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Lecture Notes: Irish in America

Why study Irish American history?

  • People of full or partial Irish descent comprise 10% of the US population (33 million). 3 million people identify having a Scotch-Irish background: they trace their ancestry to Lowland Scottish and Northern English people, who migrated to the Ulster province in Ireland and stayed a few generations before coming to the US For comparison, there are 6 million people in Ireland.

  • This is an interesting case study of how a group moves from being an oppressed group in their home country, to reviled outsider in their new country, to becoming part of the political and social mainstream.

  • For example, Wikipedia lists 66 political leaders of Scotch-Irish background: from Revolutionary War era politicians to current president Barack Obama. This includes 16 presidents! There were also 9 Supreme Court Justices of Irish descent.

  • Many Irish Americans have become economically secure through generations of success in fields like the police force and the fire department. However, the NYC recently settled a lawsuit accusing the FDNY of racial discrimination in 2014, which included “paying nearly $100 million in back pay and benefits to minorities whose efforts to join the department were thwarted by what courts have ruled were institutional biases.”

Please watch this documentary on Youtube to learn more:

Out of Ireland: The Story of Irish Emigration to America

Some Irish American Artists:

MATTHEW BRADY (1822 –1896) One of the first American photographers, best known for his work covering the American Civil War

  • President Lincoln granted him permission to the battlefields if he would pay for the project himself. During the Civil War he used a mobile studio and darkroom to capture and process vivid battlefield photographs that brought home the reality of war to the public and continue to help historians understand the era. Many are in the National Archives and the Library of Congress. (See image above for an example)

  • Thousands of war scenes were captured, as well as portraits of generals and politicians on both sides of the conflict, though most of these were taken by his 23 assistants whom he directed from Washington D.C. He may have taken stepped back to take on this role because his eyesight began deteriorating.

  • After the war, these pictures went out of fashion because few people wanted reminders of how gruesome the war was, and the government did not purchase the master-copies, as he had anticipated and he ended up going bankrupt.

  • Ken Burns claims in his documentary that “glass plate negatives were often sold to gardeners, not for their images, but for the glass itself to be used in greenhouses and cold frames. In the years that followed the end of the war, the sun slowly burned away their filmy images and they were lost.”

  • Opened his own studio in New York in 1844, and photographed photographed 18 of the 19 American Presidents, Edgar Allen Poe, Daniel Webster, and other celebrities.

  • His name became attached to the era's heavy specialized end tables which were factory-made specifically for use by portrait photographers: "Brady stands," which were used as a prop table, armrest for models, and/or neck brace for models. They were useful when models needed help maintaining a steady pose during the longer exposure times of early photography.

  • In 1856 Brady placed an ad in the New York Herald paper offering to produce "photographs, ambrotypes and daguerreotypes."[8] This inventive ad pioneered, in the USA, the use of typeface and fonts that were distinct from the text of the publication and from that of other advertisements.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, sculptor (1848 –1907)

  • Produced statues, funerary statues, medals, coins

  • Member of the Beaux-Arts architecture generation. Examples include the New York Public Library (research library), Grand Central Terminal, Carnegie Hall, and the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.

  • Part of the American Renaissance in architecture and the arts (1876-1917) which used past symbols of European civilizations to create a national iconography because it was an era of “renewed national self-confidence and a feeling that the United States was the heir to Greek democracy, Roman law, and Renaissance humanism.” It celebrated American empire-building and capitalism. Its patrons included robber barons like “the Astors, the Whitneys, the Morgans, the Goelets, the Rockefellers, the Fricks, the McCormicks, the Vanderbilts, etc.” Many of the nation’s major cultural institutions were built during this time: libraries, museums, orchestras, operas, and universities. “Frequently funded by the wealthy, the gestures can be interpreted cynically as a subterfuge by the elite to patronize the masses or idealistically as an acknowledgment of wealth's responsibilities.”

  • Created the $20 gold piece, (a double eagle coin for the US Mint, 1905–1907) which is considered “one of the most beautiful American coins ever issued.” One of them were sold at an auction for $3M.

GEORGIA O’KEEFFE (1887–1986) Artist, considered the "Mother of American modernism")

  • Best known for her paintings of enlarged flowers, New York skyscrapers, and New Mexico landscapes.

