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–by Joanna Hallac

It is beginning to seem almost expected for us to write posts that tie into various holidays, and so with St. Patrick’s Day coming up, we thought it might be nice to take a look at some of the great Irish Americans who have served in Congress throughout its history. The contributions of Irish Americans and their immigrant forbearers are well-documented, but so are the prejudices and obstacles they faced as anti-Irish, anti-Catholic sentiments gripped the nation, particularly throughout the 19th century when the greatest influx of Irish immigrants came to the U.S.

Given the many exclusions the Irish faced throughout their history here, politics has in fact been one of the ways in which they have been able to better include and incorporate themselves into American society. So in honor of their many positive contributions to our country, here is a little background on a few of the many Irish Americans who have served in Congress over the past 223 years:

Charles Carroll, Senator from Maryland (b. 1737 – d. 1832)

Charles Carroll of Carrollton, as he called himself, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a member of the prominent Carroll family of Annapolis, Maryland. His grandfather, Charles, settled in Maryland after leaving King’s County, Ireland to escape persecution by the English, only to face similar persecution in America for his Catholicism. As a Roman Catholic, Carroll was prohibited from participating in politics, practicing law, and voting, but despite this he would eventually be appointed as a delegate of the Continental Congress in 1776 and was one of four delegates from Maryland to sign the Declaration of Independence.

Charles Carroll, National Statuary Collection (Architect of the Capitol)

Carroll eventually left the Continental Congress to serve locally in Maryland, having a hand in the drafting of the state constitution. From 1789 to 1792, Carroll would serve as the first senator for the state of Maryland in the U.S. Senate, and he was the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, finally passing away in 1832.

William Bourke Cockran, Representative from New York (b. 1854 – d. 1923)

William Bourke Cockran was born in County Sligo, Ireland, and educated in both Ireland and France before immigrating to the United States at the age of 17. Bourke would study and later practice law in Westchester County before moving to New York City and getting involved in Democratic Party politics there, which meant dealings with Tammany Hall and its political machine. Bourke was first elected to the 50th Congress in 1886, did not get the nomination to run for the 51st Congress, was elected to the 52nd Congress in 1892, and would serve intermittently between that time and his death in 1923.

Congressman William Bourke Cockran (Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives)

Cockran, in addition to being a congressman, was also a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1884, 1892, 1904, and 1920. Perhaps even more than his service in the House of Representatives, William Bourke Cockran was known as one of the most celebrated orators of his day, and was an early role model for Sir Winston Churchill because of his ability to captivate his audiences with his speeches.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Senator from New York (b. 1927 – d. 2003)

Born in Tulsa, OK and moving to New York City when he was only six, Daniel Patrick Moynihan—a full-blooded Irish American—worked his way through poverty and the New York City’s public school system to become one of the most well-known and respected senators to serve in that chamber in the last half century. Growing up in a single-parent home in New York City during the Depression was obviously not easy, but Moynihan got through it by shining shoes and then working as a longshoreman while he began his undergraduate studies at City College of New York (CUNY). His studies were interrupted when he enlisted in the Navy in 1944, where he served until 1947. Thanks to the GI Bill, Moynihan was able to finish his studies at Tufts University in Boston, where he earned a BA in Sociology; he stayed on at Tufts to earn his MA from their Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Additionally, Moynihan would also study at the London School of Economics and Political Science as a Fulbright scholar. While his academic resume is most impressive, especially for a hard-scrabble Irish American who grew up in East Harlem, his political career would prove equally remarkable.

Getting his start in New York politics, Moynihan began his political career working on W. Averell Harriman’s successful New York gubernatorial campaign in 1954 and worked in his office until 1958. Moynihan would hold cabinet or sub-cabinet level-posts in the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford administrations between 1961 and 1976, served as the Ambassador to India from 1973-1975, and finally was the U.S. representative to the United Nations from 1976 to 1977. All of this, however, was in addition to authoring several books and before he even ran for the United States Senate. Impressive is not even the word to describe the political and intellectual giant that was Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Congressional Bioguide)

When he finally did win election to the Senate from New York in 1976 and began his term first term in 1977, Moynihan already demanded a great deal of respect from his colleagues on both sides of the aisle for good reason. As a Democrat, he was never afraid to cross party lines, demonstrated by his serving in two Republican presidential administrations, and by the so-called “Moynihan Report,” which he prepared for President Johnson in 1965 and that turned out to be very controversial—it was a report that detailed and correlated issues of race, poverty, and violence— with many liberals criticizing Moynihan for the conclusions he drew therein. During his many years in the Senate, Moynihan was able to win over critics from earlier in his career with his dedication to the people of New York, for whom he faithfully served until 2000, when he decided not to seek reelection (thus clearing the way for Hillary Rodham Clinton to take over his seat in the Senate chamber). Moynihan passed away in 2003 due to complications from a burst appendix, prematurely ending the life of one of the last unforgiving intellectuals to serve in Congress. Who knows what gifts he had left to give us?

While thinking of Irish Americans in Congress, it is natural for people’s first thoughts to go to a Kennedy or to Tip O’Neill, but I thought it would be nice to shine a light on a slightly lesser known, though no less impressive sampling of Irish Americans who served in the U.S. Congress. So, as you all raise your glasses to your Irish heritage this Saturday—even those with little to no Irish blood running through your veins—remember that the obstacles Irish immigrants faced in our country were steep, but they overcame them in order to give themselves and the generations who have come after a better life. Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone!

Sources Consulted:

Architect of the Capitol

Congressional Bioguide