Individual Irish actors played an important role in forging the Irish American identity. Of these many actors, perhaps the most influential were the priest and the political boss. Both acted for the good of the community reinforcing links to the past and working to protect the future.
The Catholic Church as an institution played an essential part in the formation of the Irish American identity helping “…to refine and discipline the Irish character” (Baylor 215). Catholicism was a defining characteristic of the Irish that united them. Gathering every Sunday for mass and at various parish events, the Irish were part of a church community that spread out of the parish halls. The church “…functioned as a social service as well as a religious and educational institution” (Baylor 222). It represented so many different things to the newly arrived Irish immigrants and thus, played a role in the growing Irish American identity. Each local church’s pastor possessed vast power and influence within the community. Homilies from the pulpit evoked the romantic past of Ireland and called for needs of the present, such as building Catholic schools and churches to maintain their identity.
The Irish political boss represented the ascent of Irish Americans into the ranks of New York politics. The political machine was “…considered an Irish gift to American politics” (Coffey 97). Using transplanted skills, the Irish leveraged power through politics, trading votes for favors; the political machines provided an informal welfare system and controlled Tammany Hall. With individuals in the political system, the Irish had a voice in making decisions that affected their lives and individuals in power whom to turn with any problems or concerns. Once kept out of the political and social power structure, Irish Americans now had a place within it. The individual political bosses played diverse roles as they cultivated and projected certain images.
George Washington Plunkitt was one such political boss. He projected a certain image of the Irish. In his interview recording with William Riordion, Plunkitt describes the Irish as honest politicians who worked for the good of their people. He explicitly compares the Irish to the corrupt Americans in Philadelphia. Despite what society may have thought, the Irish were not the corrupt ones. Working for the good of the people was a cornerstone of American government; Plunkitt makes clear that the Irish understood this and acted accordingly. They loved New York and America, working to help them succeed. Plunkitt connects the story of Ireland’s past suffering under the hands of the oppressive England with the Irish’s future in the refuge of America.