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Cleveland Irish: Someone’s Past

Francis McGarry PicCleveland Irish: Someone’s Past
By Francis McGarry

My graduate Professor, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, taught me a few things. One was always cut the cards; actually, that was Mr. Dooley. One was terra nullius, roughly translated to “land belonging to nobody.”  It has been referenced before in these columns and is pertinent to processing the patterns of settlement and re-settlement in Cleveland.

As the City of Cleveland increased in population and area, its application was diminished. The heuristics of settlement patterns in Cleveland and in America in general has historically been limited to census data and what we are going to call visibility.

Census data is the starting part, as we have seen in our review of the 1940 Census data in the St. Aloysius neighborhood. This methodology is substantiated in the initial urban communities of New England, the Middle Atlantic and East North Central states. These areas experienced the most heterogenous range of immigration, via various points of entry, and the greater part of the Irish Catholic immigration.

It is also in numerically significant and temporally precise contexts that members of migration groups create “high visibility.” In Irish American studies that equates to trade union, political and church overrepresentation, based on census numbers. It is also why I can ride my bike to Murray Hill. Italian migration and the Great Migration can be generally understood utilizing this paradigm.

The history of the Irish in Cleveland both begins with a numerically significant migration and a comparatively open landscape. That is a very basic understanding of the Cleveland Irish narrative and should immediately lead to the question, “Why settlement in the Flats?”

Those are also transportation and employment issues. The cultural nexus never points in one direction. To curtail discussion of settlement and re-settlement to a theory of numerical strength is both facile and inadequate. 

Irish American history has to be understood in terms of comparative immigration periods and potential multi-phase settlement and re-settlement. It is a false notion that Irish immigration was limited to the Famine. It is also a false notion that immigration from various ethnic groups occurs independent of other immigrations and a global context.

My Uncle paid a physical price for his concrete work with his Italian friends. As a historical actor, he worked in concrete with the Italians and not the canals with his brethren nor the railroads with the Chinese due in part to his immigration in 1904 and not 1840. 

Professor Trouillot taught to look at history on a local, national and international level, simultaneously. That connection can be gleaned from the census data in various expressions. The Irish reported being born in the Irish Free State, Ireland, Eire, West Ireland, South Ireland and by their Irish county. How they identified was a function of those three levels of history and their place in history.

He taught that it is critical to connect history with those who are the historical actors of today, those of us on this side of the grass. Devoid of that connection those events and actors are just “the Past” and not history.

Oh, Mexico
He shared his experience at Chichen Itza, Mexico, and the Cenote of Sacrifice where men, women and children were thrown in alive to deities now mostly forgotten. Cenotes are limestone sinkholes found in the Yucatan Peninsula. Great for snorkeling and diving, I was told by my Mayan friends.

The translation was lost on how I failed my swimming test at Notre Dame, four lengths of the Olympic pool utilizing a different stroke each length, really? Lost in translation because they spoke a dialect of Mayan and I spoke some form of summer job Spanish. I dove in and “swam” the thirty or so yards in the water filled cave to the subsequent opening. I prayed more than I swam.

My professor would not have been impressed by my aquatic skill set. He would have been impressed that my Mayan friends knew their history and had a connection to that history, the pyramids, cenotes and their cultural history. That was critical to Trouillot: making the past become not just history by process of scholarship, but connecting that history to the present and making it someone’s past.

Irish Generations
In Cleveland that requires the connection of those earliest immigrants to the linage of Irish immigrants in migratory phases that followed and to the offspring of all of those immigrants. The Irish during the 1930s and 1940s, as the Census data has shown, consisted of a good three generations: the remnant of the first to arrive, born in Ireland who had left Ireland in their youth and were the last of that generation; the children of those immigrants who were mostly raised in the last decade of the nineteenth and first few years of the twentieth century; the children of the latter who were the coming of age in 1940. All three of these generations were still witnessing Irish immigration that did not compare numerically to early migrations but expanded the bricolage of Cleveland Irishness.

The goal then is understanding the synchronic history of each individual Irish group and diachronic history of the Irish collective history in Cleveland. Synchronic history is when we focus on one particular time, like the 1940 census. Diachronic history is through time, longitudinal data, and analysis. That is the ability to connect the 1940 Census data with 1820 and with 2020, to us and our children.

Lucky for us, the 1950 Census has been made public. Analysis of Wards 24, 25 and 27 will illuminate the re-settlement of those three groups of Irish and determine whether if those distinctions impacted that re-settlement and/or what variables did. We can also begin to historically connect to those same Irish folks in the 1930 Census and the 1920 Census. That can be researched to the first Irish immigrants in Cleveland and to a diachronic history of Irish settlement and re-settlement. That is what Trouillot taught, to increase the connectivity each of us has with history, and to make making the past someone’s past. 

*Francis McGarry holds undergraduate degrees from Indiana University in Anthropology, Education and History and a Masters in Social Science from the University of Chicago.  He is the Executive Director of Bluestone Hibernian Charities and proprietor of McGarry Consulting.  Francis is a past president of the Irish American Club East Side.  He is the founder and past president of the Bluestone Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.