Wednesday 23 August 2017

Conway, Flynn, O'Reilly, McMahon and more - Introducing the alt-Irish Americans

From administration fixtures to 'inner circle' confidants, Donald Trump's universe is highly Irish-American. To what end?

Counselor to the president, Kellyanne Conway
Counselor to the president, Kellyanne Conway
Fox presenter Sean Hannity
Mike Pence
Paul Ryan, House speaker
John F Kennedy

Siobhán Brett

"I hope everyone wears their green on Thursday and Friday," a grinning Sean Spicer told the White House press corps last Monday, as one might a primary school class. "You got a double shot at it this year because of the visit."

It was Spicer, the White House press secretary, who got to announce that Trump had named March "Irish American History Month". In broaching the subject of festive apparel, he was merrily alluding to a personal tradition involving shamrock-patterned trousers. Spicer's siblings are named Shannon and Ryan, and he is reportedly fond of a pint of Smithwick's. During an exchange with a couple of journalists, he once tweeted: "I'm Irish, I drink and I like people."

Last year, Paul Ryan, speaker of the US House of Representatives declared similarly: "I express myself. I'm an Irish guy, that's what we do".

Last Wednesday night in Washington DC, Vice President Mike Pence said the following to about 700 black-tie dinner guests: "All that I am, all that I will ever be, and all the service that I will ever give, is owed to my Irish heritage."

Fox presenter Bill O'Reilly
Fox presenter Bill O'Reilly

From counsellor (Kellyanne Conway), to national security advisor (Michael Flynn), to head of the Small Business Administration (Linda McMahon), and house majority leader (Kevin McCarthy), the people of Irish extraction who are advising, assisting, and advocating for Trump are conspicuous in their number and their status.

Per a Boston Globe report last year, the father of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon canvassed for John F Kennedy in 1960. "There's a seed of Boston planted in every Irish Catholic kid," Chris Bannon said, answering questions about his brother's path to Harvard University. "We were Kennedy freaks. My dad knocked on doors for Kennedy. Every Irish kid thinks he wants to be Jack Kennedy, right? At least back then."

At least back then. But the motivation of the "Irish kid" in the United States is no longer so easily discerned, and certainly no longer an ambition uniform to each. The Irishness of the new administration and of many of those adjacent to it serves as a tidy reminder of years-old political heterogeneity of the Irish in the US.

In the wake of eight years of a Democratic presidency, though, the transition seems stark. Surely it is stark for Irish-American publisher and Democratic champion, Niall O'Dowd, who, in a break from convention, did not receive an invitation to the White House last week.

Michael Flynn
Michael Flynn

O'Dowd, a longtime Clintonite, called the snub "a badge of honour". On Trump and Irish-America, however, he was not so droll. "Suburban America was hugely significant in Trump's victory, and it follows that classic Irish Catholic families were hugely significant in his victory," he said.

"The anti-Democratic establishment watches Fox News," O'Dowd continued. "And for the duration of the election, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, and Megyn Kelly were the three big anchors on Fox. To me, that's an interesting phenomenon. Hannity is practically his [Trump's] puppet at this stage."

From time to time, the involvement of Irish Americans in conservative politics crosses from curiosity into grievance for O'Dowd. He was "really bothered" by the position taken by General John Kelly, Trump's Secretary of Homeland Security, on immigration. "You think of a guy…Boston Irish, probably immigrant Irish, suddenly talking tough on immigration. Betraying his own heritage," he said. It is worth remembering, O'Dowd said, that Trump is very comfortable around Irish-Americans, having met and done extensive due diligence and then business with many people while developing property in Manhattan.

Pence will be the centre of Irish power in the White House, much like his predecessor Joe Biden was, said O'Dowd.

"The hardest thing for a person in Ireland to understand is that an American definition of Irish is, by its nature, very, very different," he said, not involving consensus, and not matching to social or political mores in Ireland at a given time.

Jeffrey Cleary, acting chairman of national representative group Irish-American Republicans ("The GOP's Delta Force", the website proclaims), said that much of his organisation's activity was suspended last year because of disagreement as to the fitness of the then-Republican candidate. In recent months, the outcome of the election concrete, members have set aside differences and returned to work at state and local level, he said.

White House chief strategist Steve Bannon
White House chief strategist Steve Bannon

George W Bush, Cleary said, was "spectacular in Ireland". He had kind words for John McCain, and for Ronald Reagan, years before him, but was considerably more chilly on the subject of pride of Moneygall, Barack Obama, deeming his presidency "a failure".

