. officials, as erstwhile sponsors tramped out of cities looking for work and could scarcely afford to set aside any money for remittances. In the mid-1920s such contributions had become a lifeline for most Irish migrants, accounting for approximately 95 percent of emigrants' fares in 1925 (47) Irish-American social and cultural organizations also succumbed to the economic desperation of the depression in the early 1930s. The gradual decline in AOH membership during the 1920s accelerated precipitously, and entire chapters folded all around the country.


The transatlantic lines of communication, which once related tales of unprecedented prosperity and the opportunity for economic and social advancement, now carried accounts of broken dreams and desperation. Irish-American newspapers made concerted efforts to dissuade would-be migrants. The Irish Advocate, 1 February 1930, warned prospective migrants to reconsider their decision to come to the United States:
   The United States has millions of unemployed, and if the Irish who go there
   are able to find work quickly and to get continual employment, they
   consider themselves very fortunate.... This is the great tragedy of Irish
   emigration; these young people learn in the hard school of experience that
   they have taken the wrong road [i.e., by migrating to the U.S.]. (48)

The Gaelic-American concurred, painting a desperate picture of the American situation:
   If such skeptics [in Ireland] would only visit New York or any other city
   or town in the United States, and see the long breadlines of hungry men and
   women seeking a meal, and the thousands of poorly clad people awaiting
   their turn to get into one of the free employment offices looking for
   people to work, they would have the ocular demonstration of the widespread
   misery and want now prevalent in America. They would then know that Ireland
   is not the worst place in the world to live in. (49)

Irish opinion soon caught on, agreeing with American commentators that transatlantic migration was "at best jumping from the frying pan into the fire." (50)

The number and size of remittances from the United States dropped rapidly in response to the depression. The postwar rise in Irish-American affluence helped to explain the steadily increasing remittances going to Ireland from 1925 to 1929. Nevertheless, the stock-market crash and the ensuing fallout brought about substantial reductions in the money sent back during the early 1930s. This amount continued to decline throughout the rest of the decade, until it fell to less than one-third of its peak predepression levels in 1939-40. (51)

The fallout was not just financial; there were serious breaches in the sentimental network between the Irish at home and Irish expatriates in the United States resulting from the inability of the latter to uphold their end of the unspoken bargain. Some of the early Irish accounts of decreasing remittances were mournful. As the Irish Independent predicted, "There will be a serious loss in the west, where the American letter is awaited with expectancy and hope on the eve of the Christmas season." (52) But the tone soon turned defensive, as Irish-American newspapers answered critical comments from Ireland, like those of the Dublin Leader, which wrote: "Our exports to the U.S.A.--the rhetorical `greater Ireland beyond the seas'--shrunk from, in round numbers, 85,000 [pounds sterling] in May 1930 to 15,000 [pounds sterling] in May 1931. Is it not 20 million of the Irish race that we are supposed to have, when oratory flows, in the U.S.A.?" (53) The Irish Advocate fired back at charges in the Leader that "the Irish in America are lost to us":
   We can say without fear of contradiction that the Irish in America are more
   loyal to their native land than any other nationality who come here in
   large numbers.... Their people at home expect too much from their exiled
   children, and so also do business, political, and religious organizations.
   To the many demands made, the bulk of the Irish are more generous and
   kindly disposed than any other people coming here. (54)

The interruption of the return flow of remittances and the news of vanishing opportunities completed the phasing out of a transatlantic strategy for Irish men and women at home wishing to depart for the United States. Irish net immigration to the United States remained almost negligible even after 1937, when American policy-makers discarded the more stringent standards put in place during the depression. (55) The image of Tir na nOg described by several generations of migrants was now relegated to the past by the Returned Yanks, sad tales of desperation and failed expectations.

Meanwhile, cross-channel migratory links between Ireland and Great Britain adapted to the interwar depression with geographic expansion and occupational diversification. The interwar economic malaise took a more gradual and regional form in Britain, with the decline of the so-called "sunset industries" of coal, iron and steel, shipbuilding, and cotton in western Scotland, Wales, and northern England. Yet this stagnation was matched by remarkable growth in the "sunrise industries" such as plastics, electronics, and automobiles, most of which were located in the midlands or the south of England. Free from familial and regional constraints on their mobility, Irish migrants developed auxiliary migration routes within Britain, moving south shortly after disembarking in erstwhile port destinations like Liverpool and Glasgow. This adaptation also involved a shift in migrant occupation away from customary jobs in the declining sunset industries. This entire process, often obscured by the anachronistic charges of nativists on the Clydeside and Merseyside, appeared in the more systematic reporting of several British parliamentary investigations. By the late 1930s, when American immigration restrictions were relaxed, the momentum had shifted within the Irish diaspora with the establishment of Irish-British networks that were to dominate the outflow of the late 1940s and 1950s. (56)


