The Irish in the San Francisco Bay Area – New Hibernia Review

The Léirmheasanna: Review by John W. Hink, Jr.
From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 11, Number 4, Geimhreadh/Winter 2007
pp. 153-155 | 10.1353/nhr.2008.0009

The Irish in the San Francisco Bay Area: Essays on Good Fortune, ed. Donald Jordan and Timothy J. O’Keefe, pp. 310. San Francisco: The Irish Literary and Historical Society, 2005.

The rich collection of works found in The Irish in the San Francisco Bay Area both builds on and contributes to recent scholarship on Irish America that emphasizes the importance of regional context. In contrast to their Eastern and Midwestern counterparts, the Irish shared a largely positive experience in San Francisco, characterized by greater chances at upward mobility. The Irish in the Bay Area arrived better equipped and faced fewer obstacles than their eastern counterparts, giving them greater access to wealth and power. To illustrate these experiences, editors Donald Jordan (who died in 2004) and Timothy J. O’Keefe bring together an eclectic assortment of essays, organized by topic, and complete with an introduction and literary vignettes that provide intimate snapshots of notable individuals and institutions in San Francisco’s Irish community.

Daniel P. Walsh’s essay on an Irish-run boarding house caps a particularly strong section on culture and acculturation. Walsh shows how boarding houses provided a crucial step in the process of successful assimilation and highlights the important role that settled immigrants played in helping their countrymen adjust to American life. Essays by Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin on Irish music in San Francisco during the second half of the nineteenth century, and Lynn Lubamersky’s work on women dancers in the city from the turn of the century through the 1930s, also appear in this section. Both attest to the crucial role the arts played in affirming Irish identity, while all three essays reveal the socially constructed nature of such identity.

Women played integral parts in the development of the Irish community in the Bay Area, as Janet Nolan’s work on Irish women teachers clearly shows. Nolan illustrates how the teaching profession allowed Irish and Irish-American women teachers to achieve considerable economic success during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These triumphs came despite efforts to check their progress for reasons of gender and religion, efforts against which these Irish-American women heartily pushed back. Nolan argues that the teaching profession allowed these women access to the middle class far sooner than they would have through other professions. A particular strength of the chapter is Nolan’s discussion of the key role Irish and Irish-American women played in San Francisco schools, as she notes that these women filled almost half of the teaching positions during the city’s late nineteenth-century expansion.

San Francisco has long been home to many ethnic groups looking to establish themselves, and essays by Daniel J. Meissner and Jeffrey M. Burns effectively capture the effect of interethnic relations on the Irish in the Bay Area. Meissner depicts the Irish relationship with the Chinese during the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Feelings between the groups remained cordial when economic circumstances allowed both to prosper; however, when the economy soured in the 1870s, the Irish turned on the Chinese, using their considerable political might in order to thwart Chinese competition for jobs and wages. Burns explores ethnic conflict between the Irish and other immigrant groups in the twentieth century. His work recounts the transition of St. Peter’s parish from an Irish congregation with an Italian minority, to one overwhelmingly Latino. Many Irish-American parishioners saw the influx of Latinos as a threat to St. Peter’s traditional identity. However, St. Peter’s emergence as “the premier Latino parish” in San Francisco attests to the inability of the Irish-American parishioners to stem the inevitable tides of demographic shifts. Burns adds that while the parish is no longer ethnically Irish, the church’s pastorate still carries a strong Irish presence.

These two essays strengthen the book’s central claim that the Irish experience in the area was distinctive. The San Francisco Irish were not only much nearer the top of the social pyramid than in other communities; they were also interacting with groups with which the Irish seldom came into contact in the East. The Irish in the San Francisco Bay Area demonstrates the unique aspects of the Irish experience in Northern California, and implicitly argues for similar studies of regions which depart from the urban, Eastern paradigm. While one could hope for closer connections between the individual essays, the level of scholarship and the logical system of organization on the part of the editors allow these diverse works to complement one another producing a fine cross-section of Irish-American history in San Francisco.