`Irish in America' Depicts Feisty Spirit of Endurance: A&E Program Traces Immigration, Struggles against Bias

By Butters, Patrick | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 16, 1997 | Go to article overview

`Irish in America' Depicts Feisty Spirit of Endurance: A&E Program Traces Immigration, Struggles against Bias


Butters, Patrick, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Any true Irish - if he or she has any sense of humor - can appreciate the origins behind the term "paddy wagon." Around the turn of the century, most New York City cops were Irishers, so chances are the driver of the arresting wagon was named Paddy.

Most of the wagon's Guinness-swilling inhabitants were named Paddy as well.

Tonight the A&E Television Network presents such nuggets in "The Irish in America," a two-hour documentary starting at 8.

Let's get the minor flaws out of the way first. For some reason, many of these documentaries strain to copy filmmaker Ken Burns' laudable works, though even those have their own problems. Such copy attempts are not necessary. "Irish in America" fails in its production values, from its titling, awkward editing and "dramatic reenactments."

But it succeeds in its taut, informative writing; sharply colorful landscape shots; and ability to convey the content of its subjects' character. The script is virtually flawless, providing insight not only into the hatred and prejudice that the Irish endured - cartoons painted them as monkeylike leprechauns - but also into their endurance, as they held on to those great American virtues: hard work and perseverance.

Irish-American heartthrob Aidan Quinn's narration proves to be a keystone. His understated delivery alternates between haunting catatonia and biting, lilting wit. The timing of this event reaches beyond tomorrow's celebration. The hoopla surrounding St. Patrick's Day, the film points out, is a uniquely American phenomenon. (The first parade was in 1779.) In Ireland, families go to Mass and enjoy the company of their friends. Irish natives will tell you that the bars are busy but nobody wears green, or dumb T-shirts that say, "Kiss me, I'm Irish."

Here in the United States, amateurs and regulars alike pack the Irish bars - in this area pubs such as Murphy's in the District and Alexandria, the Dubliner, the Old Brogue and Nanny O'Brien's. New York and Boston have blowouts, and Savannah, Ga., turns its river green. How fitting, though. As the documentary points out, Irish immigrants have become one of the most fervently patriotic of America's diverse entities.

For once, this is an Irish-American documentary that doesn't focus on the most famous president linked to Ireland, John F. Kennedy. Instead, it underscores the impact of Old Hickory, Andrew Jackson - a son of Irish immigrants who was born in South Carolina in 1767 and was elected our seventh president in 1828.

Jackson was the quintessential Irishman: He talked with his fists and spoke later. He was the first president to face an assassination attempt - and when the assailant's pistols misfired, Jackson responded by mercilessly beating the gunman with his cane.

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