The emerging popular culture of the 1930s helped Irish immigrants - who formed the largest immigrant group in America from the 1800s through the 1920s - achieve respectability and assimilation.
The Irish Catholics, specifically, were viewed as a threat to the financial and religious prosperity of the established Protestant upper class. It was a long, hard road to acceptance for the Irish, but through their participation in the Civil War, World War I, and World War II, they won small victories towards respectability. The Irish also had to deal with the ugly stereotypes permeating through pop culture. Stereotypes of the bawdy, lazy, drunken Irishmen still lingered in the popular consciousness through the 1920s, mostly due to the proliferation of the “stage” Irish used in popular plays and vaudeville.
The invention of radio and the entrance of Irish writers into the format assisted in changing America’s perceptions. While there will probably always be the Irish cop and drunk, radio introduced an Americanized Irish who strove to achieve the American dream and behaved no differently from other Americans. The longer radio dramas like Fibber McGee and Molly, Duffy’s Tavern, Life of Riley, and the Green Hornet remained on the air, and over time the characters lost their unique ethnic stereotypes.
The most important event towards assimilation for many ethnic groups occurred when the United States entered World War II. Radio was at the front of the propaganda push towards one united “America” and less emphasis was placed on ethnic differences (unless you were Japanese or German). This change helped launch the Irish from just another bumbling, ignorant, white male to a respectable, lovable clown working towards building a successful America.
As stated previously, the Civil War, World War I, and World War II changed much of America’s perception of the Irish because one of the best ways an immigrant group can show its loyalty to its country is through military service, and the Irish benefited the most. From the Revolutionary War to World War II, the Irish were consistently among the celebrated soldiers on the battlefield. Popular culture lagged behind reality; from the 1800s through 1920, Irish Americans were still seen as slovenly, angry, stupid drunks.
Edward L. Shaughnessy observed that Thomas Nasts’s political cartoons were filled with derogatory portrayals of the Irish: "Nast found nearly all that he hated in the Irish Catholic Democrat, whom he mocked again and again as an incorrigible brawler and drunkard. (In short, the hooligan)."
Plays and vaudeville during the early 1840s to the 1890s also contained the stereotypical “stage” Irishmen. There was one bright spot during the 1850s when James Pilgrim wrote Shandy Maquire and Ireland As It Is. As Bruce McConachie explains, the title character, Shandy Maguire, includes more respectable characteristics than the usual Irish character of the time: "Where other Irish comics were typically the butt as well as the cause of laughter, Shady Maguire never invites his audience to laugh at himself; no longer a playful child eager to enjoy wine, women, and song, Shady is a responsible – though still a fun-loving adult."
Shady Maguire moves the fictional Irish closer to respectability by containing characteristics of the Protestant middle class. Any immigrant group, in literature, attempting to assimilate into the middle class is frequently portrayed as humorous and greeted with an underlying hostility by the ruling class. McConachie deconstructs why Shady was so popular, a "pilgrim domesticated the traditional Irish trickster by merging his characteristics with the stereotype of the melodramatic hero.” James Pilgrim makes his Irish character a hero, and Americans love to root for the good guy, no matter what race, as long as justice prevails. When Pilgrim gives Shady Macguire characteristics admired by society as a whole and by the ruling classes, he has moved the Irish a step closer to mainstream America.
Maureen Derzell discusses a turning point in the portrayal of the Irish in popular culture: "In the 1920s and 1930s, the traits associated with Irish-American characters – street smart, tough talking, funny, irreverent – increasingly became identified as urban American characters." These characteristics became identified with ANY person who lived in an American city and allowed the Irish to distance themselves from their own distinct stereotypes and acquire an aura of respectable middle class Protestant suburban stereotypes, thus becoming “true” Americans.
Radio played a huge role in changing the public’s perceptions of American life and the numerous ethnic groups that inhabited it. Gerd Horton mentions the importance of radio on American culture: "Radio was the primary medium during World War II in the United States: 110 million Americans, 90% of the population, listened to an average of four hours daily…wartime radio comedy overwhelmingly followed a different route: it provided a means for social cohesion and cross-cultural and cross-class harmony."
All radio programs during World War II had their characters provide public service announcements on subjects like gas and rubber rationing showcasing the characters’ patriotism. Steve Craig discusses the importance radio had in breaking ethnic barriers: "The economics of the radio industry favored national networks that provided the same programs to large areas of the country. As a result, producers and advertisers tended to emphasize national commonalities over regional interests. In so doing, radio presented America to its listeners as a land of one single people, albeit with a diversity of backgrounds and tastes."
