Class and Catholic Irish Masculinity in Antebellum America:
Young Men on the Make in Chicago.
By M. Anastasia
Patricia Kelleher is an adjunct senior lecturer in History. She obtained her PhD at the University College of Dublin on the subject The Dynamic of power of an Irish Economic Elite. Her on-going research interests centre on marginalized communities and theirsocial exclusion and she has published a lot in this area.
Her article, Class and Catholic Irish Masculinity in Antebellum America: Young Men on the Make in Chicago, presents us the difficulty for young Catholic Irish men to find their place in the middle-class of the decades before the Civil War. By focusing on two young man, James A. Mulligan, “an extraordinary individual who enjoyed manyadvantages” and William J. Onahan, “a driven and reasonably talented person”, she shows us the complex social dynamics of antebellum Chicago, and the different strategies for these men to achieve success. By choosing to focus on these two, she traces the evolution of class during that period, and highlights the predominance of ethnicity.
It was published in the 4th number of the volume 28 of theJournal of American Ethnic History which was centered on the Irish immigration and ethnic history.
This theme is not particularly original, neither are the sources. Many works has been published about the migration of Irish to the United States for the last decades such as Making the Irish American: History and Heritage of the Irish in the United States by M. Casey and J.J. Lee or Inventing IrishAmerica: generation, class and ethnic identity in a New England City, 1880-1928 by Timothy Meagher. Since she focused her works on two young educated middle class men, the sources she used are diaries, letters, memoirs and newspaper articles which are not an innovation either. The interest of this article lays in the precision of the subject. She chose to study the American middle class but byfocusing on the Irish one in America, more precisely by the gambit of two young men and for a very special period, before the Civil war. Her article gives us a kind of moving picture of what was the society at the time, what difficulty it brought to ambitious immigrants who wanted to climb the social ladder, their strategies and how they evolved.
The article starts with a quick presentation ofthe working class and precisely of the wage-earning men’s style of masculinity which are labeled as “modern” against “traditional” or “respectable” against “rough”… It’s on that rough culture that she focuses. Its members valued behaviors such as drinking, fighting, gambling, visiting brothels, being aggressive… They are exactly the reference that men like Mulligan or Onahan must not follow toachieve their goals, even more since this style of masculinity was more and more seen as typically “Irish”.
But despite that simplistic vision, British and German immigrants were also part of that culture, as Americans themselves. Moreover, the stereotype identified that lifestyle with unskilled Irish wage-earners while in fact, most of the rough culture members weren’t unskilled and many were noteven Irish. But that biased view was fuelled by the facts that a lot of Catholic Irishmen were doing low-paying and hard works. And due to their impoverished background and cultural traditions, they often relied on the mutual support of fellow countrymen. Furthermore, Irishmen were known to be combative. They used violence to have access to job or to defend their culture.
Because of the realaffiliation of many working class Irishmen, the whole Irish community was, in the general opinion, linked to the image of poverty, drinking, ignorance and violence and it threatened the efforts of ambitious Irish Catholic like Mulligan. Indeed, in 1850, 57 percent of the Irish immigrants were unskilled workers for 13 percent of the native-born men and only 15 percent were “white collars” for 50...
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