Saturday, February 4, 2012

"Blue Bloods" and Irish Americans

CBS’s “Blue Bloods, ” which airs on Friday nights, has been one of the few breakout hits on television in recent years.  Starring Tom Selleck as the head of a multigenerational family of New York City cops, it is yet another of the network’s procedural programs aimed at older viewers.  The show centers on the Reagans, an Irish-American clan that has produced three generations of police officers.  Selleck’s character, Frank Reagan, is the city’s police commissioner.  By featuring an Irish-American family working in law enforcement, it reproduces a pop culture archetype with real roots in American history.

The Irish migration in the 1840s and 50s was the first major post-independence immigration wave to the United States. As a result, Irish Americans became a central factor in urban politics in the mid-to late 19th century.  Martin Scorsese depicted this dynamic in his 2002 film “Gangs of New York,” where the Tweed machine gains power by garnering the loyalty of freshly arrived Irish voters in the Civil War era.  Displaced by the disastrous potato famine, the Irish came to the major Northeastern and Midwestern cities a generation before the larger wave of eastern and southern European immigrants.   Using this time advantage, Irish Americans like Boston mayor Honey Fitzgerald, who was also JFK’s grandfather, became political leaders in a number of big cities. 

In an era before significant federal and state social welfare programs existed, political “machines” like Tammany Hall in New York City offered new arrivals desperately needed jobs on the public payroll, often in the police force or the fire department.  In response, native-stock progressives called for civil service reform to take the patronage power away from the machines.  Despite some success by their opponents, mayors and their ward allies were still able to reward their backers and the Irish newcomers became a staple of police departments in the major cities.  Like the fictional Reagans, many children and grandchildren followed their parents and grandparents into the family business. Thus, the Irish-American cop has been a staple of TV and films, perhaps best exemplified by Jimmy Malone, the policeman played by Sean Connery who assists Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness in the “Untouchables” (1987).

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