After World War II and the implementation of the G.I. Bill of Rights, the Irish became the next class immigrant group allowed to enter the educated, respectable suburban middle class. They acquired what Maureen Derzell calls the “consummate Irish American personae: the self-effacing regular guy.” In the 1950s, the Irish were moving closer to American middle class respectability.
Whether it was because the performers on radio could not speak in an Irish brogue or because the Irish were no longer worthy of such a linguistic distinction, the Irish on radio were often only identified as Irish from other characters by their names, Catholicism, occupation (policeman), or as being a Red Sox fan from Boston. This simplification of ethnicity is evidenced in the early shows of Fibber McGee and Molly that ran in the 1930s. By the 1950s, Fibber McGee and Molly acquired more middle-class values and were less idiotic in their behavior. Molly’s accent was almost non-existent by the late 1940s.
There were numerous Irish characters during the Golden Age of Radio. These include the typical Irish cop, Sgt Fingers, in Frank Sinatra’s Rocky Fortune; senior newspaper reporter, Michael Axford, in the Green Hornet; and the Green Hornet himself, Brit Reid. Both Michael Axford and Sgt Fingers have a force field of stupidity surrounding them. Rocky Fortune constantly refers to Sergeant Fingers’s police station as “the Irish Clubhouse.” Two prominent Irish crime-solvers include Boston Blackie and Michael Shayne who is described as a reckless redheaded Irishmen who solves crimes with his brains and his brawn, but mostly with his brawn. Michael Shayne doesn’t give up on his principles – he trusts his two fists and doesn’t carry a gun. While these stereotypes lean towards the negative side, the characters are still heroes.
The most popular meeting place on radio was Duffy’s Tavern, which aired from 1941 to 1952. Here the biggest names of stage and screen gathered to participate in Duffy’s misadventures. Duffy was rarely heard, but his malaprop-prone manager, Archie, ran the place. The show began every week with the singing of “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” and the plotlines often involved Archie creating wild schemes and then having them implode. The Irish pub became a popular place - not just for Irish drunks - but for huge Hollywood stars who dropped by and added an ounce of credibility to Irish culture.
By far the most popular show of the 1940s was Fibber McGee and Molly. This show advanced the Shady Maguire character one step further to respectable societal assimilation. When Fibber McGee and Molly first go on the air in the 1930s, the characters still behave like playful children, ignorant of social mores and the plots often surround a misunderstanding made worse by Fibber’s ignorance or naiveté. Fibber spoke through malapropisms frequently and was the butt of most of the jokes. Molly had an Irish accent and Fibber did not.
The early stories were thin and rough until the actress, who played Molly, Marian Jordan, objected, and the writers discarded some of the more burlesque elements of the characters; then the show began to take off. The name Fibber, of course, implies that the Irish character is a liar; however, he rarely tells a lie, and his experiences are often by-products of his stupidity. There is another underlying Irish stereotype within Fibber McGee and Molly in the form of Molly’s oft mentioned Uncle Dennis who is the stereotypical Irish drunk, gregarious and a blowhard. Prostestant Irish could poke fun at their lower class brethren. Fibber McGee and Molly also have the stereotypical black maid. So even in 1939, lower class Irish employed even lower class African-Americans, within the logic of the show.
During the early years, Molly filled the stereotype of an Irish wife as mother by coddling and nursing Fibber through his many misadventures. The episode “Molly Wants a Budget,” which first aired in 1939 surrounds Fibber and his inability to maintain a budget. Molly has been out of town for a while and comes back home to find that Fibber has let house expenses get out of control:
Harlow (the Announcer): Well, folks, as you know by now, Molly is home again, and after looking over the household bills accumulated during her absence, she’s a trifle flabbergasted. And here in the living room at 79 Wistful Vista, we find the defendant and plaintiff in the case of income vs. outgo, Fibber McGee and Molly.
Molly: McGee, look at this milk bill! What on earth you been doing? Sprinklin the lawn with it?
Fibber: [sheepishly] It is a little high ain’t it? What say we get a cow?
Molly: Why, who’ll milk it?
Fibber: Oh, you gotta milk em?
Molly: No, you jest leave some empty bottles around the barn and then go out in the morning and rob the cow’s nest. Do you have to milk em? And how ‘bout this electric light bill?
