Richard J. Daley: A Separate World

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An excerpt from "American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley — His Battle for Chicago and the Nation" by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor

Jump to: 1 (Chicago) | 2 (The Neighborhood) | 3 (Irish Immigration)
4 (Daley's Childhood) | 5 (Daley's Education) | 6 (The Athletic Club)
7 (Racism) | 8 (Irish Politics) | 9 (Daley's Early Political Career)

Daley was born in a simple two-flat at 3502 South Lowe on May 15, 1902. Daley's father, Michael, was the second of nine children born to James E. Daley, a New York-born butcher, and Delia Gallagher, an immigrant from Ireland. Like most Irish-American immigrants, Daley's forebears came to the country as part of the Great Potato Famine migration, which caused more than two million Irish to expatriate between 1845 and 1850. Though not brought over in chains, these Irishmen and Irishwomen were torn from their land and forced to emigrate by extraordinarily cruel circumstances. Before the famine ended, perhaps one-quarter of Ireland's population of eight million had died of starvation and disease. Many survivors headed for America. Their journey across the ocean, made in aptly named "coffin ships," was perilous. Passengers often succumbed to "ship fever," a kind of typhus, along the way. It was a migration of refugees fleeing a country they held dear, often forced to leave loved ones behind. Family legend has it that Daley's grandfather began his own journey when he went to market in Cork with his brother to sell pigs and, with the few shillings he made on the sale, boarded the next ship for America.

Growing up in Bridgeport, Daley could not have avoided hearing about the horrors of the "Great Starvation." Adults in the neighborhood, some of whom had seen the suffering firsthand, passed on to the children lurid tales of skeletons walking the countryside, and peasant women dying in the fields. These famine stories were invariably laced with bitter accounts of how the hated British had exported wheat and oats out of the country while the Irish starved. In the course of his childhood, Daley learned the whole tragic history of his people — the centuries of rule as a conquered territory, the rebellions brutally put down, the absentee landlordism that drove farmers into poverty, and the language all but obliterated.

The America Daley's grandparents immigrated to rescued them from famine, but it was far from welcoming. The flood of Irish arriving in the nation's large cities produced a feverish outpouring of anti-Catholic sentiment. Protestant ministers preached about the threat posed by a Catholic Church they referred to by epithets like "The Scarlet Lady of Babylon" and "The Whore of Rome." And the American reading public devoured incendiary anti-Catholic books like the infamous novel Artful Disclosures, an "exposé" of convent life in which a nun describes forced sexual relations with priests, frequent orgies, and the murder of nuns who refused to submit.

This anti-Catholic fervor found political expression in the Know-Nothing Party, which in the elections of 1854/55 won seventy-five seats in Congress. In newspapers and popular magazines, a stereotype soon emerged of Irish immigrants as shiftless and prone to drink, with a dangerous propensity for brawling, gambling, and other lowlife pastimes. "Who does not know that the most depraved, debased, worthless, and irredeemable drunkards and sots which curse the community are Irish Catholics?" the Chicago Tribune asked in 1855. The Irish were regarded as particularly disposed to crime.

"Scratch a convict or a pauper," the Chicago Post declared in 1898, and "the chances are that you tickle the skin of an Irish Catholic at the same time — an Irish Catholic made a criminal or a pauper by the priest and politicians who have deceived him and kept him in ignorance, in a word, a savage, as he was born."

America reserved some of the lowest rungs on the economic and social ladder for the new Irish immigrants. Signs proclaiming "No Irish Need Apply" were common. Advertisements for housekeepers often specified "Protestant girls" only, because young Irish-Catholic women, as one account had it, were "the daughters of laborers, or needy tradesmen, or persecuted, rack-rented cotters, they are ignorant of the common duties of servants in respectable positions." Irish men, for their part, were largely relegated to the jobs native-born whites would not take. They were the laborers who carved out the canals, laid the railroad tracks, and dug the ditches — often at great personal cost. As one Irish-American lamented at the time: "How often do we see such paragraphs in the paper as an Irishman drowned — an Irishman crushed by a beam — an Irishman suffocated in a pit — an Irishman blown to atoms by a steam engine — ten, twenty Irishmen buried alive by the sinking of a bank — and other like casualties and perils to which honest Pat is constantly exposed in the hard toils for his daily bread."

Coming of age in Bridgeport, Daley absorbed a keen understanding of Ireland's long years of "misery, suffering, oppression, violence, exploitation, atrocity, and genocide." And he felt deeply the discrimination that, even in America, his countrymen experienced. Hard as it may be to imagine now, one of the major forces driving Daley — born in a working-class Irish-Catholic neighborhood in a city run by wealthy Protestants — was something as basic as "an aspiration for full-class citizenship." Later in life, after he had taken control of the Chicago Democratic machine and been elected mayor, Daley spoke at an Irish-American dinner at Chicago's venerable Conrad Hilton Hotel. "I can't help thinking of your mothers and fathers and grandparents who would never have been allowed in this hotel," Daley declared.

The lace-curtain Irish crowd laughed, but Daley did not. "I want to offer a prayer for those departed souls who could never get into the Conrad Hilton." Daley's childhood catechism of Irish deprivations left him convinced that no group had suffered as his kinsmen had suffered. In the 1960s, when Daley was turning a deaf ear to the civil rights movement, one liberal critic opined: "I think one of the real problems [Daley] has with Negroes is understanding that the Irish are no longer the out-ethnic group."


Jump to: 1 (Chicago) | 2 (The Neighborhood) | 3 (Irish Immigration)
4 (Daley's Childhood) | 5 (Daley's Education) | 6 (The Athletic Club)
7 (Racism) | 8 (Irish Politics) | 9 (Daley's Early Political Career)

Copyright © 2000 by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of Click here for ordering information for "American Pharaoh" at

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