An Irish-American Odyssey: The Remarkable Riseof the O’Shaughnessy Brothers provides an account of one Irish-American family’s contribution to U.S. life in the twentieth century. It is set against a backdrop of cultural, political and social developments. Its author, Colum Kenny of Dublin City University, believes that his book’s themes of immigration and assimilation give it a sharp contemporary relevance. Here he reflects on how he came to write the book.
The first Irish-American immigrant I met was by then an old woman living frugally in South Boston. That was 1970, and Nellie Kenny, a distant relative, told me of being rebuffed by “NO IRISH OR BLACKS NEED APPLY” signs when she first went looking for work as a young emigrant from Ireland landed in Massachusetts.
In 1970 and again in 1972 I visited the USA on a J-1 student visa, working as a waiter in an old New Hampshire resort hotel to make money for college in Dublin. My friend and I bought a ’63 Rambler, paying just $200 to a Rhode Island car dealer to get us motoring in America.
These were the first of more than a dozen visits to the United States between then and now, for both work and pleasure. My trips have taken me from coast to coast, making good American friends but also learning to appreciate the complexity of Irish-America. My new book for the University of Missouri Press is a way of coming to terms with that experience. In it, I tell a story about the trials and opportunities of immigration that resonate beyond the Irish-American community. For immigration today is a complex global phenomenon.
So how did I stumble on the O’Shaughnessys from Missouri? Well I had discovered that James O’Shaughnessy met my grandfather in Dublin in the 1920s. Both were leading admen in their own countries, with TIME magazine describing James as “the best in the business.” This whetted my appetite to learn more.
How had James done so well for himself, given his background as the son of an impoverished victim of famine in Ireland? Before becoming an adman at the age of forty, he had been regarded as a “star reporter” on the Chicago Tribune. His brothers too made their marks. Thomas was the leading Gaelic Revival artist in North America. Martin was captain of the first official basketball team at Notre Dame. Lawyer Frank O’Shaughnessy was the first graduate of Notre Dame invited back to give a commencement address there. Frank’s brother and legal partner John successfully defended a young Irish Presbyterian girl accused of theft when she made allegations in an infamous “white slavery” case.
In writing their story I have moved from individual events to the collective and social contexts in order to locate the O’Shaughnessys and their achievements in a broader landscape. This allows readers who have an interest in art, advertising, journalism, Irish studies, or politics to assess more fully than would be possible with a purely chronological approach the significance of contributions made in those areas by any single O’Shaughnessy—while not losing sight of the overarching familial and other networks. And it allows people who are interested principally in the story of an immigrant family to see its members in a wider way.
While the life of each O’Shaughnessy brother had unique and engaging characteristics, the rise of the family as a whole—emerging into public view— reflects the broader experiences of generations of immigrants.
My personal knowledge or experiences of Irish-American immigrants has been somewhat random, but also at times poignant. In Denver, for example, I tried dialing nine numbers I found in the phone book opposite the married name of my wife’s grand-aunt, last heard from fifty years earlier living in Colorado. The final number led eventually to the aunt’s aging son, and renewed family relationships.
On another occasion I was vacationing in rural New York with my wife and children, staying at the house of a recently deceased uncle of an Irish-American friend. Surrounded by his Irish books and Waterford cut glass and other items from the old country, I was struck by the force of objects that can speak eloquently of roots that connect people long after space separates them.
In 2010 I lived for a month with Trappist monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky, completing a study of silence and communications for a London publisher. I met Brother Alan, whose parents had held him in their arms at the Eucharist Congress in Dublin in 1932, before leaving for America. In a nonsilent interlude he told me stories that his father had told him, and I could hear his father’s Mayo voice and immigrant experiences echo in the way Alan spoke.
Two years ago my wife and I happened upon an unfinished rail tunnel in the Blue Ridge Mountains. We were with one of our sons, then working in South Carolina, who took us to the Isaqueena Falls on a hot day. As we left the area, we saw a historic marker and stopped to investigate. It told of 1,500 Irish itinerant miners who cut through the blue granite with hand drills, hammers, and chisels. This was the unfinished Stumphouse Tunnel, part of a railway project of the 1850s that ground to a halt and never made it as far as Tennessee. So much hard work for so little. Not all Irish immigrants rose high.
James O’Shaughnessy, an impoverished orphan emigrant from Galway and future father of the adman, married the daughter of a railroad supervisor farther north, in Missouri. In my new book, I tell his story and that of his sons.
Through its cultural, social, and political contexts, the siblings’ story becomes the story of many first-generation families. It is the fruit of my meetings with Irish-Americans across the USA and of research sparked by those encounters.