John V. Kelleher of Harvard remarked to me in October 1982: ‘I used to think I knew a little about the Irish in America. Now I realise I just knew a lot about the Irish in Lawrence.’ The pioneer and comprehensive bibliography by Seamus Metress of Toledo underscores what scholars of Irish America now perhaps generally recognise.
Virtually all general treatment of Irish America, as of so many other topics in American history, has been flawed by premature generalisation. The pressures to simplify a sub-topic such as Irish America have been understandable and considerable, given the multiform character of national development. Nonetheless, half a century or more after general historians have taken account of America’s pluralism, regionalism and political decentralisation, scholars attempting an overview of Irish America have inclined to the shortcut. Assuming that the body of Irish-Americans are today found in Boston, New York city and Philadelphia, they have tended to discuss the political, social and religious history of the community as though these cities and their past encapsulated it. A demurrer has come from Chicago; but its scholars have in turn tended to correct the picture with an eye to their own particular experience. As a result, most general treatments bear the hallmark of their origin: those of Daniel Moynihan, William Shannon, George Potter, Thomas N. Brown and Oscar Handlin being shaped by the assumptions of the Atlantic urban seabord; those of L. J. McCaffrey, Andrew Greeley and Ernest Levine by a Chicago counter-emphasis. More seriously, recent attempts to establish a more scientific methodology for the study of Irish and other immigrant groups, as pioneered by Stephan Thernstrom in 1964 and mushrooming since then, have been biased toward this east-coast selectivity of the more traditional historians. Thus, minute studies of occupational mobility, marriage and fertility patterns, working lives and community concentration and dispersal have assumed, and even asserted, the representativeness of east coast experience, especially that of New England; no fewer than eleven Massachusetts cities have enjoyed full-scale academic study of their Irish proletariats.