Photo: Contributed / Courtesy Of University Of New Haven
WEST HAVEN — For those who didn’t live through it, it can be an eye-opener to see how Irish Americans were portrayed in the media and popular culture during the 1800s and early 1900s.
A new book by University of New Haven Associate Professor of English Christopher Dowd traces the historical confluence of what at that time was unprecedented Irish immigration and the birth of American popular culture — and shows how perceptions changed over time.
It was a time when hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants poured in to the United States, fleeing the Irish Potato Famine — also known as the “Great Hunger” — during which roughly 1 million Irish people died from starvation and related causes.
Another million were forced to leave their homeland as refugees, with many coming to New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, New Haven, Bridgeport, Hartford and other American cities.
But as they continued to arrive in the United States, Irish immigrants often were portrayed as dirty, even ape-like, uncivilized creatures that were out for mischief or somehow up to no good, says Dowd, author of “The Irish and the Origins of American Popular Culture.”
The book, published by Routledge Studies in Cultural History, came out on Feb. 22.
It can be easy to forget those stereotypes as wave after wave of new immigrants arrive — and as the passage of time and their sheer numbers make it hard to imagine an America without Irish Americans.
It might not be all that unfamiliar, however, when viewed in context of how today’s new arrivals from other countries often are portrayed.
But somewhere along the way, as Irish immigration swelled and Irish immigrants became leaders (even a president) — and in many cases heroes — in pursuits such as sports and entertainment, as well as business, the majority’s view of Irish Americans changed.
Irish Americans assimilated — while keeping their culture and identity distinct. Their story became part of the American story, and St. Patrick’s Day, which we celebrate Saturday, somehow became a day when “everybody has a little Irish in them.”
All those Irish immigrants —”really, the first immigation wave on that scale” — arrived at the same time the country “was trying to determine,” in the wake of the Civil War, “what does it mean to be an American,” said Dowd, chairman of the University of New Haven English Department, in an interview this week.
Irish people also began arriving at a time when such new cultural phenomenons as the three-ring circus, “Wild West” shows and the vaudeville circuit were beginning to flourish, made possible by the rise of railroads and corporations, Dowd said.
Irish immigrants also arrived, as it turned out, during the early days of the professionalization of sports — and some of the new arrivals became early stars of both professional boxing and the newly organized professional baseball leagues.
After initially being the subjects of disparaging stereotypes, Irish Americans found ways into America’s collective heart, said Dowd.
“Popular culture became a way for the Irish to gain access to the American mainstream,” Dowd said. “Early on, baseball was dominated by Irish players” — and that brought broader acceptance, he said.
Looking at it historically, “you see popular culture changing the way the Irish were portrayed,” Dowd said.
“If you look early, in the 1860s and 1870s, the Irish were portrayed very negatively … but then you see the popular culture turning, toward the turn of the century, toward more positive portrayals of Irish culture,” he said.
In early political cartoons, “the Irish were always drawn as these ape-like creatures, these ‘ape men,’ unshaven, with their features dirty,” Dowd said. “In a lot of the early comic strips … you see these visual references to Irish stereotypes.”
But while those visual references persisted well into the 20th Century, as time went on, “the (Irish) characters themselves, such as Dick Tracy, were not negative,” he said.
In much later years, such cartoon characters as Fred Flintstone and Homer Simpson were drawn with a similar look, but by then the negative connotations were gone, Dowd said.
Dowd said he got started on “The Irish and the Origins of American Popular Culture” book while doing research for an earlier book on Irish-American literature that focused on authors such as Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In doing the first book, he found references to characters such as pulp fiction hero Conan the Barbarian, Typhoid Mary and Diamond Jim Brady.
He found that circus pioneer P.T. Barnum “supported the Irish, but he also had some prejudices against the Irish,” Dowd said.
In fact, “lots of early circus performers were Irish” back at a time when being Irish was an exotic thing, he said.
There was Patrick O’Brien, “The Irish Giant,” as well as “The Human Skeleton,” who also was an Irish figure, Dowd said.
So for the latest book, “I looked at how being Irish was used to exoticize the characters,” he said.
The circus world was full of characters such as “The Irish Giant” or “The Irish Dwarf,” Dowd said.
Some weren’t even Irish, but were billed that way “to make them a more marketable commodity,” he said.
Dowd said the book took him about two concentrated years to write, although he started working on some of it about four years ago and was collecting information on things that ultimately became part of it for up to 10 years.
“Generally, the book focuses on areas that have not been studied in an ethnic frame before,” Dowd said. “I do not focus on television or film in the book because those are areas that have been written about before.”