  • Befriended many early American modernists who were part of Stieglitz's circle of artists, including Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Paul Strand, and Edward Steichen.

  • After 1918, she began working primarily in oil, a shift away from having worked primarily in watercolor in the earlier 1910s. By the mid-1920s, O'Keeffe began making large-scale paintings of natural forms at close range, as if seen through a magnifying lens.

  • Although 1970s feminists celebrated O'Keeffe as the originator of "female iconography", O'Keeffe rejected their celebration of her work and refused to cooperate with any of their projects.

  • "It is only by selection, by elimination, and by emphasis that we get at the real meaning of things."

  • By 1929, O'Keeffe acted on her increasing need to find a new source of inspiration for her work and to escape summers at Lake George, where she was surrounded by the Stieglitz family and their friends. O'Keeffe had considered finding a studio separate from Lake George in upstate New York and had also thought about spending the summer in Europe, but opted instead to travel to Santa Fe, with her friend Rebecca Strand.

  • In 1938, the advertising agency N. W. Ayer & Son approached O'Keeffe about creating two paintings for the Hawaiian Pineapple Company (now Dole Food Company) to use in their advertising...The offer came at a critical time in O’Keeffe’s life: she was 51, and her career seemed to be stalling.

  • In the mid-1940s, the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan sponsored a project to establish the first catalogue of her work. In late 1970, the Whitney Museum of American Art mounted the Georgia O'Keeffe Retrospective Exhibition, the first retrospective exhibition of her work in New York since 1946, the year Stieglitz died. This exhibit did much to revive her public career.

  • In 1972, O'Keeffe's eyesight was compromised by macular degeneration, leading to the loss of central vision and leaving her with only peripheral vision. She stopped oil painting without assistance in 1972, but continued working in pencil and charcoal until 1984.

  • In November 2014, O'Keeffe's 1932 painting Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 sold for $44 million, more than three times the previous world auction record for any female artist.

WALT DISNEY (1901–1966) Producer / animator / studio chief / cultural icon / innovator in animation and theme park design

FRANKLIN McMAHON (1921-2012) Artist/illustrator/reporter

  • Drew 9,000 pictures of historic scenes in elegant, emphatic lines: momentous events in the civil rights struggle, spacecraft launchings, almost every national political convention from 1960 to 2004 (including coverage of the Chicago Eight trial of demonstrators who had been arrested during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago), the Nixon-Kennedy debates and the Second Vatican Council.

  • Most dramatic image was from the trial of the killers of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955, an incident that catalyzed the African American Civil Rights movement: Mose Wright, Emmett’s uncle, as he stood and identified the two men on trial as the ones who had abducted the youth. (See image above)

  • “I was grasping for a viewpoint that I could make the center of everything, and after he did that, I had just what I needed,” Mr. McMahon said. “He shook off 300 years of history to stand up and point like that.”

  • Life magazine hired him to make courtroom sketches of the trial, after the judge barred photographers.

  • “I am simply a reporter, who used art to tell stories.”

Resources: Irish Americans

American Irish Historical Society

A cultural institution featuring a library and archive, public arts programming, and events space. It was founded in 1897 and located in across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The library and archives of the Society house a wide variety of rare books, newspapers, and artifacts from the 17th century to the present.

Irish America Magazine

The leading national glossy publication of Irish interest in North America. “Since its inception in October 1985, Irish America has become a powerful vehicle for expression on a range of political, economic, social and cultural themes that are of paramount importance to the Irish in the United States. It has helped re-establish the Irish ethnic identity in the U.S. (34.7 million according to the last U.S. census) and highlights the best political and business leaders, organizations, artists, writers and community figures among the Irish in America.”

Irish American Writers & Artists, Inc

As well as celebrating the achievements of Irish-American writers and artists, past and present, IAW&A’s purpose is to highlight, energize and encourage Irish Americans working in the arts.

Resources: Study Abroad in Ireland

According to the 2015 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange on Trends in Student Mobility, Ireland is now 7th most popular study abroad destination for U.S. students.

The US-UK Fulbright Commission offers special Summer Institutes for US citizens to come to the UK. These summer programmes provide the opportunity for US freshmen or sophomores (aged over 18) with minimum GPA of 3.7, to visit to the United Kingdom on a three, four, five or six week academic and cultural summer programme. Applications are due: February 23 or 26 2016.


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