Over the last several decades the study of Irish migration has moved away from a split perspective on push and pull factors. This new emphasis on migration networks has carried great conceptual promise, allowing for a more comprehensive approach that preserves the unitary nature of the migration experience. Kevin Kenny's account of the transatlantic roots of the Molly Maguires has joined other master works such as Kerby Miller's Emigrants and Exiles, illuminating the way in which expatriate networks sought to integrate the experiences of the New World with their Irish backgrounds. (57)

Yet, little work has been done on the role of such networks after the very early-twentieth century, as if these once-taut connections merely slackened in the decades after World War I. The sharp edge of economic desperation struck hard at these diasporic cords, sending thousands of Irish-born men and women reeling into the desperate circumstances of the Great Depression. When they emerged in the late 1930s, their national identities had been primarily fastened to a new mooring--an indigenous American identity that offered the security of the New Deal. This process did not permanently sever the connections between Ireland and Irish America in the twentieth century; affinities between Irish Americans and their ancestral homeland continue to this day. Nonetheless, the Great Depression cut deeply into the postfamine transatlantic network between Ireland and the United States. When expatriates renewed connections between the United States and Ireland later in the century, the continuing lapse in migration and reduced remittances attested to the slackness of these postdepression ties. Irish-American identity had changed from an immigrant nationality to an ethnic identification.

(1) Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 555. In a departure from the norm, Kevin Kenny's The American Irish: A History (New York and London: Longman, 2000) devotes two chapters to the twentieth century.

(2) Patrick J. Blessing, "Irish Emigration to the United States, 1800-1920: An Overview," in P.J. Drudy, ed., The Irish in America: Emigration, Assimilation and Impact. Irish Studies, no. 4 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 31; Stephan Thernstrom, ed., Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1980), s.v., "The Irish," by Patrick J. Blessing.

(3) Ministry of Social Welfare, Report of the Commission on Emigration and Other Population Problems (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1954), 309-11.

(4) Mark Wyman, Round-Trip to America: The Immigrants Return to Europe, 1880-1930 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993), II.

(5) David Fitzpatrick, Irish Emigration, 1801-1921 (Dublin: Dundalgan Press, 1984), 26.

(6) "There is hardly a family in the West of Ireland that does not receive regular remittances from America." Louis F.A. Paul-Dubois, Contemporary Ireland (Dublin: Maunsel and Co., 1911), 305.

(7) Conrad M. Arensberg and Solon T. Kimball, Family and Community in Ireland, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968).

(8) Henry Gemery, "Immigrants and Emigrants: International Migration and the United States Labor Market in the Great Depression," in Timothy J. Hatton and Jeffrey G. Williamson, eds., Migration and the International Labor Market: 1850-1939 (New York: Routledge, 1994).

(9) Robert Divine, American Immigration Policy, 1924-1952 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1957), 30-32.

(10) Congress passed several other restrictions during the depression, such as the Jenkins Act, which temporarily cut national origins quotas to 10 percent of their previous size. "New Bill Will Serve as a Check on Immigrants," Irish World and American Industrial Liberator, 28 February 1931.

(11) U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Immigration, "Aliens Debarred from Entering the United States, by Race or People, Causes and Sex" (Table 53 in 1925, 45 in 1926, 47 in 1927, 48 in 1932), U.S. Bureau of Immigration, Annual Reports of the Commissioner General of Immigration, 1925, 1927, and 1932 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1926, 1928, and 1933); U.S. Department of State, John Corrigan, Jr., American Consul, 1 December 1926 (approved by Charles M. Hathaway, Jr., American Consul General, Dublin), "Subject Correspondence, 1906-1932," R.G. 84, National Archives and Record Administration (hereafter NARA).

(12) "Low Emigration from Ireland; Last Year It Fell Below the Quota," New York Gaelic-American, 29 June 1929, 7; Gemery, "Immigrants and Emigrants," 179.

(13) U.S. Department of State, 15 September 1930, Diplomatic Serial No. 992, Records of Foreign Service Posts, Diplomatic Posts, Eire (Ireland), Vol. 9, American Legation, 1929, R.G. 84, NARA.

(14) U.S. Department of State, Letter, 8 September 1930. Diplomatic Serial No. 992, Records of Foreign Service Posts, Diplomatic Posts, Eire (Ireland), Vol. 9, American Legation, 1929, R.G. 84, NARA.

(15) U.S. Department of State letter, 15 September 1930, NARA.

(16) Ibid.

