Inner Cities Need the Irish Solution


Because the Irish have been so completely assimilated into this country we frequently forget that they once had problems every bit as severe as today's blacks.

The 1987 film The Commitments has a scene in which the leader of a Dublin rock band refers to the Irish as “the blacks of Europe.” He reasons that because his group is trying to make it in an environment of poverty, drugs, and violence, and because the Irish have been the victims of racism, he and his mates have every right to sing the blues.

It’s a funny line, and its truer than most people think. There is a deep correlation between Americans of Irish and African descent. The Irish — my people — once had a violent, criminal underclass with more than its share of tragedies involving crime, disease, and spiritual malnourishment.

How the Irish got by reveals what could be the last best hope for black America in a time when society is growing more frustrated and indifferent to the seemingly intractable problems of the black underclass. I fear, however, that secular, morally pliant twenty-first-century America makes a new implementation of the “Irish Solution” even more difficult than it was originally.


Because the Irish have been so completely assimilated into this country we frequently forget that they once had problems every bit as severe as today’s blacks. According to an article by William J. Stern in New York’s City Journal, the New York Irish of the second half of the nineteenth century were “the nation’s first underclass — criminal, drunken, promiscuous, and shiftless, with high illegitimacy rates and thousands of abandoned children.”

In the 1860s, it was estimated that 60,000 abandoned Irish kids “ran wild” in New York slums like Five Points. Gangs were common, with names like the Forty Thieves, the B’boys, and the Roach Gang. Irish political exile Thomas D’Arcy McGee went to New York to drum up antipathy towards the English, but found himself more intimidated by the Irish toughs. He claimed he had never seen “a more utter disregard of honor, of truth and purity, and even the common decencies in life.”

But by the turn of the century the Irish had completely turned themselves around, thanks to the Catholic Church. In 1863 the church established the New York Society for the Protection of Destitute Catholic Children — commonly called the Catholic Protectory — to address the Irish problem. Thirty years later a national conference on charity noted the organization’s success:

What crimes have been prevented, what homes have been made happy, what human misery has been alleviated, what brands have been salvaged from the burning, what myriads of useful men and women have been made an honor to the state by this institution, it is beyond the power of the human pen to record.

How did the Catholic Protectory do it? According to William Stern, citing records of the time, the Protectory offered “the clearest possible statement of right and wrong, [and] confidently asserted that these values were absolute and backed up by a divine authority.” The curriculum also included character-building activities like dance, orchestra (everyone had to play an instrument), and drill instruction. Within thirty years, the Irish were assimilated, productive citizens. More importantly, they became civil.


We are now faced with a tragic situation. Inner city blacks are in desperate need of their own Catholic Protectory. Yet today’s inner-city leadership is enraptured with contemporary liberalism and so can’t see that it is a cure that’s killing their people. They have made heroes of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, two men whose bloodthirsty rhetoric and defense of criminals encourage the belief that blacks are so victimized by racism that they deserve leeway for criminal conduct and out-of-wedlock births. And when people attempt to create a sane, orderly environment in which kids can learn — like the single-sex schools that have met with success in Harlem — the ACLU or similar groups step in to quash them. Black pundit Randall Robinson, in his book The Debt, seems to believe that black pathology can be cured by obsessing about slavery and eliciting a financial recompense with the help of guilty white liberals. It seems that the more chaos that is unleashed in the inner cities the farther back in history academics hunt for reasons. But the answers are found in the 1960s, not the 1860s.

The fact that the inner cities still suffer from crime and fatherlessness during the greatest economy in human history should make academics, journalists, and those in the helping professions think twice about their continual use of racism as the lodestar for everything wrong in urban America. But to my knowledge, only one left-leaning journalist has ever come out and said the unspeakable. In a 1996 article in the New Republic, journalist Joe Klein deconstructs many of the liberal assumptions about the causes of urban decay.

Politicians and academics like to place the blame for urban problems on the evils of society — with racism and the loss of manufacturing jobs being at the forefront. Klein, however, reveals that chaos in America’s cities accelerated during the economic boom times of the 1960s. He notes that in New York City, robbery rates were stable through the century, “including [during] the Great Depression, a period of intense joblessness and despair that did not cause any normative changes among blacks and whites.” But robbery quintupled from 1962 to 1967, then doubled again from 1967 to 1972. At that same time crime exploded in Washington, D.C., a city whose government employees are not dependent on heavy industry for their paychecks. The 1960s “were flush, jobful times,” writes Klein. “so what was really going on?”


