Eilis and Tony, in a scene from "Brooklyn," starring Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen.

Editor’s Note: Paul Moses is the author of “An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians.” He is a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

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Paul Moses: Two American immigrant groups that once were in conflict wound up intermarrying

New film "Brooklyn" tells the story of love between Irish and Italian immigrants

CNN  — 

Early in the Irish-Italian romance portrayed in the new film “Brooklyn,” a precocious 8-year-old boy serves up the truth that everyone else gathered around the dinner table in his Italian family hid from the young Irishwoman visiting their home.

“We don’t like Irish people,” little Frankie says, much to the embarrassment of his big brother Tony Fiorello, who has fallen in love with Eilis Lacey, recently of County Wexford. The woman Tony fancies had sailed for Brooklyn as part of a 1950s wave of migration from a still-impoverished Emerald Isle.

Paul Moses

Frankie begins setting out an Italian brief against the Irish that went back a good seven decades. The Irish guys in the neighborhood beat up the Italians, he says, and the Irish cops let them get away with it.

It’s clear that Frankie is only repeating the family stories he’s heard, even from Tony. But Frankie is made to apologize, and Tony’s romance with Eilis continues.

As moviegoers enjoy “Brooklyn,” which is based on the widely praised novel by Colm Tóibín, it’s worth noting that the Irish and Italians in Brooklyn and other urban areas had at one time been reviled immigrant groups. And though most of the Irish and Italians in New York were Catholics, they clashed hard as they competed for jobs and housing.

A history of hatred had to be overcome before an Italian boy could bring an Irish girl home to dinner. (Italians were no more welcome in Irish homes). “Brooklyn” catches up to the story in a moment of transition: In the years after World War II, the Irish-Italian rivalry turned often enough to romance and led to a wave of Irish-Italian intermarriage.

It wasn’t always that way.

When the Italians began arriving in New York in large numbers in the 1880s, they were willing to work for less money and longer hours than the already established Irish. That led to many a street brawl, and tensions that spilled over into the local Catholic parish, unions, the civil service and, eventually, politics.

Irish-Italian marriage was rare. One study done in the second decade of the 20th century found that the Irish in New York were more likely to marry a German Jew than an Italian.

Labor leaders such as Terence Powderly, an Irish American, portrayed the Italian workers as morally unfit to be Americans. As he said at an 1888 congressional hearing in New York, Italians “were not the right class to become Americans.”

The committee he spoke before took the cue and issued a report finding that the new immigrants of that era were “of a very lower order of intelligence. They do not come here with the intention of becoming citizens. … Their habits are vicious, their customs are disgusting.”

Of course, the Irish had met a similar reception in New York decades earlier. And other immigrant groups from Latin America, the Far East, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East are now encountering resistance in the latest burst of the anti-immigrant sentiment that has periodically permeated the American experience.

It’s tricky to draw direct parallels between historic periods, but the history of the Irish and Italians shows that over time, America does come to appreciate groups that initially were treated with suspicion and fear.

In “Brooklyn,” we see a hopeful story of how social barriers can fade away, person by person. For that to happen, someone has to cross the boundary. In this case, it’s Tony. He decides he wants to meet an Irish girl and goes to an Irish dance at the local church. “I’m not Irish,” he quickly confesses to Eilis.

But he’s handsome and very likeable, as Eilis discovers. This is the very American story of the Irish and Italians: when people from once-warring tribes mingle and get to know each other as equals, the social barriers fall away. That can take place in neighborhoods, workplaces, houses of worship and recreational or social associations.

Studies have shown that for the Irish and Italians in New York, the church was an especially important factor: In the years following World War II, Italians who married a non-Italian partner nearly always married someone of Irish ancestry. And the Italians who married Irish spouses generally went to Catholic schools and were regular churchgoers.

In the novel and movie, Eilis also fancies a lad back home in Ireland. She feels a powerful tug homeward and struggles to decide whether she should live in America or Ireland. There is a strangeness for her about Tony’s family; she had to learn to twirl spaghetti before visiting the Fiorellos. And as little Frankie announced, history dictated that the Italians were not to be friends with the Irish.

But the larger history of the Irish and Italians tells us otherwise: that the social boundaries between rival ethnic groups can dissolve and even be replaced by love.

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