The 1930s: When Irish Catholics Changed America

Al Smith, the first Catholic to win a major-party presidential nomination, is credited with laying the ground work for FDR’s New Deal coalition in 1928, in which the Irish played a key role.
Al Smith, the first Catholic to win a major-party presidential nomination, is credited with laying the ground work for FDR’s New Deal coalition in 1928, in which the Irish played a key role.

By Tom Deignan, Contributor
June / July 2007

 Before the decade was over, America would be a vastly different nation,  thanks in no small part to Irish Catholics. 

Nineteen hundred and twenty-eight was a dark year for Irish Catholics in America. It was, of course, the year Al Smith ran for president and lost. The anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Ku Klux Klan played a major role in bringing down Smith, who lost “because of his religion, and because of the people he stood up for,” in the words of one biographer.

The Smith debacle suggested that Irish Catholics had come far in America but had a long way to go.

And yet, in the decade that followed, Irish Catholics would profoundly reshape America, and not just in politics. From books to radio, in front of Hollywood cameras and behind them, Irish Americans transformed America during the 1930s – for better or worse, it must be added.

A similar process might very well be taking place today, with Hispanic immigrants and their children moving into – and influencing greatly – the mainstream. The New York Times Magazine, for example, recently ran a cover story about the “Hispanicization” of the Catholic Church. It should be noted, however, that a heavily Spanish Los Angeles parish examined closely in the article was led by Irish-born and Irish-American priests.

Achievement, Assimilation & Anger

There were many great accomplishments by the Irish in the 1930s. There were the literary achievements of John O’Hara, James T. Farrell and, of course, Eugene O’Neill, who won the 1936 Nobel Prize for Literature. Power brokers such as Joseph P. Kennedy, meanwhile, slowly but surely made their way into the corridors of national political power.

But a figure such as Father Charles Coughlin suggests there was a dark side to this decade of Irish Catholic achievement and assimilation.

Wildly popular with both big-city Irish Catholics and rural Protestants, Coughlin was a radio commentator who evolved from a populist to an angry demagogue and anti-Semite. Both the Vatican and President Franklin D. Roosevelt worked diligently to silence the infamous “radio priest.”

This was just one instance during the 1930s in which Irish Catholics profoundly influenced mass media. Ultimately, Coughlin taught future generations of politicians and pundits how to use the radio, and later TV, to their advantage.

In the 1930s, Irish-Americans also played a key role in developing Hollywood’s infamous production code, which dictated how movies would be made for the next 30 years.

True, an inordinate fear of sex and violence fueled an Irish-led movement to censor movies. But so did a desire to battle anti-Catholicism, not to mention stereotypical films such as The Callahans and The Murphys (1927), which depicted Irish slum dwellers in the worst possible fashion.

Perhaps a figure such as James T. Farrell best sums up the complicated achievements of Irish-Americans in the 1930s. His Chicago trilogy of Stud Lonigan novels, all published during the 1930s, is considered a landmark in American realism, as well as groundbreaking in its frank depiction of urban life. But it was not some hateful anti-Irish Protestant who penned this often grim, oppressive view of the Chicago Irish. It was ‘one of our own.’

Yet Farrell’s epic novels — with their often bigoted characters — make it easy to forget that during the 1930s, Irish Catholics were pivotal swing voters when it came to endorsing President Franklin Roosevelt and his progressive New Deal. Indeed, as writers, filmmakers and politicians battled their high-profile culture wars, it was during the 1930s that a generation of Irish-Americans changed the nation in more subtle ways. Products of a Catholic schools system that was by now the envy of many Protestant ministers, Irish Americans finally made their way to the Ivy Leagues and other elite bastions in larger numbers, diversifying these institutions and paving the way for other “minority groups.”

Many during this decade were also preparing for a different kind of work – fighting the war against fascism during World War II, as members of “the Greatest Generation.” Clearly, the Irish were at a crossroads in the 1930s. Before the decade was over, America would be a vastly different nation, thanks in no small part to Irish Catholics.

Politics

Farrell never shied away from the darker side of the Irish in the 1930s. At one point, Studs’ Irish-born, obviously hypocritical father says: “We got to get a strong man in the White House, like Al Smith or Mussolini [to] make America a country for Americans only.”

But the fact is, vast numbers of Irish-Americans were not so reactionary. Many, in fact, were lifelong Democrats and union members who supported FDR’s New Deal. Some historians now credit Al Smith for laying the groundwork, in 1928, for FDR’s New Deal coalition, in which the Irish played a key role.

Once FDR was elected, he brought several key Irish-Americans into his administration. One was Joseph P. Kennedy (Bobby and JFK’s dad), whose experiences during the 1930s illustrate how the Irish were beginning to attain real power, yet still faced obstacles.

During the 1932 presidential campaign, Kennedy worked tirelessly for Roosevelt, contributing $25,000 himself and soliciting more than $100,000 in anonymous donations, Thomas Maier writes in The Kennedys, America’s Emerald Kings: A Five Generation History of the Ultimate Irish Catholic Family.

Kennedy was ultimately appointed the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and later Ambassador to Great Britain.
Yet FDR’s relationship with Joe Kennedy, and other Irish Catholics, was often strained. Kennedy suspected that FDR harbored anti-Irish Catholic sentiments. FDR, meanwhile, feared Kennedy might one day become a political opponent.

Still, each needed the other, and during Kennedy’s time in the Roosevelt administration he proved a top rank power broker, perhaps the most powerful Catholic in politics since Al Smith. There was even talk of Kennedy running as FDR’s vice president in 1940. The trouble was Kennedy wanted to run for president himself. He therefore hoped that FDR would follow tradition and not run for a third term. But FDR ran and won, leaving Kennedy bitter. It didn’t help that Kennedy and FDR did not see eye to eye on the war raging in Europe.