Fibber: Ooh, is that high too?
Molly: Is it high? Well look at it. Looks like the annual report of the TVA.
Fibber: Well…Well, I was up late a couple nights reading. You don’t want me to be ignorant on current events do you?
Molly: No, but what events have been worth this much current? Now look here dearie….you was always one to go to extremes. Now you run down and get some bookkeeping ledgers.
Molly has an accent and uses the Irish affectation “dearie” when talking to Fibber who lacks an accent but is identified as Irish because he is ignorant and stupid, while maintaining his good humor.
Molly sends him to the store, and he thinks the bookkeeping ledger already has his budget inside, but it’s really just an example. So Fibber thinks he can buy $2000 worth of clothes, and he’s excited to show Molly what he’s done:
Fibber: If business ain’t better in our household, my wife’s gonna get personal.
Fibber does not wear the pants in the family. Of course, when Molly finds out what he’s done, she starts insulting him:
Molly: You’re behind the eight ball.
Molly: Oh sure, we all make mistakes, dearie. But now after this, don’t be so extravagant.
Molly lectures Fibber as if he’s a child. She truly loves him, but gets exasperated that he can’t really take care of himself. This interaction serves to reinforce two Irish stereotypes: that of the stupid, ignorant Irish male and the domineering, motherly Irish matriarch. As the series progresses into the mid-1940s; Molly losses her condescending, matriarchal tone with Fibber, and then she is portrayed as a loving and equal partner shaking her head at his silly misadventures.
In the episode entitled “Making Fudge,” Fibber decides to make his wife homemade fudge unaware that she has purchased fudge already from the candy store. Molly attempts to stop him and his friend, but Fibber doesn’t listen. This episode also includes numerous malapropisms that increased in usage during the 1950s.
Molly: Telling you something is like trying to lie on your back and play badminton with hailstones. [Molly talking to Fibber]
Lady [neighbor]: I’m your new neighbor next door. If we should go away for a few days, would you take care of our boxer?
McGee: Oh, you betcha, sis. I’m very fond of dogs.
Lady: Oh, this isn’t a dog. It’s our cousin, Punchy McCarthy. Thank you very much.
Molly: My goodness. Did you ever hear of Punchy McCarthy, McGee?
McGee: Sure, sure. Six feet of fightin’ scar tissue who couldn’t battle his way out of a hairnet. Known in prizefight circles as the waltz king. Gone into more dives than an M.P. in Paris. And made a will leavin’ his jaw to the Libby Owens glass company.
Here Fibber is more intelligent and witty when discussing an old Irish stereotype; he mocks the Irish boxer. This interaction implies that the McGees have become respectable enough to make fun of their own ethnic stereotypes. Their wordplay gets more sophisticated as the series progresses into the 50s.
McGee: When you fling a fang into this fudge, I’m gonna make you’ll realize why the chief of the Waldorf is a man.
Molly: It’s pronounced chef, deary.
Fibber: It is? Oh, when I was in the army I cooked up a mess of baked beans for the commander-in-chef and…
Molly: That’s chief.
Fibber: Oh, I cooked up a mess of beans for the commander-in-chief that was so wonderful he wanted to know the name of the chief that cooked em...
This is a common exchange between Molly and Fibber. She corrects his malapropisms, and he ignores her suggestions. Fibber and Molly constantly engage in nonsensical wordplay, faux pas, and more sophisticated jokes with references to Orson Welles and Shakespeare. Fibber McGee and Molly laid the groundwork for Irish portrayals in radio, and later episodes finally entered the realm of the educated middle class.
Meanwhile, over in California, the Irish were living the life of Riley. Riley, the lead character in Life of Riley, is already middle class when the radio program begins. He is a riveter at an airplane factory, a blue-collar job, but he can afford to keep up with the Joneses’ by being a penny pincher. Riley and Fibber are opposite personalities when it comes to money, so are Peg and Molly. Riley and his family used to live in Boston and moved to California. The listener is aware of Riley’s Catholicism because he interacts with his priest in several episodes and often says; “What’s good enough for the Red Sox is good enough for me.”
His catch phrase is “I ain’t the kind of husband that lies to his wife so I’ll tell you the truth.” Of course, he always says it after he’s spent the whole episode lying to his wife, and it’s now the moment of truth. Riley should have changed names with Fibber. The Pabst Blue Ribbon beer company sponsored Life of Riley, but I still haven’t been able to find proof that this was an intentional stereotype manipulated by Madison Avenue. Neither Riley, his wife Peg, nor his two children have accents. Riley’s wife, Peg, does not push him to make money; she knows opera and the arts, and does not nag him. His eldest daughter is attending UCLA. Riley is living the post World War II American Dream. But in true Irish fashion, he is a little inept and has a tendency to jump to conclusions, which leads to comedic circumstances.
