Had I stumbled upon Paul Moses’s book while a student in the 1970s and 1980s, first at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Elementary School and then at Saint John the Baptist High School, both in working-class suburban neighborhoods on the South Shore of Long Island, the title would have thrown me. In my world, Italian-Irish unions were anything but «unlikely.» Countless friends were the progeny of Italian-Irish marriages. And so were my brother and I. Our parents, Dominick Trasciatti and Ruth Ellen Gilboy, cemented their own Italian-Irish union in 1956.
In a study that begins a century before my parents’ marriage and spans 150 years, Moses combines personal narrative, historical biography, and sociological theory to chart the rivalries and rapprochements that characterize the history of Italian-Irish relationships in New York, of which my own family was a microcosm. The book is well written and, at times, the writing even sparkles with verve. For example, when describing the beer parade that New York City Mayor James J. («Jimmy») Walker led to deflect criticism levelled against him by rival Fiorello LaGuardia in 1932, Moses writes, «the stated reason was to boost his plan for the Depression-deprived federal government to raise revenue by taxing beer. But for most, it was simply a full-throated cheer for beer from Prohibition-parched New York» (p. 228). The result is a compelling story of two communities whose respective fates were inextricably bound to one another: the Irish arriving en masse first, and eking out a modicum of resources and respectability in the face of intense discrimination at the hands of Anglo-Saxon elites; the Italians coming later and vying with the Irish for their own share of the proverbial pie.
The book is divided into four parts, each of which comprises a locus of contact between the two groups. The story that Moses recounts is an American one with European roots. Part I identifies the source of New York’s Italian-Irish tensions as emerging from the different roles played by the Catholic Church in the respective Italian and Irish independence movements. Moses explains that Italian nationalists greeted Pope Pius ix’s continued support for the Vatican’s alliance with Austria as a betrayal, «and realized that to achieve their goals, they had to conquer Rome itself and the surrounding Papal States.» In contrast, «for the Irish, who dreamed of freeing their island from centuries of unjust British rule, Catholicism was fused with national identity» (p. 15). Chapter 1 offers an account of how the tensions resulting from their different relationships to the Catholic Church in their respective countries of origin came to the surface in New York when Giuseppe Garibaldi arrived in 1850, only to be vilified by Archbishop John Hughes. Subsequent chapters explore the challenges that confronted an Irish clergy attempting to minister to an Italian flock whose style of worship it neither understood nor appreciated. The section’s title, «In the Basement,» refers to the practice of relegating Italian parishioners to the basement of ostensibly Irish churches.
In Part 2, «Turf War,» the focus shifts to the workplace. Moses offers abundant narratives of physical violence between Irish and Italian laborers, both of whom were relegated by «race prejudice» (Moses explains that in regards to Europeans, the term «race» was used synonymously with nationality at the time) to compete with one another on the lower rungs of the occupational ladder and, between their criminal counterparts, in rival gangs. A love story blooms in this battlefield as well, but unfortunately, the chapter on Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Carlo Tresca is the least satisfying in the book. First, it contains some factual errors. The union that led the Lawrence strike during which the two met is misidentified; it was the Industrial (not International) Workers of the World. Flynn’s political affiliation is also misidentified. At the time of her relationship with Tresca she was a syndicalist, not a socialist. Moreover, it is unclear what significance the Flynn-Tresca romance has for the larger story. Moses writes, «even for people as open-minded and unconventional as Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Carlo Tresca, it was difficult to overcome the Irish-Italian cultural boundaries of their era» (p. 112). That may be true, but it was hardly the reason for the dissolution of their relationship. As Moses himself notes, while he was living in the Flynn household Tresca had a clandestine affair with Elizabeth’s youngest sister that resulted in the birth of a child. This situation is hardly a cultural conflict.
Throughout the book, Moses stresses that acculturation is not a linear process and inter-ethnic relationships happen in fits and starts. By the time we get to the second half, however, it is clear that fissures between the Italians and the Irish have begun to close. Part 3, «Sharing the Stage,» and Part 4, «At the Altar,» focus on public life (politics and entertainment) and the family, respectively. The chapters are peopled by iconic figures, including (in addition to Fiorello LaGuardia) Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra – who enjoy a relationship that younger readers might recognize as «frenemies» – along with Rudolph Giuliani and a plethora of ordinary women and men, among them the author’s aunt, Mary Muscato. Except for a passing reference, New York governor Mario Cuomo is curiously absent. Moses describes how LaGuardia’s ascendance to the mayoralty of New York City marked the end of the Irish vise-grip on political power and patronage, and signified that Italians had arrived, politically. Sinatra’s popularity vis-à-vis Crosby marked a similar turning point in popular culture. The discussion of intermarriage trends, supported by anecdotal evidence as well as statistics, is final proof that Italians and Irish made common cause.
The book’s contribution goes beyond a relatively distant past. Moses offers valuable historical perspective on contemporary issues that still vex New Yorkers: hostility toward recent immigrants on the part of older arrivals who were themselves treated with hostility, and fraught relationships between police and the communities they are charged with serving and protecting. Interestingly, although he downplays the usefulness of whiteness studies for understanding ethnicity, the book concludes with a discussion of how Italians and Irish have formed a de facto white ethnic bloc that stymies political initiatives put forth by New York’s residents of color and succumbs to racial fear mongering during electoral campaigns. Notwithstanding this troubling underside to the story, Moses’s message is ultimately an optimistic one: if Italians and Irish can bridge their differences, there is hope for cooperation among all ethnic groups.
Mary Anne Trasciatti