Dennis Clark’s Legacy

By Dr. James Murphy

Professor Emeritus
Villanova University

It would not be an exaggeration to say that we might not be here today without the foundation laid by the late Dennis Clark. This is especially so given the theme of this inaugural conference for Villanova’s Center for Irish Studies. “The Irish in Philadelphia” is not only our theme today, it is the title of Dennis’ 1973 book, one of his eleven books. That 1973 book remains a seminal study not only of the Irish-American experience, but also of the American urban experience.

This is typical of the broad perspective that Dennis brought to all his work. As a scholar on Irish America, he became also a scholar on the American urban experience and its impact on many ethnic and racial groups. His interest in the Irish experience was never of the shamrock and shillelagh variety. Rather, he saw the Irish story as a case study for the stories of all people caught up in the traumas of emigration/immigration/prejudice/ assimilation, and cultural identity. As Dennis insisted, the Irish today may have become mainstream, but, as the corrosive arguments of this year’s election painfully remind us, their story still echoes in the experiences of other peoples.

Since Dennis was essentially an urban historian, his landmark study focuses mainly on the great migration of millions to America, many of them to Philadelphia, in the aftermath of the Great Hunger, the timing of that tragic experience coinciding with the changing nature of America as the economic engines of American life transformed into urban rather than agricultural centers. Irish immigrants mostly from a rural world of small tenant farmers now found themselves in a whole new world of industrial energy, a world not always welcoming to them.

Dennis writes, “For the Irish, an ancient people thrust into a grave social struggle in the 19th century, the movement from rural to urban life was a transforming experience. Their emigration introduced them, almost by accident, into two related trends of epochal significance. Industrialization and urbanization became the dynamic social processes through which the emigrants were ushered from folk society into modern life.”

As America wrestles painfully with immigration debates today, it is wise to remember that such debates have been with us throughout our history and, as Dennis’ work consistently reminds us, the Irish have been so central to those debates that the study of the Irish-American experience remains the study of America’s debates with itself.

That makes me realize the irony that we gather today at Villanova University, founded in 1842 on the eve of the Famine, but also founded in the heat of the Know-Nothing period. When two Irish Augustinian friars purchased a tract of land right here where we sit today, it was called BelAir, not Villanova.

At the Inaugural Conference of Villanova University Center for Irish Studies “Who’s/Whose Irish? — Philadelphia Stories from Penn to the Present”:


Most Villanova students won’t know that history, but all will know that the main cafeteria on campus is called Bel Air, a name that seems so cozy, but that was surely not the case in 1844 when anti-immigrant riots shook Philadelphia and a main target was the iconic Catholic Augustinian church at 4th and Race – St. Augustine’s. Priests and some parishioners sought safety by fleeing to this newly acquired property, just twelve miles west of the city but it must have seemed to them like Kansas. So, the history of this university is tied not only to Ireland, but to the world that was the passion of Dennis’s life and work – marginalized immigrants, urban ghettoes, poverty, and prejudice, wherever one might find it.

His work is not only a model of scholarship, it is an appeal to conscience. And he was indeed a man of conscience, a gadfly pushing always for justice for the marginalized whether he found it here in Philadelphia or in the California fields of Cesar Chavez, another place where Dennis labored.

One of the risks of academic life is that it can become its own insular world. Dennis asked us all to be social activists, to use our learning not just in the classroom but out in the world where life is actually lived. A few personal examples: one of my first meetings with Dennis and his wife Josie was at a protest in support of the Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland. Around the same time he was out protesting the heavy-handed police tactics in Philadelphia during the mayoral term of the late Frank Rizzo.

One more example: when the Philadelphia Convention Bureau was just being established, Dennis, as a recognized authority on the Irish in the city, was asked if he could arrange an itinerary for visitors who might want an Irish version of Philadelphia’s history. Indeed, the Irish presence in the city went way back to the founding fathers as this morning’s panel discussions have reminded us; indeed, William Penn himself had come to these shores from Cork, but that wasn’t the history Dennis had in mind. I’m not sure what the Tourist Bureau expected, but it wasn’t what Dennis came up with — his proposed Irish-Philadelphia tour would be of the role played by the Irish in the city’s history when Philadelphia was America’s capitol of manufacturing in the 19 through the early 20th century. So far, so good, but that meant visiting now abandoned factories in neighborhoods now largely African-American and Latino — neighborhoods that the Tourist Bureau wasn’t particularly anxious for visitors to explore. They said, “Thanks, but no thanks” and moved on to more sanitized versions of Philadelphia history. Dennis didn’t quit though and he offered the tour for all who wanted to see “the gangster hangouts, the haunts of the dockwallopers, mill dollies, street singers, bootleggers and weekend chippies who made the nation’s most historic city a theater of democratic aspiration and foibles.” Sure sounds like a good tour to me, a lot better than the Betsy Ross House!

In “Erin’s Heirs,” Dennis writes, “Philadelphia is a city that has been the theater not only of foundation of the American republic, but also of the unfolding of the industrial work life and democratic participation that have characterized much of the nation’s growth. … Yet the working class and immigrant experience that was the central historical engagement of the overwhelming portion of the city’s population during a century and a half of industrialization has not been a part of what is conceived to be “historic Philadelphia.” It is to this uncelebrated dimension of the city that the Irish involvement with Philadelphia in large part belongs.”

That too makes it appropriate that we gather today for this inaugural conference to launch the Villanova Center for Irish Studies, which has been made possible by a generous gift from the John Connelly Foundation. John Connelly, like Joseph McGarrity whose library is a cornerstone of Villanova’s holdings in Irish Studies, was an Irishman who made it. The Kellys, of Grace Kelly fame, the McShanes, the McCloskeys – these and others all became prominent figures in our public life, locally and nationally and, more relevant to us today, generous benefactors to many aspects of American life.

On a more purely academic level, all of us in Irish Studies accept it as a given that our scholarship should be inter-disciplinary, as is clear from a glance at the range of topics on today’s program. This seems perhaps obvious today, but it was not all that obvious to me at least not until I first met Dennis. I was all literature, mad to talk about James Joyce, but here was a mind that saw no disciplinary lines, everything was connected. His stature and his advice were a gift to our efforts to start an Irish Studies Program here at Villanova in 1979. We had faculty like myself who could talk about Joyce or the 1798 Rebellion, but we lacked the inter-disciplinary perspective that needs to be the cornerstone of a first-rate Irish Studies Program.

Dennis taught us a great deal and agreed to join our faculty as an adjunct. He also said to call this newly arrived guy from Limerick, Mick Moloney, a grad student at Penn who can do music and folklore for you.

We did that and off we went into an inter-disciplinary world that would be the future not just of Irish Studies here at Villanova, but of much academic study in fields that were hardly known at the time – Africana Studies, Women’s Studies. The list goes on.

Let me close with this from “The Irish in Philadelphia”: “Having experienced in its fullest compass the transition from rural to urban life, the Irish immigrants displayed in striking fashion the adaptability of man. Their attainment of status and sufficiency in America made it possible for them to play a critical role in the ultimately successful effort to relieve their homeland of colonial domination.

Thus, a fitting climax was added to the human drama of emigration. Irishmen, walking the cities of the New World as free man, were able to reach back, to clasp the hands of those whose past hey shared, who still led the life of the soil, and to join in the fulfillment of those ideals of nationhood that had for so long been denied their people.”

So, for their part in bringing us here today, I salute the memory of Dennis Clark and his wife Josie. Their legacy remains a gift, but also a challenge to us all. Dennis Clark’s Legacy