The Irish-American vote – fifty years a-growing

Posted By: November 21, 2016

Peter Kelly. Ulster Herald. Thursday, November 10, 2016

Traditionally the Irish vote in America has mostly ‘gone Democrat’. This week’s shock presidential and congressional election triumphs by Republicans signals no more taken-for-granted demographic voter blocs in US politics.

It’s over half a century since Ireland’s revered favorite US President, John F. Kennedy broke through the ceiling of Irish-immigrant-to-Oval-Office. The new ‘Kennedy Camelot’ with all its thrilling potential was born, transforming tragically and publicly into the ‘Kennedy Curse’ over subsequent decades.

Irish political sympathies are often described as equivalent to “one big Massachusetts” in their left-liberal leaning latitudes. The circle of influence generated outwards from political and population powerhouses of New York, Chicago, and Boston. From NYPD cops to firefighters, to nurses and laborers, first and second generation Irish organized through leftist labor unions and the workplace. They skillfully used the parish pump to galvanize towards political power, with an often approval of said parish priest himself.

Or so it used to be.

According to Robert Schmuhl, an expert commentator on Irish-America, the Irish vote and sympathies have become more unpredictable, diverse and closely fought. Schmuhl, a professor of journalism at the University of Notre Dame admits that the Irish Catholic identity still goes right to the top of US politics. Behold the last four Vice Presidential candidates – Biden, Pence, Kaine and Ryan coming from this background towards the White House.

Within Congress, notable figures also dominate. Democratic Congressman Brendan Boyle from Philadephia rightly boasts of his father’s humble and Donegal roots. Republican Florida Representative Tom Rooney fondly treasures his political apprenticeship under former Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon so much that he named his son after the Armagh politician.

Schmuhl points to new Irish political trends in the US – high ranking figures emanating from outside those traditional Irish neighborhoods, now from Florida, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. The diaspora is spreading outwards and upwards as immigrant life has transformed. Recognizable names such as Mike Kelly, Patrick Murphy, and Peter King openly support Catholic and conservative policies and insist they represent being truly traditionally ‘Irish’.

Both Presidents Obama and Clinton famously drew upon their Irish heritage for popularity. But that identity, like everything else in this new and uneasy landscape of politics, is being redefined. How much it played into arch-conservative Donald Trump’s victory this week will be closely watched.