Chicago: an Irish-American Metropolis?

deadline for submissions: 
October 2, 2020
full name / name of organization: 
University of Caen Normandie, University of Chicago, University of Paris


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“Chicago: an Irish-American Metropolis?

Politics, Ethnicity, and Culture from 1830s to the present Time”


An International and Multidisciplinary Conference

June 21-23, 2021




A partnership between the universities of Chicago, Caen Normandie and Paris


Scientific Committee: Claire Connolly (University College Cork); Christophe Gillissen (Université de Caen Normandie); Anne Goarzin (Université Rennes 2); Fiona Kearnay (University College Cork); Fiona McCann (Université de Lille); Cliona Ni Riordain (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle); Gillian O’Brien (Liverpool John Moores University); Henri Peretz (Senior Fellow at Yale University)

James Chandler (University of Chicago); Arnaud Coulombel (University of Chicago Center in Paris); Thierry Dubost (Université de Caen Normandie); Paul Schor (Université de Paris)



Organizational Committee: James Chandler (University of Chicago); Arnaud Coulombel (University of Chicago Center in Paris); Thierry Dubost (Université de Caen Normandie); Paul Schor (Université de Paris)



Keynote Speakers:


James Barrett, Professor of History, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign


David Brundage, Professor of History, University of California at Santa Cruz


Aileen Dillane, Professor of Ethno-musicology, University of Limerick


Clair Wills, King Edward VII Professor of English Literature, University of Cambridge



Viewed from continental Europe, Irish immigration to the United States often relates to American harbors, like New York City, New Orleans, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, or even to two major “Irish” towns: Boston and New York City. This prevailing but restrictive outlook is easily explained. For symbolic reasons, commentators routinely devote much attention to the decision to migrate since, as John Fitzgerald Kennedy wrote, it “leads a family to say farewell to a community where it has lived for centuries, to abandon old ties and familiar landmarks, and to sail across dark seas to a strange land”[1]. In Ireland, emigration mainly resulted from famines, but Irish emigrants continued to suffer after leaving their home country. Sometimes—especially when they crossed the Atlantic on board an Irish coffin ship—they never even set foot on the Promised Land. However, despite harsh travelling conditions, millions reached their destination and the impact of the Irish diaspora was such that today the rank of American population of Irish descent averages 10 %[2]. Some newly-arrived immigrants did not end their journeys in the first port of call. Many moved west, attempting to find a place of their own in a nation which they helped create. Their unending arrivals (until the Immigration Act of 1924 and the Great Depression[3]) led to the growth of fast-expanding cities, like Chicago, where the influx of immigrants was so massive that, in 1900, 35 % of Chicagoans had been born abroad, bearing in mind that by 1860 Chicago was the fourth largest Irish city in the United States. Settling in the “City of big shoulders”[4], Irish immigrants took an active part in its expansion (and its rebuilding after the Great Fire). “The bold, imaginative Irish[5]” helped turn a small trading post into a vibrant place that took up the challenges of its time, but they also endured the harsh aspects of cosmopolitan life. In a town that, at the beginning of the twentieth century, was partly characterized by its urban ghettos, people had to fend for themselves in order to survive, which sometimes led to violent and tragic confrontations with other ethnic groups.

As the city became more ethnically diverse, the Chicago Irish succeeded in exerting influence out of proportion to their numbers. Early in the history of the city, the Irish were well represented at the highest levels of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese and the city government. In 1843, William J. Quarter, an Irish American prelate of the Roman Catholic Church was appointed the first Bishop of the newly erected Diocese of Chicago by Pope Gregory XIV; 50 years later, in 1893, John Patrick Hopkins was elected Chicago’s first Irish Catholic mayor. Since then, the Irish community has given seven other mayors to the city, who governed Chicago for more than 70 years[6]. Irish Chicago reached its zenith with the coming to power of Richard J. Daley who served as the Mayor of Chicago from 1955 until his death in 1976, John Patrick Cardinal Cody, Archbishop of Chicago from 1965 to 1982, and Richard M. Daley, the longest-serving Chicago Mayor (1989-2011), surpassing the tenure of his father, Richard J. Daley. Through these years, the bonds with Ireland were constantly renewed, as the presence in Chicago of the Irish President—Éamon de Valera—in 1966 testifies. Moreover, the last great waves of Irish Immigration to the United States and more specifically to Chicago, only came to an end during the 1980s.

