Irish in America: From the White House to Where the Streets Have No Name

4 artistic and cultural contributions of the Irish in America.

Many see St. Patrick’s Day as a time to get drunk. Others wonder why we celebrate the holiday at all. To be fair, many don’t realize why such a small country as Ireland could be so important, but the Irish have greatly influenced the United States. In fact, the two nations’ histories are intertwined.

Ireland is a small country, but the size hides its heart. Visiting it today, one feels the enchantment of a rich heritage deeply entrenched in a lengthy past, and the soaring landscapes practically sing of a culture built on the depths and heights of artistic creativity. The Irish are a passionate people with biting humor and have always reveled in the mysteries of the universe, a deep love for nature and sharp insight into the human condition.

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Yet for hundreds of years, the Irish suffered great oppression. Their country struggled under England’s rule, enduring horrific enslavement, genocide and tyranny until they officially gained independence in 1922. For many suffering in Ireland, the U.S. became the beacon of light, as it has been to many suffering souls over the centuries. Hundreds of thousands of people would pour into U.S. harbors in the wake of Ireland’s Great Famine of the 1840s — a period of devastating starvation and disease for the formerly lush, green-hilled nation. Boston alone would see an increase from 30,000 to 100,000 Irish immigrants in the decades following the famine.

Still, despite their struggles, the Irish in America would go on to bring beautiful things from the ashes of their pasts. While the following stories are not comprehensive by any means, they will give a taste of the ways in which Irish impact is still felt today in American arts and culture.

1. The White House

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Many would consider James Hoban’s story the ultimate immigration success. Born in Kilkenny, he was the son of a poor tenant farmer in Ireland. He took carpentry lessons from a prominent family in the area and went on to Dublin’s Society Drawing School. Hoban relocated to America in 1785 — just a few years after the Revolutionary War had ended — and made his way to South Carolina.

George Washington himself asked Hoban to submit an architectural plan for the White House, and in 1792 Hoban went to Washington, DC, to do just that. He won the national competition for his design, which was based on the Leinster House in Dublin, a home constructed for the Duke of Leinster in 1750. It’s been said that the American government gravitated toward Hoban’s idea of the White House because it was refined yet conservative; they did not want the White House to resemble a palace.

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Leinster House / The White House / Getty Images

Hoban also helped in the construction of the White House, which took eight years to complete (1793-1801).

Hoban was instrumental in the early growth and development of Washington, DC, as an architect, builder and mason. His Irish roots deeply shaped the look and feel of the capitol of the United States.

2. Hollywood and the Oscar Statue

Irish in AmericaCedric Gibbons at the 2nd Academy Awards, 1930 / Irish America

Many actors and actresses of Irish heritage have stolen Hollywood’s heart, but the most enduring Irish contribution to America’s film industry may be the Irish-born art director behind over 1,500 films and the inception of the Oscar statue.

Cedric Gibbons was born in Dublin in 1893 and studied at the Art Students League of New York. He became an art director for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1918. He is famous in Hollywood for creating the “Big White Set,” which was a staple look in many of the art-deco-style musicals of the time. Overall, his name was attached to over 1,500 films, including iconic titles like The Wizard of Oz (1939), An American in Paris (1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

Irish in AmericaPhoto by Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images

Gibbons helped found the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with 35 other members, and he would later design the Academy Awards Oscar statue. The first Oscar sketch was of a knight holding a sword and standing in a reel of film; this would later evolve into the familiar statue we see today.

Throughout his career, Gibbons himself was nominated for 38 Academy Awards for Art Direction. He won 11, making him the most successful Irish Oscar winner in history.

3. The Great Gatsby and the American Dream

Irish in AmericaPortrait of F. Scott Fitzgerald, January 1, 1900 / Getty Images

One of America’s most renowned writers of the 20th century, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born in 1896 to Irish parents. His father, who’d moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, after the Civil War, was of both Irish and English descent, while his mother was the daughter of an Irish immigrant.

In 1920, 24-year-old Fitzgerald received news that his first novel This Side of Paradise would be published. It went on to be a huge success and made him a highly lauded, opulent author within a year. After its publication, he would marry Zelda Sayre — a fellow writer and quintessential flapper who influenced his work greatly.

Many of his works (consisting of novels and a plethora of short stories) were greatly influenced by the Roaring Twenties, the time after WWI marked by economic prosperity and high hopes for the future. Flappers, the Jazz Age, dancing and Prohibition: Fitzgerald was caught up in this world of excess and materialism. At the same time, he knew materialism didn’t make one happy, and he struggled with alcoholism all his life. (He would die of a heart attack in his 40s.)

The Great GatsbyA first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby / Photo by Oli Scarff / Getty Images

Fitzgerald’s most famous work, The Great Gatsby, was written in 1925. In poetic, riveting prose, Fitzgerald critiqued the lavish underbelly of the supposed American Dream of wealth and materialism, which harbored a darker side, through his tragic story of star-crossed lovers.

Gatsby’s themes included rigid social classes and the upward mobility myth, the established monetary and cultural powers and gender expectations. Anyone today reading The Great Gatsby or any of Fitzgerald’s other works will find his writing still speaks to modern American culture in profound ways — just as it did almost 100 years ago.

4. Music: American Bluegrass, Country and Rock

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The Irish have always had a rich musical culture. In Ireland families would entertain each other with Gaelic folk music and dancing in social gatherings called ceili. When Irish people ventured to America, they brought their ballads and instruments — including tin whistles, fiddles, pipes and harps.

American folk music and bluegrass were born in the Appalachian Mountains, where many Irish (and other descendants from Celtic nations, like Scotland) immigrated. As the Celts settled into their new homes, their music became a symbol of regional identity in the Appalachia, influencing the founder of bluegrass, Bill Monroe, in the early 20th century. As the years progressed, these folk and bluegrass musical roots also widely influenced country music.

Irish rhythms, instruments and melodies have also melded into punk and rock music, with popular bands like Dropkick Murphy’s, Flogging Molly and U2 heavily mixing Irish influences with rock ingredients. While U2 is not an American band, the Irish band has been the most influential rock band in not only the U.S. but the world — melding social commentary, spirituality and musicality into compelling songs.

Irish in AmericaThe Edge and Bono of U2 / Photo by Kevin Mazur / WireImage

Even with this brief introduction, it’s safe to say Irish artistic and cultural influences can be found in many deep-rooted American traditions — as well as all over the world. The Irish in America are indeed worth celebrating. So on St. Patrick’s Day this year, remember to raise a beer and toast their legacy in our country. end

 

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