Conspicuous Catholics

Cinematic Representations of Irish Americans


During the twentieth century, neighborhoods across the United States were often referred to by the name of the Catholic Church located in that neighborhood. The relationship between the Catholic Church and neighborhood politics has been the subject of numerous award winning films. Both Leo McCarey’s  1944 film Going My Way and Elia Kazan’s 1954 On the Waterfront won multiple trophies at The Academy Awards in their respective years. Both films examine the dialectic between church and state in the mid twentieth century in the United States but they do so with opposing tones. While Going My Way features Bing Crosby crooning “Swinging on a Star” with a group of choir boys, On The Waterfront showcases Marlon Brando pleading for his life while his older brother holds a gun to his head. Both performances won Academy Awards but the differences in the way Irish Catholicism was portrayed to mass audiences in just a decade are tremendous. 

In the process of “Making the Irish American” there has been one characteristic that Irish Americans have not yet adapted– the rugged individualism that is wholeheartedly American. As we see in cinematic representations and real life tragedies, communal loyalty comes before self service. This unwavering devotion is often cause for conflict as times change and the bonds between family is tested because of conflicting allegiances.

The generation of Catholics brought up in the 1920s and 1930s did not have the funds to go to the movies and their place in American society was not yet fully accepted. As with any immigrant group, they were not fully welcomed into American culture until the next group of immigrants arrived and they were no longer considered “fresh off the boat”. This generation mainly congregated in their neighborhoods and when they went out to work they tended to stick together. They often organized their own religious organizations that would hold an annual Mass and Communion Breakfast with a large number of attendants. It was at this time local politicians realized these breakfast’s were a great place to court voters. During this time the relationship between the Catholic Church and local politics began to flourish and their stories would be played out on screen in the decades to come.

In the decades preceding these films the church was a vehicle for culture in working class neighborhoods. Big city parishes often had dances, put on plays and had card nights for their parishioners. It was only when later generations of Irish Catholic immigrants joined the middle class equipped with disposable income that the film industry began to make films marketed to Catholic audiences. Widespread popularity of ethnic churches, specializing in one immigrant group or another, allowed for immigrants and future generations to assimilate to American life at their own speed. By maintaining strong ties to their heritage while still benefiting from the opportunities allowed to them as Americans, Catholic Americans did not have to sacrifice their culture in order to blend into American life. The Catholic Church had such strongholds over the neighborhoods they preoccupied they were a fairly untouched market when it came to leisure activities such as films.  In a mutually beneficial move on the part of Hollywood and the Catholic Church, a production code of censorship was assumed that closely resembled the standards of the Legion of Decency which was created by United States bishops in 1934. 

Ten years later Going My Way was released to massive audiences across the country. The portrayal of Father O’Malley, the lively young priest who comes to the elderly Father Fitzgibbon’s Saint Dominic’s Church is fairly secular. He dresses casually and bonds with the neighborhood children on a personal level, resembling a social worker rather than a religious devout. Going My Way is a very accessible, feel good film for any audience. The Catholic Church was happy with the film because it portrayed Catholic priests in a positive light and it was well received by non-Catholics as well. The film told the story of the tension between the modern and old immigrant world which resonated with audiences of all faiths while still maintaining a moral message. Ultimately the two men must work together in order to better Saint Dominics.  Father O’Malley and Father Fitzgibbons were both shown as the human picture of men of God. They both had their faults and in the case of both men their faults were actually endearing. 

The practical side of Catholicism was on display for the American public, one where a young man came to a struggling parish and helped both the children and the elderly priest who regressed to a child like state when he realizes he is being replaced. When Father Fitzgibbons realizes Father O’Malley has been sent to his parish not as an assistant but as a replacement he feels distraught and runs away. When he returns the roles have changed and Father O’Malley tucks Father Fitzgibbons into bed and listens to his story about his mother home in Ireland. 

 As Saint Dominic’s continues to grow it is Father O’Malley’s modern economical savvy that saves the parish after a fire. This was commonplace during this era as finances became the primary responsibility of the pastor. “The pastor’s own area of expertise was expected to be the financial management of the parish. As Garry Wills has pointed out in his evocative recollection of the pre- Vatican II American Catholic Church, the distinguishing mark of the successful pastor of that era was not personal sanctity or ability as a preacher but his acumen as a businessman and a fundraiser” (Shelley, 593). Money issues are universally experienced and yet the problems with money were not what touched the hearts of audiences across America but the way in which the problems were dealt with. With a few tweaks to the script and the film could be about any number of organizations turning over to new management but the fact that the studio produced an Academy Award Winning film about an Irish Catholic church is an impressive feat for the Irish Catholic community that wasn’t used to being represented in such a manner.