What was going on, as Klein points out, was a poisonous mix of radical politics and poor work habits. This was nowhere more evident than in Washington, my home town. Prior to the 1960s Washington was a segregated city where blacks had been lynched and weren’t allowed into department stores. It was also a glorious cultural and intellectual Mecca for blacks, a baby brother to Harlem during that New York enclave’s artistic renaissance of the 1920s. Jazz master Duke Ellington was born and raised in Washington. At school he was taught in a manner not at all dissimilar from the Catholic Protectory. As Ellington recalled in his autobiography Music Is My Mistress:

In addition to arithmetic, algebra, history, and English, which were taught as the most vital things in the world, my teacher — Miss Boston, the principal of the school — would explain the importance of proper speech. It would be most important in our lives to come. When we went out into the world, we would have the grave responsibility of being practically always on stage, for every time people saw a Negro they would go into a reappraisal of the race. She taught us that proper speech and good manners were our first obligations.

In Washington, the dividing line between past and present is the 1968 riot following the assassination of Martin Luther King. The Shaw neighborhood was thriving right up until then, but the riots nearly destroyed it. More than 1,200 buildings were burned and the damage ran to $24.7 million — the third largest of any riot in American history. The destruction, combined with “white flight” and new fair-housing laws that allowed blacks to live in the suburbs, emptied the neighborhood. Nothing would be the same after those riots. Whites and the black middle class left, leaving this city, as so many others, in the hands of politicians of questionable character.

As Fred Siegel notes in his conspicuously overlooked book The Future Once Happened Here: New York, LA, and the Fate of America’s Cities, Washington became a hostage to “riot politics.” Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee leader Marion Barry arrived and passed himself off as the only thing standing between the white elite and total anarchy. In one famous TV spot, Barry soothed an agitated young brother who called the police “pigs who deserve to die.” Barry, on camera, reasoned that there were other methods of action that were more acceptable. “The message was clear,” Siegel writes. “Negotiate with Barry, meet his economic demands, or there would be more trouble.” Standards were dropped, victimization set in, drugs took over, and we in Washington found ourselves in the situation once nicely described by Joe Klein:

The great moral tragedy of post-New Deal liberalism was the tendency not only to absolve antisocial behavior, but also to memorialize it as a revolt against shallow and restrictive “bourgeois” values. There was a tacit alliance between the intelligentsia and the poor, a romanticization of alienation. Later, as the body count ballooned, this metastasized into a sloppy, undifferentiated empathy. We dare not “blame the victim” of self-indulgence.

We find ourselves in this same impasse today. Society, spooked by potential accusations of racism, is frozen, prevented from doing what has worked throughout history and thus admitting that human beings, especially the young and the poor, need tight moral guidelines and real self-restraint to become self-sufficient, civilized citizens.

In mid-nineteenth-century New York, the Catholic Church did plenty of blaming the victims. It refused to entertain excuses. And it set up structures to help those victims overcome the odds. You could call it the Irish Solution. And it worked. Their tough standards and wisdom on ushering the poor into society succeeded so well that we have forgotten that they were ever needed.

Well, human nature hasn’t changed since then. Additional hurdles and government institutionalization may complicate applying that solution to today’s blighted inner cities, but we’ll never know whether those obstacles are insurmountable or merely daunting until we try. And if we succeed, we may see the Irish Solution playing a role in the rest of America, too.


Judge, Mark Gauvreau. “Inner Cities Need the Irish Solution.” Breakpoint (May 15, 2000).

From BreakPoint ® (05/15/2000), Copyright 2000, Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with the permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries, P.O. Box 17500, Washington, D.C. 20041-0500. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. “BreakPoint ®” and “Prison Fellowship Ministries ®” are registered trademarks of Prison Fellowship Ministries. THE AUTHOR

Mark Gauvreau Judge is author of If It Ain’t Got that Swing: The Rebirth of Grown-up Culture (Spence, May 2000) and a freelance writer who lives in the Washington, D.C. area.

Copyright © 2000 Breakpoint

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