The sorry spectacle of Sean Spicer apologizing for suggesting that Hitler never gassed anybody has shown an essential but easily missed rule about the use of history: Those whose job it is to lie for a living have no more knowledge of or respect for historical truth than they do for current truth. Indeed, in Spicer’s case you have to wonder how much he knows about an atrocity that changed the lives of his own forbears and a number of his own colleagues in the White House.
Early in July 1845, the weather in Ireland was dry and hot. By late July there was a report that the potato crop was “never before so large and at the same time so abundant.”
This was not a casual agricultural observation. Millions of rural peasants were dependent on the potato for their survival. An acre and a half of land planted with potatoes could support a family of six for a year. In the west and southwest of Ireland the self-sufficiency provided by a potato diet meant that people hardly had to buy any other food, not even bread since baking was virtually unknown.
The fine early summer, however, was followed by weeks of chilling rain and fog. The potato crop still lay deep in Ireland’s nourishing loams, and there was no reason to suppose that it would not live up to its early promise. In October, when potato digging began, great clusters of wholesome spuds came out of the earth.
Then, within days, every potato rotted. The decay was rapid and complete. From thereafter, for five years, Ireland was ravaged by famine as one potato crop after another failed. The cause was a blight that originated in America and was then borne unseen by ships to Europe.
Well over half a million people in Ireland died. This humanitarian disaster was exacerbated by dilatory, inept, and callous British administrators who ruled Ireland from London, as well as by cupidity among Irish landowners and officials.
The Potato Famine initiated a vast passage of Irish families to North America. Between 1846 and 1855 nearly 1.8 million Irish emigrated to the United States, most of them to New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. Among them were families with names like Ryan, Flynn, Pence, Mulvaney, and Bannon.
Like other waves of immigrants before and after, this Irish contingent came to a country where the ruling elites had been long established and where the established political power groups were hard to break into. But one family would show the way.
In County Wexford, a richly verdant corner of southeast Ireland, a tenant farmer named Kennedy managed to replace the potato with grain to feed his family. But landlords turned the screw, demanding higher rents, and life was hard. The youngest of the farmer’s sons, 25-year-old Patrick, decided to emigrate and in 1848 he left for America and settled in Yankee-dominated Boston.
It took three generations before the Kennedy family scented the chance to attain money and power. Patrick’s grandson, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, was born in September 1888. Three years earlier, Boston had elected its first Irish mayor. The makings of a new political power base—an Irish mafia—were just becoming tangible. Joe’s father, another in the line of Patricks, was self-made, owner of several saloons, shrewd and a low-profile political influence in the Irish wards. His son realized that to get influence beyond that world he needed break into the Yankee networks and won a place at Harvard.
By the age of 25 Joe Kennedy was the president of a small local bank, the youngest bank president in Massachusetts and in 1914 he married Rose, the eldest of three daughters of the powerful Irish mayor, “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald. Their son, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, took Irish political power to its zenith, in the White House. But by that time, in the early 1960s, it was not his Irish heritage that Kennedy had any reason to believe would be a handicap in his election campaign. It was the family’s Catholic faith.
Kennedy addressed this directly in a speech in Texas in 1960. It was a defining attack on religious intolerance, a pledge that the separation of church and state should be absolute, and a ringing personal vision of America as a place “where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”
In office Kennedy showed no bias, ethnic or otherwise, in choosing a cabinet of “the best and the brightest” (however flawed they eventually proved to be). One of his closest unofficial advisers on foreign policy was the ultimate Connecticut Yankee, Dean Acheson. Of course, Kennedy did choose his brother Robert as attorney general, but that had everything to do with personal trust and nothing to do with their Irish heritage. The only link to the family’s Irish political base was Kenneth P. O’Donnell, who had the misleadingly modest title of special assistant and appointments secretary, but who was partly playing the role of a kind of Irish mafia consigliere. (In this context “mafia” is not used in its original meaning as code for a covert organized crime family, but in the same sense as it might equally be applied to, say, a Scottish or British mafia, a politically influential grouping defined by a common heritage.)
Likewise, presidents Reagan and Clinton celebrated their Irish roots without recruiting an Irish mafia—although Clinton played a decisive part in securing the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland, and began that process by inviting leaders of the Irish Republican Army to the White House, much to the displeasure of British politicians.
Another mayor of Boston, Patrick Collins, had made clear the Irish allegiance to the country that had welcomed them when he declared in 1876: “I love the land of my birth but in American politics I know neither race, color nor creed. Let me say now that there are no Irish voters among us… the moment that the seal of the court was impressed upon our papers we ceased to be foreigners and became Americans.”
The Kennedy presidency was rightly a matter of great pride for Irish Americans as a final confirmation of their place in the pantheon. The Trump White House, in contrast, seems to have gathered its Irish flavor without any conscious design or preference.