Kennedy was against U.S. entrance to World War II. Like many Irish-Americans, Joe Kennedy was suspicious of a U.S. alliance with Great Britain. He also believed keeping the boys at home might help more people see him as simply an American.

Despite all of his money and power, Joe Kennedy had spent his whole life trying to remove the hyphen from “Irish- American,” Thomas Maier writes.

This, in part, proved to be Kennedy’s undoing. He was eventually seen as an isolationist willing to appease Hitler. This, however, should not obscure the deeply influential role Kennedy played in the Roosevelt administration. He illustrated the Irish Catholic rise when it came to national political power.

The Radio Priest

Kennedy’s experiences also suggest that the alliance between FDR and Irish Catholics was a tenuous one. Many were skeptical of the war as well as Britain. (Ireland itself, of course, was neutral during World War II.) Others, including a priest and radio announcer based in Michigan named Charles Coughlin, came to view FDR’s New Deal as veiled Communism, which the Catholic Church emphatically opposed.

One of Joe Kennedy’s great achievements was an historic meeting he set up between FDR and top Vatican officials. It was the first meeting of its kind in decades. Most presidents, after all, did not want to be seen as cozy with the Vatican, given the anti-Catholic sentiment in America.

When FDR did meet with Vatican officials in 1936, a major subject of their discussion was “the radio priest,” Father Coughlin.

Both wanted the popular priest silenced. To the Vatican he was an embarrassment. To FDR he was a onetime supporter who now railed against the president.

Coughlin’s descent into anti-Semitism and paranoia, however, should not obscure  how wildly popular he was. He was the first mass media political pundit, the Bill O’Reilly of his day. Coughlin changed the way Americans thought about media and politics. Even when he began denouncing FDR and the New Deal as “Communistic,” many in both the rural heartland and urban Irish enclaves were willing to listen.

The Irish-American weakness for such demagoguery and anti-Communism would come alive again in the 1950s, when Senator Joseph McCarthy set off on his infamous crusade, which was well received in Boston, New York and Chicago.

Father Coughlin also suggests that rural Protestants and Irish Catholics were beginning to find common ground on certain issues. And Coughlin was not the only Irish Catholic harboring such views. Al Smith also became a bitter opponent of the New Deal. And Joseph P. Kennedy often indulged in anti-Semitism as virulent as Coughlin’s.

Yet Kennedy and Coughlin are also uniquely Irish in that they could be perpetrators as well as victims of bigotry. When asked why he took his message to the masses, Coughlin always said he could never forget when the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in his Michigan parish.

Hollywood

While Coughlin ruled the radio, the 1930s was also the decade when the debate over Hollywood reached a fever pitch. Two Irishmen were at the center of this debate. The first was Jimmy Cagney, whose 1931 gangster film The Public Enemy remains influential. Shades of Cagney’s villainous Irish hood Tom Powers can be seen in later depictions of charismatic killers such as Al Pacino in the 1980s remake of Scarface and Joe Pesci in 1991’s Goodfellas.

In the early 1930s, many were angry at films such as The Public Enemy. They feared that Cagney (as well as Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar, and Paul Muni in the original Scarface) made criminal life so attractive he might corrupt American values.

That’s where Joseph Breen, the Legion of Decency and the Production Code came in.

“On or about July 1934 American cinema changed,” Thomas Doherty writes in his 1999 book Pre-Code Hollywood. (Doherty’s father was an Irish immigrant.)

During that month, the Production Code Administration, popularly known as the Hays Office, began to regulate, systematically and scrupulously, the content of Hollywood motion pictures. For the next thirty years, cinematic space was a patrolled landscape. Will Hays was the public face of “the code,” but Joseph Breen was arguably more influential.

While the code is today often seen as synonymous with censorship, the issue is much more complex. For one, the Legion of Decency was an entirely separate body, a Catholic pressure group whose members sometimes advocated boycotting all films.

Some Hollywood executives (many of whom were Jewish, again raising tension between Jews and Irish Catholics) actually looked at Breen as the person who could clean up films in a way which would bring Catholics back into movie houses.

Indeed, the code also found fault with anti-Irish films. The code explicitly states that no ethnic group or religion could be mocked in motion pictures. (This was more or less ignored when African Americans were involved.)

As a prominent Roman Catholic, Breen was a human bulwark against the Legion of Decency. “Jesuit educated and studio wise, he acted as both mediator and missionary, a kind of Vatican envoy to the Hollywood heathen,” Doherty writes. If Breen’s severe brand of Irish Catholicism motivated his desire to fumigate Hollywood, his intricate knowledge of film grammar and the production process allowed him to enforce his dictates. Unlike most censors, Breen knew the art he bowdlerized.

Following Cagney, and the code, movies would never be the same. Even those who dislike film censorship have been forced to pose this question: If Breen and the code were mere censors, how can you explain that Hollywood films were simply better before the code broke down in the early 1960s, with films such as Hitchcock’s Psycho?

Still Under Debate
If nothing else, decades before the term “political correctness” came about, the Irish in the 1930s spurred a debate about censorship that rages to this day. Was censoring Father Coughlin a good thing? If so, then why not violent or exploitative Hollywood movies? More broadly, as the Irish assimilated in the 1930s, it’s clear no single clear direction was taken, even by some of America’s most prominent Irish. What cannot be denied is the vast impact they had. Again, for better or worse.

One Response to “The 1930s: When Irish Catholics Changed America”

  1. Joan Gray says:

    could I please join your email???

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