(17) The Klan's antipathy toward Irish Catholics was predominantly sectarian in nature. A large share of Klan membership was made up of Irish-American Protestants (or self-described "Scots-Irish"). In fact, the Ku Klux Klan attempted to enroll foreign-born Protestants from northern Europe in an associated organization known as the "Royal Riders of the Red Robe." Wyman, Round. Trip to America, 121.

(18) For a self-critical view of Irish America in the early twentieth century, see Frank Ward O'Malley, "American Sons of th'Ould Sod," American Mercury 18 (1929), 25-32. See also Stephan Birmingham, Real Lace: America's Irish Rich (New York: Harper and Row, 1973); Andrew Greeley, That Most Distressful Nation (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1972); Marjorie Fallows, Irish Americans: Identity and Assimilation (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979).

(19) Kenneth T. Jackson, The Ku Klux Klan in the City: 1915-1930 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 184, 236.

(20) Ibid., 200.

(21) The growth of an Irish-American middle-class in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries was particularly important for Irish-America apologists. See J.W. Mason, "English Newspaper on New York Irish," Brooklyn Irish Advocate, 14 June 1930, 4.

(22) Dennis Clark, Erin's Heirs: Irish Bonds of Community (Lexington, Ky.: University of Kentucky, 1991), 35; "What the Irish Have Done in the Building of the United States," Irish World and American Industrial Liberator, 14 February 1931, 3, 5.

(23) "Hibernians Neutral in Fight on Ireland," New York Times, 7 August 1922, 3. For more information on the schism between de Valera and Cohalan and Devoy, see the hagiographic David Hogan (pseud.), The Four Glorious Years (Dublin: Irish Press, 1953); Patrick McCartan, With De Valera in America (New York: Brentano, 1932); Marie Veronica Tarpey, The Role of Joseph McGarrity in the Struggle for Irish Independence (New York: Arno Books, 1976).

(24) Constitution of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in America (Revised and Adopted at the National Convention held in Montreal, Canada, 17 to 21 July 1923) (Chicago: J.S. Hyland and Co., 1923).

(25) Proceedings of the Ancient Order of Hibernians 55th National Convention, 1927 (Buffalo, New York, 19 to 20 July 1927)(Chicago: J.S. Hyland and Co., 1927), 10.

(26) "Saint Patrick's Day Has Become Largely American Holiday," Gaelic-American, 16 March 1929, 1.

(27) "English Newspaper on New York Irish," J.W. Mason, Irish Advocate, 14 June 1930.

(28) "Saint Patrick's Day is Observed as an American Holiday," Gaelic-American, 8 February 1930, 2.

(29) William Adams, Ireland and the Irish Emigration to the New World from 1815 to the Famine (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1932), 95.

(30) O'Malley, "American Sons of th'Ould Sod," 30.

(31) Ibid., 32.

(32) Donegal Democrat, 7 November 1931, qtd. in "Notes of the Week: Conditions in Ireland Now and in the Past," Irish Advocate, 14 November 1931, 4.

(33) Wyman, Round-Trip to America, 84.

(34) Stephan Thernstrom, The Other Bostonians: Poverty and Progress in the American Metropolis, 1880-1970 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973), 70; Fallows, The Irish Americans, 86, 116; Charles Trout, Boston, the Great Depression and the New Deal (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977)

(35) U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Sixteenth Census of the United States: 1940, Nativity and Parentage of the White Population: Country of Origin of the Foreign Stock, by Nativity, Citizenship, Age, and Value or Rent of Home, for States and Large Cities (Washington, D.C.: Government Publications Office, 1943), Table 3: "Nativity and Parent-age of the Foreign-Born White Stock, by Country of Origin and Sex, for the United States, Urban and Rural: 1940 and 1930," 12-18; U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Fourteenth Census of the United States, Taken in the Year 1920, Volume II: Population, General Report and Analytical Tables (Washington, D.C.: Government Publications Office, 1922), Table 12: "Country of Birth of the Foreign-Born Population for Cities Having 100,000 Inhabitants or Over: 1920," 729-31.

(36) U.S. Census, 1940, Table 11: "Nativity and Parentage of the Foreign-Born White Stock, by Country of Origin, for Cities with 50,000 or more Foreign-Born White, 1940," 76-80.

(37) Stephen J. Erie, Rainbow's End: Irish Americans and the Dilemmas of Urban Machine Politics, 1840-1985 (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1988), 5, 111.

(38) Ibid., 113.

(39) Trout, Boston, the Great Depression and the New Deal, 134-43.

(40) Ibid., 143-71.

(41) D.S. Howard, The Works Progress Administration and Federal Relief Policy (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1943), cited in Gemery, "Immigrants and Emigrants," 187.