It may well be an accidental mafia, shaped by betting on the long shot. Early commitment and loyalty to Trump was decisive: Mike Pence, Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Fitzpatrick Conway, Sean Spicer, and General Mike Flynn all found in Trump something they thought they could ride to personal and political advantage, even if he lost. For sure, House Speaker Paul Ryan was ambivalent about Trump until he won and in no sense did he show any ethnic fealty—but if anyone is the Michael Corleone of this story, the ultimate enforcer of the family doctrine, it is Ryan.
On the Republicans’ hard line social and fiscal policies Pence and Ryan are joined at the hip. Both are dedicated to making the rich richer while whacking the poor.
Just exactly how this flows from the immigrant Irish experience is a mystery. Ryan loves talking about how his ancestor James Ryan of Kilkenny survived the Potato Famine and settled in Wisconsin in 1851. You would think that his campaign to destroy Obamacare reflects the pitiless master-race view of the peasantry shown by the British administrators of Ireland in the 1840s, rather than an empathy with the immigrant experience.
The New York Times columnist Timothy Egan wondered about this in 2014 and wrote, “You can’t help noticing the deep historic irony that finds a Tea Party favorite and descendant of famine Irish using the same language that English Tories used to justify indifference to an epic tragedy.”
But, like others of his ilk, Ryan invokes history only to misread it as an Ayn Rand parable about the survival of the fittest—and the greediest.
Then there is Mick Mulvaney. The Tea Party zealot was nominated as budget director after Trump’s election. He sounded like Ryan on speed when he announced the 2018 budget: “We’re not gonna ask you for your hard-earned money anymore unless we can guarantee that that money is actually being used in a proper function.” As an example, he cited Meals on Wheels because it was “just not showing any results.”
During his confirmation process it emerged that Mulvaney had failed to pay $15,000 in payroll taxes for a nanny; once exposed he agreed to pay back taxes and fees.
Ryan shares another trait with others in the administration that is indelibly Irish—the gift of blarney. It’s the language of the flim-flam man, of the horse trader whose horses should certainly have their teeth closely examined before purchase, the beguiling patter of the natural charmer who delivers humbug with total conviction.
Ryan’s earliest political con trick, when he was selected as Mitt Romney’s running mate, was to have himself accepted as a new kind of economic guru, a view that has only recently been undermined by his dud health care plan.
But when it comes to blarney the person most celebrated for it is surely Kellyanne Conway, born Kellyanne Fitzpatrick in New Jersey to an Irish immigrant father, and the leading advocate of alternative facts including, notoriously, a massacre that never happened.
People who knew and admired Conway as a shrewd political operator were not surprised when in the campaign she outsmarted the Clinton machine in swing states, working with far fewer resources. But then they saw her morph into a different person once she had access to the Oval Office. At times, dishing out the Trump spin, she looked like she was an understudy for the role of Lady Macbeth. Merciless parody on Saturday Night Live followed and lately she has been far less visible as Spicer went all-in with the brazen bullshit. His future now looks very dodgy.
Hovering over this whole gang like an incubus is Steve Bannon. Physically Bannon resembles a certain Irish archetype, the Rugby-playing bruiser who might, in a forthcoming biopic, be played by that splendid Irish thespian Brendan Gleeson. Politically Bannon plays the over-compensating apostate: “I came from a blue-collar, Irish Catholic, pro-Kennedy, pro-union family of Democrats.”
Now, with Trump dumping on a daily basis the Breitbart planks of his campaign platform, Bannon no longer has purchase on the role assigned to him in numerous profiles as “Trump’s Brain.” Trump just made his subordinate status clear by dismissively saying, “he works for me.” Bannon arrived announcing that he would blow up the status quo; he will likely leave having helped to blow up the Irish mafia.
But so far the most damaged of Trump’s original Irish phalanx is, of course, General Michael Flynn, grandson of Charles Flynn who emigrated from County Tyrone to Rhode Island in 1913. In the campaign Flynn stepped impulsively beyond the expected gravitas of a military adviser and became a rabble-rousing partisan leading chants of “lock her up” directed at Hillary Clinton. Ironic now, after he attempted to plea bargain his way out of the swamp of the Trump campaign’s alleged flirtations with Putin.
Technically the reason for Flynn’s departure as national security adviser was that he failed to tell Vice President Mike Pence (grandfather and grandmother from County Clare) the truth about conversations with the Russian ambassador. And it is true that in the treacherous currents of the White House it is Pence who plays the role of Mister Probity with the patience of an Irish priest enduring the delinquencies of a particularly shady parish. The nearest Pence gets to public embarrassment in the company of Trump is a fleeting reflexive wince. It may well be that Pence has one of the greatest of Irish gifts, the ability to wait out a period of trial until the moment comes to take over, as Ireland did when it finally rose up and threw out its English tormentors.