Mount Alvernia High School, Newton, Massachusetts


Alice  McDermott

Katherine  Shea 
Irish Immigrants in American Cities: 1920s to the 1950s

Alice McDermott: Dysfunction Within the Irish Family

Irish immigrants of the 1920s to the 1950s were able to adapt to life in America more quickly because the big “Irish” cities, like Boston, were already established. The Irish still had to deal with hardships such as finding jobs, missing family back in Ireland, and adapting to life in a new country. The new immigrants were able to handle hardships with the support of many organizations. Ethnic neighborhoods fostered a safe haven for Irish immigrants to connect them with “their own kind.” Politics was a major way the Irish immigrants were welcomed into their new society. Politicians like James Michael Curley supported his Irish followers by creating jobs in road repair and construction, creating jobs for the new immigrants. Many of the immigrants worked in domestic service, in the military, or in lower-paying jobs. Education opened opportunities for immigrant children. Irish social clubs helped immigrants maintain cultural ties. The Ancient Order of the Hibernians held dances and celebrated the Irish heritage. Feis celebrated the Irish culture and included Irish music and Irish step dancing. The Irish culture was also kept alive by Irish men who participated in Gaelic sports like Irish football and hurling. The Irish immigrant communities created unity to deal with the hardships they faced in their new lives.

Alice McDermott depicts the hardships of her Irish American characters that are caused by both betrayal and alcoholism. In Charming Billy, a young Billy Lynch faces a difficult challenge when he discovers his beloved Eva never died but is living in Ireland with her new husband. Billy chooses to numb the pain with alcohol rather than being courageous and forgiving those who betrayed him. When Billy dies an alcoholic, the family and friends who loved him feel abandoned and guilty, wondering if they could have done something to save him. McDermott reveals that poor choices made by individuals negatively influence family dynamics, often causing dysfunction and the eventual deterioration of the family unit. McDermott implies that even though the Irish have left Ireland they are still plagued by hardships in America.

Major Works Consulted:

Dolan, Jay P. The Irish Americans: A History. New York: Bloomsbury, 2008.
McDermott, Alice. Charming Billy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.
---. Child of My Heart. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.
O’Connor, Thomas H. The Boston Irish: A Political History. Boston: Back Bay, 1995.
Photo Credit: McDermott, Alice. Child of My Heart. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.


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