An invitation to speak at an event organized by the Irish Institute of Hellenic Studies at Athens gave me the opportunity to reflect on the relations between Greek and Irish immigrants in America. I was surprised with what I found.
Writing about the experiences of ethnic groups in the United States tends to fall into vertical silos that contain mostly what is relevant only to a particular ethnic group and at most the impact of American society. General studies on ethnicity in America exist but those horizontal treatments do not satisfy one’s curiosity about the heights and depths of a group’s struggles and successes.
As I discovered, the Greek and Irish silos stand very close to each other. The Irish one is much older, because Irish immigration to America peaked in the mid-nineteenth century while Greek immigration did so in the early twentieth century. The Irish silo is also much, much taller. About 32 million identify as Irish Americans compared to one and half million Greek Americans. Yet beyond those differences there are many similarities between these two populations. It is well known that upon their arrival in America the Irish and the Greeks were considered ‘non-white’, but that applied to many other European immigrants at some point. Digging deeper, however, one can find specific encounters between the Irish and the Greeks.
In my presentation I chose to focus on Irish-Greek contacts in Lowell, Massachusetts. The city became known as the cradle of the American industrial revolution because of its textile mills and factories. Lowell is also known as the Acropolis of America because of the large number of Greeks who settled there. Behrakis, Demoulas, Dukakis, and Tsongas are some of the famous Greek American family names with roots in Lowell.
The Irish were well established before the Greeks arrived in Lowell. But not well established enough for them not to face the threat of Greek strikebreakers. Factory owners always took advantage of the inexperience of each newly arrived immigrant group and employed it as strikebreakers whenever there was labor unrest in the mills, which was frequent because of the poor pay. This did not make for very cordial relations between the Irish and Greeks in Lowell. But it did not take long for the Greeks to become part of the regular work force.
By 1912 there were about 28,000 Irish and 8,000 Greeks in Lowell and the number of Greeks would almost triple by the 1920s. The Greeks settled in the Acre, a part of Lowell with crowded tenements which offered the cheapest living. It was the neighborhood formerly occupied by the Irish, who, by the time the Greeks were arriving were gradually moving out to better housing. There are photographs of those shabby tenement buildings and the captions read “Tenements of Irish and Greeks” or of Irish and “Turks” with the explanation that the Turks were Greeks who had come from the Ottoman Empire.
When the Greeks formed a community organization the next step was to build a church, a pattern that was common throughout the United States. The interesting thing with the Greek Orthodox Holy Trinity Church in Lowell is that it was built only a short distance away from the already existing St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. It could be interpreted as a “what you can do we can do better” move by the Greeks. But one author of an early history of the Greeks in America saw a synergy between the Irish and Greek churches, commenting on the beauty of both and adding that their juxtaposition represented a meeting between the East and the West, and between Byzantine and Gothic architecture. And in many ways that synergy of the churches reflected the smoothing of relations between the Irish and the Greeks of Lowell who were living next to other in the tenements and working next to each other in town’s textile mills.
In those workplaces they faced the same unhealthy conditions. It must be noted that in the early twentieth century, while tuberculosis was declining among the Irish it was on the rise among the newly arrived Greeks. There were signs on the walls in English and in Greek warning workers that any person spitting on the floor or any other area of the factory was liable to arrest and a fine of up to twenty dollars.
Those Greek-Irish parallel lives in Lowell may well have motivated one of the town’s natives, Greek American Senator Paul Tsongas, to co-sponsor a bill by Senator Edward Kennedy in 1983 calling for end the conflict in Northern Ireland and unity for the Irish people. Greek-Irish cooperation in American politics had begun in the 1960s when Mike Manatos became administrative assistant to President John F. Kennedy. I am sure we will find many more instances of Greek and Irish-American cooperation if we dig deeper.