Today, Irish-American Republicans is "monitoring President Trump" with its members in mind, Cleary said. From his perspective, so far, so good. "Trump has put together an amazing team," he said.

Irish-American Republicans was founded in 1996 (initially known as the National Assembly of Irish-American Republicans, the name simplified after two years), and was charged in 2000 with the organisation of then-president Bush's first St Patrick's Day at the White House. Cleary, himself "seven-eighths Irish" - one great-grandfather was Dutch - said that one person's expression of his Irishness brought about a feeling of affinity in another. He gave Sean Spicer as an example. "He is very much in touch with his roots," Cleary said. "People are drawn to that.

"Irish-Americans are drawn to public service, too," Cleary adds, playing down the present Irish representation. "If you go through any administration, you'll find it's loaded with Irish-Americans. Reagan had quite a few. Clinton had a large amount. When I worked with George Pataki [former governor of New York], it felt as though every name on every door was an Irish name."

Nationalism, protectionism, and what O'Dowd called "an insular view", exhibited by a desire to deport immigrants and construct walls, are ideas and feelings that roundly appeal to pockets of the Irish-American community, according to Andrew O'Hehir, executive editor of online arts and culture magazine, Salon. In 2014, O'Hehir wrote an animated and somewhat prescient opinion piece on the subject, headlined "How did my fellow Irish-Americans get so disgusting?".

Sean Spicer
Sean Spicer

In it, he calls out Fox stalwarts Hannity and O'Reilly, but also conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, and Republican congressman Peter King. The men, O'Hehir said, consistently represented "the most stereotypical grade of racist, xenophobic, small-minded, right-wing Irish-American intolerance. When you think of the face of white rage in America, it belongs to a red-faced Irish dude on Fox News."

Speaking last week, O'Hehir said he believed there was "no denying that something has happened in the Irish American community, if that's even a useful term anymore. Conservative, nationalistic politics informed by bigotry is anathema in Ireland, to a large degree. Irish nationalism is so different, and so complicated."

He said he found Irish-American support of Trump puzzling. Trump's "America first" mentality fits to some degree with the nationalism of Irish-Americans for whom a united Ireland remains an utmost hope or an exotic cause, O'Hehir acknowledged, which is something central to a sense of identify, for many.

"At one time, the Irish were probably as villainised as the Muslims are now. Some sort of psychological adjustment or reversal has happened to the historical Irish experience. I'm not sure other expat Irish communicates - in the UK, Australia, Canada - have any of the same tendencies. "

A recent poll, of 3,100 readers of Irish Central, saw voters reach back several decades to place the legendary former White House resident John F Kennedy (below) firmly at the top of the pile.

John F Kennedy

Next came Joe Biden, Barack Obama's former vice president. After him came New York's popular archbishop Cardinal Timothy Dolan. Maureen O'Hara, Dublin-born star of The Quiet Man, took fourth place, and in fifth came Ronald Reagan, who visited Ireland during his presidency. And last came film star Liam Neeson.

Sean Spicer was not mentioned.

Steve Bannon, White House chief strategist

White House chief strategist Steve Bannon

Born in Virginia, in his own words, to a "blue-collar, Irish-Catholic family" - Bannon's third wife was from Limerick

Sean Hannity, Fox presenter

Fox presenter Sean Hannity

Hannity's grandparents came to the US from Cork and Down, respectively. He is said to keep a sign in his office that reads: "Irish Catholics need not apply"

Mike Pence, Vice President

Mike Pence

Pence's grandfather, Richard Cawley, emigrated from Sligo to Chicago in the 1920s. His grandmother's people were from Doonbeg, Co Clare

Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president

Counselor to the president, Kellyanne Conway

Born Kellyanne Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, her father, who owned a small trucking company, was an Irish-American

Sean Spicer, White House press secretary

Sean Spicer

A Smithwick's fan, he says his great-grandfather William emigrated from Kinsale

Bill O'Reilly, Fox presenter

Fox presenter Bill O'Reilly

O'Reilly's great-grandfather emigrated to New York City from Cavan. He threatened to flee to Ireland if Bernie Sanders was elected president

Michael Flynn, national security director

Michael Flynn

"Hails from a large Irish Catholic family in Rhode Island", according to Politico. In fact, his grandfather was from Tyrone

Paul Ryan, House speaker

Paul Ryan, House speaker

Ryan's great-grandfather left Kilkenny for Wisconsin in 1851. He keeps a hurley in his office

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