Riley has two friends, Gillis and Digger O’Dell. Gillis is a bluer collar version of Riley. Gillis is rougher around the edges, avoids his wife, and acts in a bawdy manner. Digger O’Dell is the “friendly undertaker,” he was in the Air Force during World War II and has a son named Mossbank who helps his dad with the family business. The name harkens back to when the Irish were derogatively called diggers due to their poor status. Here, however, Digger is the moral compass of the show and always helps Riley out of a tight spot. Digger has an accent, it is supposed to be an Irish brogue but it sounds more Rastafarian. Having an accent ties Digger to the lower classes, just like Fibber and Molly in the early days of that show. Digger’s catchphrase is “I better be shoveling off,” which he says after he has helped Riley find a solution to the sticky situation he’s gotten into, and he adds some macabre humor to the show whenever he appears by saying things like: “Nobody wakes up at my place; We put it where nobody can get it and when I make a promise to a customer, the promise is always carried out, and so is the customer.” Each episode of The Life of Riley began with a jingle that said, “You’re living the life of Riley when it’s Pabst Blue Ribbon time.” Madison Avenue is implying that Riley’s Irish-American lifestyle is desirable to other Americans. It was good to be Irish; Riley assimilated into mainstream Protestant culture. The Irish Catholic was finally allowed into the club.
Riley isn’t as buffoonish as Fibber nor as stupid. He wants the best for his family but sometimes goes about it the wrong way. A perfect example is the episode “The Spicy Book,” which aired in 1950. Riley’s daughter must read My Lady Jezebel for her college class, and it has a reputation for being salacious. Riley is horrified, and his daughter knows he’ll try to prevent her from reading it so she changes the cover of the book. Riley snoops in her room and reads it and thinks it’s a book about abstinence. So Riley buys a hundred copies of My Lady Jezebel for his priest to donate to the Catholic Boys Club and the Sunday school. He hands out copies to all the neighborhood kids. Then the priest confronts him with a lawsuit for endangering the welfare of minors, and Riley finally realizes his mistake. This is the common occurrence in the shows, a simple misunderstanding; it evokes the exploits of Ozzie and Harriet. In the episode entitled “The Lawnmower Company,” Riley has the following exchange with his wife and then his son:
Riley: Say I’m a tightwad.
Peg: You’re a tightwad.
Riley: A boy’s gotta learn to stand on his own two feet. He’s gotta learn to be self-reliant. That’s the American way. Ain’t you ashamed junior? Coming to me every week, week after week for your allowance?
Riley: No, you’re not ashamed to ask me?
Junior: Why should I be ashamed? I ask ya; but ya never give it to me.
This is an example of what I mentioned earlier about radio concentrating on American ethics and characteristics not specific to one ethnic group. Riley is teaching his son American values not Irish values. Of course, Irish values are American values.
Another hit for the Irish was the Britt Reid show, aka the Green Hornet. The name Britt in Irish means freckled, spotted, or speckled, while Reid means red hair and ruddy complexion. Plus there is the obvious fact that the Hornet is green. There was also a Blue Hornet radio show, but it didn’t catch on. The Green Hornet and Kato fought crime while his alter ego, Britt Reid, a newspaper reporter. His friend, Michael Axford, was also a newspaper reporter, but mostly he got himself into situations that the Green Hornet got him out of. Axford had a thick accent, was easily duped, and got angry. He was a lower class Irish stereotype in the guise of the middle class. Britt Reid was wealthy, smart, and the hero of the stories. He was the successor of Shady Maguire.
John Lowe observes how the Irish gained acceptance: the "Irish, however, gradually began to improve their lot through the traditional routes of hard work, standard English, education and white skin.” Hard work in radio and film sped up this process because of the massive audience they captured. Any immigrant group attempting to assimilate into the middle class was generally portrayed as humorous, but because they were able to laugh at themselves the Irish were able to dissolve the potency of those clichés. Some still exist to this day, but the anger and hostility of the days of Thomas Nast cartoons has passed.
The Irish have achieved respectability.
From guest contributor Johanna Church, Johnson & Wales University