The religious and financial evolution of the Irish Americans


Real Lace Revisited: Inside the Hidden World of America’s Irish Aristocracy by James P. MacGuire, Lyons Press/Rowman & Littlefield, US $24.95, Pp 312, March 2017, ISBN 978-1493024902

The Irish experience in America goes on. Today twenty-two million Americans say their primary ancestry is Irish, while more than thirty-five million say they are partly Irish – more than 11 percent of the population. The heaviest concentrations remain in the Northeast, Miami – at 1 percent – has the least. The Irish have won more Congressional Medals of Honor than any other ethnic group and are justly proud of their record of military service. In Real Lace Revisited, James P MacGuire revisits Stephen Birmingham’s great work, Real Lace. James P. MacGuire is a member of one of Birmingham’s Irish Families. He provides a portrait of life among the Irish Rich, filling out this engrossing portion of America’s social history. He provides the religious, financial and social evolution of the First Irish Families’ world, its rise, peak, decline, fall, and, in some cases, transformative rebirth.

In Ireland, a new form of nativism has grown up as immigration from Poland, Nigeria, and other countries increased in recent decades. MacGuire says that the new intolerance held that only those born in Ireland could be called Irish, and there could be no hyphenated terms like Irish-American allowed. Former President Mary Robinson firmly noted, “Irish-ness is not simply territorial.” The tumultuous welcome given to President Obama when he visited in 2011 and revealed that his maternal great-great-great-grandfather, Falmouth Kearney, had migrated to America from Offaly effectively made the controversy moot.

The Real Lace families and their successors have waxed and waned. Over the nearly half century since Real Lace appeared, there have been tectonic shifts in business, politics, and religion. The world of the New York Stock Exchange floor where trade was consummated by handshakes, “your word was your bond,” and fulfillment was conducted by paper carried by runners is as dead as the dodo. And yet the Exchange still survives. MacGuire says that today Wall Street is smaller in terms of people employed, all trading is electronic, and networks are global. While access to capital has thus increased, the potential for destructive insider trading and fraud has also increased, as the Big Short, a 2015 film on the 2008 mortgage bubble based on Michael Lewis’s book, dramatically depicted. Irish Americans continue to be active in the finance and trading worlds.

The “Celtic Tiger” lifted the Irish economy from 1997 to 2007. In 2005, in fact, there were more Americans moving to Ireland – forty-three hundred – than there were Irish entering the United States – only seventeen hundred. Until the bubble burst in 2008, immigrants from Ireland to New York in the 1980s and 1990s returned home in hopes of finding a more prosperous life in Eire. But once the Irish economy collapsed, and the bill for the free spending ways of Irish bankers and politician came due, there were no more jobs to return to, and the trend reversed itself once again.

Real Lace Revisited is an invaluable addition to the growing literature on the Irish in America. It is a portrait of the upper-class Irish world as it grew and changed. MacGuire is a great storyteller with deep knowledge of Irish America and Irish Americans. As an insider, he brings Irish America and Irish Americans to life for readers. Every American and Irish will enjoy reading it. If you are not American or Irish, you may enjoy even more.