Irish & Italians, rivals & allies: A St. Patrick’s Day appreciation of how, over time, two New York City immigrant populations learned to get along

—Paul Moses

[This piece originally appeared in New York Daily News.]

When the nation’s foreign-born population peaked in 1890 at nearly 15%, New York’s Irish were angry that so many Italian immigrants were crowding into the city.

The reason for their anger was that Italian newcomers were willing to work for less money and longer hours than the already-established Irish. As the economy soured in the 1890s, fights between crews of Irish and Italian laborers became so frequent that the Brooklyn Eagle headlined an editorial, “Can’t They Be Separated?”

St. Patrick’s Day is a perfect time to remember that these two immigrant groups — who did as much as any others to create the city we know and love — eventually came together and even intermarried on a large scale. As the Irish got to know the Italians, it turned out they quite liked each other.

That was the case even for bushy-mustached Terence Powderly, a son of Irish immigrants who used his roles as a powerful union leader and then as U.S. immigration commissioner at the turn of the century to try to keep Italians out.

Powderly’s version of Donald Trump’s wall was to push to require new immigrants to speak “the American language.”

And yet he saw the Italians in a new light when he visited their country. “I learned to know these people by breaking bread with them,” he wrote. “We have not done our duty by ourselves or by our country in not getting close enough to our immigrants to hear their heartbeats. If we thought they were wrong we could not set them right by remaining aloof from them.”

When I researched a history of New York’s Irish and Italians, I found many examples of Irish-Americans who learned to reach out to the Italians despite the ingrained animosity between the two groups.

New York’s Archbishop Michael Corrigan wasn’t pleased in 1884 when Italian churchmen in the Vatican leaned on the mostly Irish bishops in the United States to do more for impoverished immigrants from Italy. His reaction was that they didn’t deserve any special treatment.

When Mother Frances X. Cabrini arrived from Italy to help New York’s struggling Italian immigrants, she met a testy Corrigan on her first full day in town. Since arrangements for her work and housing had fallen through, Corrigan told her to go back to Italy. Fortunately, the future saint refused.

But Corrigan came around; Cabrini became a supportive confidant. The archbishop, a son of Irish immigrants, overcame his initial qualms and worked hard to build many new churches for the Italians and other immigrant groups.

There was James Connolly, an Irishman who learned Italian so that he could recruit Italian immigrant workers into the labor movement. One of Ireland’s most revered patriots, Connolly returned to his homeland to help lead the Easter Rising a century ago.

There was Msgr. Michael Lavelle, a son of Irish immigrants and rector of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. King Victor Emmanuel awarded him the Knighthood of the Crown of Italy for his work with Italian immigrants.

In one shining moment, he cut through the slander that Italians were prone to crime as he spoke at the funeral of hero cop Joseph Petrosino in 1909. He said the Italian-born detective’s slaying while on a mission to Sicily should teach Americans “the debt and the love that we owe to these strangers on our shores, so that we may not discriminate. Let us make everyone as welcome in our hearts as they are under our flag.”

To be sure, animosity between the Irish and Italians would continue for decades. It led to many a brawl, and to rivalry in politics, the Civil Service, unions, crime and the church. That’s a big part of the Irish-Italian story, but it’s not the whole story.

Irish-American politicians and Irish-dominated organizations such as the Knights of Columbus and the Catholic Church fought hard against the anti-immigrant fervor of the 1920s.

As the movie “Brooklyn” showed adeptly, many barriers between the Irish and Italians fell away in the years after World War II through romance. Today, the rivalry is mostly a matter of humor.

Nowadays, the percentage of foreign-born residents is edging toward the 1890 peak and will likely surpass it. In New York City, 37% of all residents are born elsewhere; 60% are immigrants or the children of immigrants. The fear of that trend seems to grow with every passing day of the presidential campaign.

The issue of immigration is not an easy one, and it never was. It involves livelihoods, especially for those working at low-wage jobs.

Yet the New York story tells the nation that the kind of fear and anger it is experiencing now can be overcome. It’s another reason to celebrate this St. Patrick’s Day — the day when, it is said, everyone is Irish.

Paul Moses is Professor of Journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY and former city editor of Newsday, where he was the lead writer for a team that won the Pulitzer Prize. He is author of An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015).

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