Historian Says Chicago Had Ingredients for Irish Success

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), March 17, 1997 | Go to article overview

Historian Says Chicago Had Ingredients for Irish Success


Today's the day everyone's a little bit Irish

When it comes to being Irish in not only America, but specifically in Chicago, Larry McCaffrey's certainly someone to listen to.

In honor of St. Patrick's Day today, the Daily Herald spoke with McCaffrey, one of the Midwest's leading authors on the Irish in America and the Irish experience in Chicago.

McCaffrey taught Irish and Irish-American history at Loyola University from 1970 until he retired in 1991. He is the author or co-author of 11 books, including "The Irish in Chicago" and "The Irish Diaspora in America," which is being re-issued next year. He is one of the experts that will be seen in a new six-part PBS series on the Irish in America, set to air in October

Professor Larry McCaffrey taught Irish and Irish-American history at Loyola University from 1970 until he retired in 1991. He is the author or co-author of 11 books, including "The Irish in Chicago," 1987, and "The Irish Diaspora in America," being re-issued next year. He is one of the experts that will be seen in a new six-part PBS series on the Irish in America, set to air in October.

Q: Everybody knows about the South Side Irish. Where else did they settle?

A: There were Irish communities on the West Side - the old Austin neighborhood was heavily Irish. Those people moved west into Oak Park and River Forest. On the North Side, there were quite a few in Rogers Park, which was half-Irish, half-Jewish. North Side Irish also settled around Wrigley Field.

Bridgeport became the base for the South Side Irish; Adams and Des Plaines became the base for the West Side Irish. St. Patrick's parish was the mother parish.

Gradually they spread out from their settlements. But in 1950, the Irish were 20 percent of the Chicago population.

Q: What about the suburbs?

A: Most of the Irish now live in the suburbs - all over the place and nowhere in particular. Only about 7 percent of the population of Chicago is Irish now. You'd think it is more because they still are so prominent in politics.

Q: Why politics?

A: It's the only skill they brought with them. The first Irish to immigrate were peasant farmers and not very good ones - they settled in the cities instead of the country. Most Irish farms were no more than 5 acres in size, so they didn't have the skills for large scale American farming. Agriculture in Ireland was much more a way of life than an economy.

So they did unskilled work. They formed the first ghettoes - people hated Catholics so that forced the Irish into ghettoes.

Q: There was rather a flood of Irish immigrants last century, wasn't there?

A: Percent-wise, Ireland sent more people to America than any other country. From 1820 to the present more than 5 million came. They first came as canal diggers in 1836; they laid railroad tracks, worked in textile factories. Most came from County Cork. They were one of the two great ethnic groups that came to Chicago, Germans being the other.

Q: But there's been a "watering down" of purely Irish people?

A: Ghetto-ization in Chicago was different than in Boston and New York. No neighborhood was totally Irish, there was always a mixture, mostly with the Germans. There were a lot of marriages between the Irish and the Germans, for example.

Q: Are the Irish still coming to Chicago?

A: It slowed in the 1920s because of the immigration laws, then later because of the Depression. It was right after World War I, too, which affected immigration. There are very few Irish who come to America these days, although there are still a lot of illegals.

Q: Illegals?

A: Many of those illegals are highly educated but they're tending bar, etc. …

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