In the 1954 film On the Waterfront the story of the Catholic Church in New York City takes a completely different tone but manages to tell a similar story. As times are changing once again it is the Catholic Church that upholds morality. Based on the true story of corrupt union leaders of the longshoremen on the docks of Manhattan and New Jersey, On the Waterfront tells the story of two dedicated brothers with conflicting allegiances. The elder brother Charlie implicates Terry in the murder of a longshoreman who plans to testify against Charlie’s boss, the corrupt head of the union Johnny Friendly. It is the priest, Father Barry and the sister of the murdered longshoreman Edie that help Terry come to realize his duty to stand up to Johnny Friendly. The film diverges from the true story because in reality the Catholic Church had a hand in the shipping industry in New York City during this time. It has been noted that priests would send men down to the docks with notes in order to help them get hired for the day. 

Ultimately Terry’s conscience and his loyalty to the other longshoremen leads to the end of Charlie’s life because Terry plans to give a statement on Johnny Friendly. Father Barry hopes to inspire the men to speak out against the unlawful practices of Johnny Friendly and his goons but the men are too afraid to talk because jobs are hard to come by and they have families to support. The loading and unloading of the ships required tremendous teamwork and it was their ethnic solidarity that kept the men safe once they were at work. If the men did not get work on any given day they still had to remain loyal to their friends by not speaking out lest they lose another day’s wages or get in serious trouble with Mr. Friendly. 

The longshoremen live by the “deaf and dumb” code. Deep down they all know that they are being treated unfairly but they would be in an even worse situation if they did speak out, they could be jobless or even killed. The men are alive but they aren’t treated like humans, the industry is so corrupt they do not see any way out. They maintain the “deaf and dumb” code in allegiance to one another, knowing that if they speak up others could get hurt too. When Father Barry urges Terry to report Mr. Friendly, Terry exclaims that his life won’t be worth a nickel if he does. Father Barry then asks how much his soul will be worth if he does not. When Terry ultimately speaks out against Mr. Friendly he reaffirms the faith Father Barry and Edie have in humanity. The theme of redemption is apparent in this film as Terry picks himself up after he has been beaten up by Mr. Friendly’s men and walks into work. Although he is badly injured he makes a stand to show the other men that he is not giving up and he will stand up with them against corruption. 

In 1981 the film True Confessions reexamines the relationship between Irish Catholic brothers in the 1940s and how they deal with conflicting alliances. Father Des is a rising star in the Los Angeles Archdiocese while his older brother is a disgraced detective who is trying to solve the brutal murder of a young girl. The brothers have had an uneasy relationship for some time and are brought together when Tom helps cover up the death of a well known priest at a brothel. Father Des has high hopes for his future in the hierarchy of the church due to his business skills and Tom even jokes that he may be Pope one day. It is obvious both Tom and Des are uneasy around one another and tensions rise as Tom realizes corrupt beneficiary of church real estate developments, Mr. Amsterdam is likely involved in the murder of the young girl. The older brother Tom knows that if he brings his brother’s business partner into question he will also be hurting his brother.

The conflict between doing what is morally right and hurting the person you are expected to have the most loyalty towards comes to a head when Tom realizes he has to answer to a higher power. Ultimately his decision to implicate Mr. Amsterdam condemns his ambitious brother to live out his life as the priest of a small church in the desert far away from his dreams of Vatican City.  Both Tom and Des seek redemption for their wrongdoings and the film ends with the brothers reunited years later in Father Des’s church in the desert. 

True Confessions was written and produced three decades after the beginning of the film, unlike the On the Waterfront and Going My Way which were set in the time they were produced. Examining these films based on their representations of Irish Catholicism requires understanding of the years leading up to the 1940s and 1950s as well as the state of the United States during these eras. While social and political landscapes were changing dramatically due to new waves of immigrants arriving and war the Irish in America were no longer considered outsiders. As the Irish became “white” they never lost their unwavering loyalty to one another and affinity for team work. 

Works Cited

Fischer, James T. “On the Catholic Waterfront: Struggling for Power, Opportunity and Justice.” Catholics in New York: Society, Culture, and Politics, 1808-1946. By Terry Golway. New York: Fordham UP, 2008. 163-72. Print.

Going My Way. Dir. Leo McCarey. Perf. Bing Crosby, Barry Fitzgerald, Frank McHugh. Paramount Pictures, n.d. DVD.

Meagher, Timothy J. “The Fireman on the Stairs.” Ed. Joseph Lee and Marion R. Casey. Making the Irish American: History and Heritage of the Irish in the United States. New York: New York UP, 2006. 609-48. Print.

On The Waterfront. Dir. Elia Kazan. Perf. Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb. Columbia Pictures, n.d. DVD.

Shelley, Thomas J. “Twentieth Century American Catholicism and Irish Americans.” Ed. Marion R. Casey and J. J. Lee. Making the Irish American: History and Heritage of the Irish in the United States. New York: New York UP, 2006. 574-608. Print.

Smith, Anthony Burke. “Cool Catholics in the Hot American Melting Pot.” The Look of Catholics: Portrayals in Popular Culture from the Great Depression to the Cold War. Lawrence, Kan.: U of Kansas, 2010. 66-87. Print.

True Confessions. Dir. Ulu Grosbard. Perf. Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Charles Durning. N.d. DVD.


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