The contrast with Chicago contemporary Irish communities is striking. In their 2017 study “Irish Chicago: Late Generation Ethnicity and the Future of Irish America[7]”, Liam Kennedy and his co-author Gemma McNulty showed that, today, Chicago’s Irish share a sense of despondency about the future. According to them, Irish Chicago’s identity is fading away as a result of the absence of new arrivals from Ireland. Consequently, the Irish community is now at a stage of “late generation ethnicity”, “designating an ethnic formation that reaches back many generations in the US and is not being significantly replenished from the country of origin[8]”. As a consequence, the ethnic group is more inward-looking and less inclined to look towards Ireland. Interestingly in 2016, two years after President Michael D. Higgins visited Chicago, the Chicago Park District was awarded a Gold Medal in Ireland for ‘Bridge the Gap’ show garden. One side of the bridge “representing Dublin featured plant material known for its Irish heritage and history”, while the other represented “Chicago and […] plant material seen in the city”[9]. In this floral representation, the two sides of the bridge did not meet, symbolically exposing an unbridgeable gap where one might have expected to see the intricate unity of “Irish Chicago”. Is this significant disconnection the sign that Irish Chicago has come to an end? Is Chicago still an Irish-American metropolis? In a constantly evolving world, how are Chicago’s links with the Irish community, as well as its ties with Ireland being redefined? Viewed from the Old World, today’s and yesterday’s bonds between the Irish diaspora and Chicago retain some of their mystery. Consequently, we shall explore the past and present imprint of the Irish diaspora on the Windy City, including its reverberations in Hibernia.

Topics include but are not limited to:

Irish migratory waves to Chicago (from early nineteenth century to the present)


Irish neighborhoods and Chicago urbanism


Irish workers in the “City of Big Shoulders”


Religion and the Irish in Chicago


The Chicago Irish and city government


Irish communities and ethnic relations in Chicago


Gender and Irish identities


Irish Chicago: the Democratic Party and the White House


Chicago Irish communities and other Irish communities in the United States


Irish Chicago and the American labor movement


Chicago and Irish nationalism


Irish art in Chicago


Representing Irish Chicago in literature


Irish dance and music in Chicago


The Chicago Irish and American popular culture


Please send proposals including a paper title, an abstract (250 words), and a one-paragraph CV to James Chandler (, Arnaud Coulombel (, Thierry Dubost (, Paul Schor ( by October 2, 2020. Please include your name, affiliation, email and phone number.

The language of the conference will be English

[1] Kennedy, John F., A Nation of Immigrants, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1964, p. 4.

[2] Latest figures, 2017 census: 10,1 %.

[3]The Immigration Act of 1924 reduced to 18,000 the number of Irish men, women, and children allowed in the United States each year. More restrictive quotas in the 1929 and the Great Depression brought Irish immigration to a virtual halt until the 1950s.”, Ellen Skerett, “Irish”, The Encyclopedia of Chicago, ed. James Grossman, Ann Durkin Keating, and Janice L. Reiff, Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 2004, p. 422.

[4] Carl Sandburg, Chicago Poems.

[5] Kennedy, op. cit., p. 84.

[6] Edward Fitzsimmons Dunne (38th Mayor of Chicago, 1905-1907); William Emmet Dever (42nd Mayor of Chicago, 1923-1927); Edward Joseph Kelly (46th Mayor of Chicago, 1933-1947); Martin H. Kennelly (47th Mayor of Chicago, 1947-1955); Richard Joseph Daley (48th Mayor of Chicago, 1955-1976); Jane Byrne (50th Mayor of Chicago, 1979-1983); Richard Michael Daley (54th Mayor of Chicago, 1989-2011).

[7] This study was commissioned by the Irish Abroad Unit of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

[8] Liam Kennedy, “A Sense of an Ending: Late-Generation Ethnicity and Irish America”, Irish Studies Review, Volume 27, 2019, Issue 1, p. 22.

[9];  and;

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