San Francisco Irish 1850 – 1976 – James Walsh

Forefront – the County’s community and political journal

By Thomas McEnery

This is a very short and very interesting book. It attempts to unravel some Irish experiences of San Francisco over the span of a century and a half, and does so in quite admirable fashion. It is based on brief studies of a half dozen noted (in their day) Irish-Americans, figures ranging from the early century blind boss, Chris Buckley to the new departure politician, Jerry Brown. The various paths each followed and the environment from which each arose is quite entrancing. A key element to the success of this book is its notable lack of pretension or unseemly ambition. This is an anthology of several men, told by different authors, with varying perspectives and assorted biases. One discernible central theme is that blend of joy, hope, sorrow and despair that often tends to be a composite picture of Irish men the world over, and applies very particularly to the nineteenth century urban Irish in America.

San Francisco was merely one of the havens, which the downtrodden and dispossessed Irish flocked to during the “Diaspora.” Since the Great Famine, the Irish “holocaust” as Conor Cruise O’Brian aptly called it, roughly coincided with the gold Rush, the Irish emigrants were washed ashore with the flotsam of many other countries and states. An instant city was born out of pastoral Yerba Buena. The resulting scenario was the absence of any established Brahmin order to oppose the upwardly striving Irish, a notable advantage over their eastern brothers. They advanced to high positions more rapidly and exhibited that particular brand of schizophrenia, compassion and bigotry, genius and simplicity that has been a hallmark of the Irish mind for generations.

Some of the more significant examples in this montage became politicians and priest, the usual avenues to success, and the gifts from either vocation differ little in apparent end results. (The visages of Spencer Tracy or Pat O’Brian are dimly visible between the lines, raising the question of art imitating life or visa versa.) Father Peter Yorke, labor agitator and university regent ruled his fiefdom as autocratically as Boss Buckley, and fought the “good fight” many times, against traditional foes as well as wayward sheep. He accomplished little when co-opted into the establishment at Berkeley, and shared a familiar inability to function positively after so many years in opposition. (A genetic and spiritual trait, resulting from centuries of Saxon guile, this observer would comment.) Another priest, Father Coughlin, a mid-westerner who looms up mysteriously in these pages, mesmerized the nation during the thirties with his radio programs, and caused grave concern to an incumbent President; he too, was essentially, and inherently, a figure of the opposition. Two other men, sorely unknown today, the lawyer, Garret McEnerney and the journalist, John F. Neylan are treated well and effectively.

The politicians, primarily James D. Phelan and Brown, offer interesting comparisons and contrasts. Phelan, millionaire mayor and U.S. Senator has left the Santa Clara Valley Villa Montalvo and Sainte Clair Club (an aesthetic and intellectual cancellation in some quarters) and his native San Francisco a legend of reform and righteousness. Brown, with many of the same geographic connections, has no legacy as yet, but offers some crucial, initial phases. The two men share a recent privileged past, with the air of patrician very strongly emanating, yet both realized and captivated the centurist strength of the people they led. Both realized the chaos in the absence of formal or functioning social services, organized charities, or a reliable bureaucracy; the root causes of bosses. They rushed for the void where the “machine” stood, and this grievous misnomer “machine” was understood by each. The bosses, from San Francisco and Curley in Boston to Daley in Chicago have ruled the very antithesis of that term; there was nothing faceless or heartless about them, they were “in and of” the people. Phelan sensed when the machine had moved from its base. Brown also reacted against a much more formidable, errant machine, but one nevertheless running a muck in the Twentieth Century, leaving frustration behind. His first campaign captured a tribal instinct, and was a classic operation. It railed against the Saxon perfidy that had given us Vietnam, the Great Society, Watergate, Monday Night Football, Tahoe, Disney World, and the summer reruns. And it proved exactly the right tact.

The man in opposition is the Irish tradition, and almost all the persons in this book fit that mold. Brown would, I am sure, disdain the title, yet he is a lineal descendant. Edmund G. Brown, Sr. had the physical characteristics and mannerisms, but not the essential passion for attack and visceral outrage crucial to effective opposition on a grand scale: Jerry Brown is so imbued. James D. won many battles, but like so many Irishmen, he was destined to fall in internecine battle, in this case the League of Nations embrolio; Brown has been buffeted on one major issue and appears to be on the losing side of the Jarvis-Gann initiative. (The opponents of this measure continually invoke the specter of a system thrown into complete chaos, an event that obviously many Californians fervently wish and will ostensibly receive.) The Governor of California could well take note of Phelan and others for, the pulse of the people often changes and sometimes the devil they do not know becomes the more reliable choice for societies. The major Irish politicians of recent times have come to tragic senseless ends, on both sides of the continent, and the Atlantic. Daniel Moynihan referred to the fate of sadness pursuing this race. It is a fate that awaits many people on this planet, but the particular tribal group celebrated in this book always laughs a little longer and cries a bit louder. It is in the blood, you know.

Mr. McEnery has lived in Ireland and done extensive research on its nationalism. He completed his Master’s thesis on the revolutionary figure, Michael Collins. Currently he is engaged in business and serves as Chairman of the San Jose Planning Commission.

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