In 1938, John Danaher of Connecticut became the first Irish Catholic elected to the U.S. Senate as a Republican. When word got out that Danaher had joined the GOP, one Irish grandmother was incredulous: “It can’t be true. I saw him at Mass just last Sunday!”
For most Americans, St. Patrick’s Day is a chance to pretend to be from the South End of Boston. This is hard for a Republican to do. The Boston Irish have one of the most impressive and inspiring political traditions in American history, and the GOP can’t claim any of it.
But did things have to be that way? Were the Irish always destined to find their home in the Democratic party, or was it that the GOP passed up the chances it had to win them over?
In the middle of the 19th century — and Irish allegiance to the Democrats does go back that far — Boston politics were dominated by the tension between native-born Brahmins and immigrant Irish, whose numbers were increasing rapidly, especially after the Great Famine of 1845. Native Protestants feared that the influx of unskilled workers would bankrupt the city’s public-assistance programs and turn the neighborhoods where they settled into slums. Anti-Catholicism gave Protestant nativism a veneer of intellectual justification: Even leaving aside the problem of dual loyalties, they argued, Catholic doctrine is incompatible with the democratic virtues of self-reliance, independence, and freedom of thought.
Anti-immigrant sentiment became so virulent that in 1860 Abraham Lincoln accused Massachusetts Republicans — many of whom had been members of the Know-Nothing party only a few years earlier — of “tilting at foreigners” and undermining Republican support among German immigrants in the West.
Even without its nativist hostility, the Republican party of the 19th century would have been a bad fit for the Boston Irish: It was too liberal. Boston Republicans stood for nativism, but they also stood for social-reform movements such as temperance, which the Irish saw as an attack on saloon culture. Pubs were the heart of Boston’s political machines, as well as a place where young men could go to hear about jobs. Abolitionism, another Republican issue, seemed to the Irish like hypocrisy: How could Republicans be so concerned with the plight of Southern slaves while so indifferent to the white immigrants suffering on their own doorstep?
Jack Beatty summed up Irish opposition to radical social reforms in his biography of Boston machine politician James Michael Curley: “To the Irish, pessimists by history and religion alike, such meliorism was impious, a prideful tinkering with a Creation that it was the task of humankind to accept, not set right.” Militant abolitionism, temperance, and women’s rights all sounded too utopian to the Irish ear.
No one could blame today’s Republican party for regarding the Boston Irish as a lost cause. But there have been several moments in the last century when Republicans could have made inroads among these conservative Democrats.
The Cold War was the GOP’s first opportunity. The New England Irish were firmly anti-Communist, due in no small part to the Catholic Church’s influence on their political culture. They embraced Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade in spite of the senator’s party affiliation. When Pat Moynihan entertained the idea of challenging Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential primaries, one important reason was his disdain for Carter’s weak foreign policy.