(42) Trout, Boston, the Great Depression and the New Deal, 252.

(43) Ibid., 252.

(44) The effect of Roosevelt's New Deal on urban political machines remains at the center of a long-running historiographical debate. For several decades the standard explanation of the New Deal and the demise of urban machines came from Edwin O'Connor's thinly veiled biography of James Michael Curley, The Last Hurrah (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1956). Erie's Rainbow's End revised this monocausal explanation, pointing out the anomalous nature of Curley's organization in Boston and concentrating on the long-term problems for machines that predated the depression, as well as their survival after the depression. For a more developed case-by-case analysis of the New Deal administration and six different urban machines, see Lyle Dorsett, Franklin Roosevelt and the Urban Bosses (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1977). David M. Kennedy also marshaled an effective, if necessarily brief, array of evidence to contradict Edwin O'Connor's "Last Hurrah" thesis in his recent treatment of the American Depression, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), Vol. IX of C. Vann Woodward, ed., The Oxford History of the United States, 253. See also Trout, Boston, the Great Depression and the New Deal, 279, 315; Joseph O'Grady, How the Irish Became American (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1973), 149-50; George Reidy, From the Ward to the White House: The Irish in American Politics (New York: Scribner's, 1991), 157-60; Ronald H. Bayor, Neighbors in Conflict: The Irish, Germans, Jews, and Italians of New York City, 1929-1941, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 30-46; Frederick M. Binder and David M. Reimers, All the Nations Under Heaven: An Ethnic and Racial History of New York City (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 182-84; Melvin G. Holli and Peter d'A Jones, eds., Ethnic Chicago: Revised and Expanded (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), 435-44, 454-55.

(45) O'Connor, The Last Hurrah, 374.

(46) Fallows, Irish Americans: Identity and Assimilation, 86.

(47) R.C. Geary, "The Future Population of the Saorstat Eireann," Journal of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland (J.S.S.I.S.I.) 15 (1935-36), 24.

(48) "The Drain of Irish Emigration," Irish Advocate, 1 February 1930, 4.

(49) "Glenbeigh and Glencar Not Forgotten by the Irish Exiles," Gaelic-American, 24 January 1931.

(50) "What the Dublin Leader Says," Irish Advocate, 28 February 1931, 4.

(51) Department of Industry and Commerce, Irish Free State, Table 177. "Number and Value of Money Orders issued in certain countries for payment in Eire, in each year ended 31st March, 1932-33 to 1939-40," Irish Free State Statistical Abstract, 1941 (Dublin: The Stationery Office, 1941), 146.

(52) "Slump in Christmas Gifts from America Foreseen," Irish Advocate, 13 December 1930, 1.

(53) "What the Dublin Leader Says," Irish Advocate, 8 August 1931, 4.

(54) Irish Advocate, 14 March 1929, 4.

(55) U.S. Department of State, "Visa Instruction--Repatriated Aliens," to Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State, Ireland, Cork Consulate-General Records, 1936-46: 1938, Correspondence, American Consulate Cork, 1938, Diplomatic Serial No. 2917, 16 March 1938, R.G. 84, NARA.

(56) For more information on interwar cross-channel migration, see Report of the Inter. departmental Committee on Migration to Great Britain from the Irish Free State (London: United Kingdom Stationery Office, 1939); Stephen J. Fielding, Class and Ethnicity: Irish Catholics in England, 1880-1939 (Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1993); Viscount Astor, A.M. Carr-Saunders, G.D.H. Cole, L.F. Ellis, and Christopher Turner, Economic Advisory Council, Committee on Empire Migration Report (London: HMSO, 1932); R.S. Walshaw, Migration to and from Merseyside: Home, Irish, Overseas, New Merseyside Series #7 (University of Liverpool, Social Science Department: Statistics Division, 1938); Bronwen Walter, "Time-Space Patterns of Second-Wave Irish Immigration into British Towns," Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series (1980), 5; P.J. Waller, Democracy and Sectarianism: A Political and Social History of Liverpool 1868-1939 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1981).

(57) Kevin Kenny, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998); Miller, Emigrants and Exiles.

MATTHEW J. O'BRIEN recently earned a Ph.D. in History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His dissertation compares networks of Irish migration to Great Britain and the United States since 1920. He has also written on the transition from "immigrants" to "ethnics" for Polish and Irish Americans after World War I. O'Brien is now planning research on Irish migration and national identity during the late-twentieth century, as well as further study of transatlantic networks and American ethnicity.
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Author:O'Brien, Matthew J.
Publication:Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies
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Date:Mar 22, 2002
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