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Opinion | Donald Trump, Joe Biden and the Vote of the Irish

In 2016, my vantage point on the donnybrook between Donald and Hillary was an Irish bar in Queens, where I was a bartender a few nights a week. It was a cash-only joint that sometimes stayed open until 7 a.m. and sold discounted cigarettes driven up from Virginia, the sort of place where you could make $800 under the table but you also might get a bottle or a chair thrown at you. This was where I watched the presidential debates and noticed something interesting. Half the patrons were Irish immigrants who considered Mr. Trump a real “eejit,” but the other half, the Irish Americans, thought he was just grand.

Something didn’t compute. Weren’t the Clintons universally beloved by all with Irish blood? (See “Derry Girls” on Netflix for a sample of the rock star treatment they got after Bill brought peace to Northern Ireland.) It was puzzling to watch the barflies buzz about Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric — a drawbridge mentality from a crowd whose lineage had been met with “Irish Need Not Apply” signs. The craic in the Queens shebeen turned out to be a sudsy microcosm: The green vote has never been more red.

“All those Irish were Democrats for literally hundreds of years,” said James F. McKay III, the president of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the largest Irish Catholic organization in the country. “But what is the old saying? When they got the wrinkles out of the belly, they became Republicans.”

No doubt. My own grandfather, one of 12 children raised in a two-bedroom house in County Armagh, sailed to Philadelphia, and cheered when John F. Kennedy became president. Sixty-six years later, some of my grandfather’s children and his brother voted for Donald Trump.

“The Irish vote has become not, unfortunately, the lockup of the Democratic Party,” said Brian O’Dwyer, vice president of the Irish American Democrats, a political action committee. “But it is one of the few swing votes, along with the Catholic vote, left in the United States, and you can see various patterns back and forth where the Irish in particular have gone one way or another.”

Everyone agrees that there’s no longer a cohesive bloc that votes on issues of Irish statehood or identity. But politicians have recognized that appealing to this nebulous tribe is just one more way to win precious swing votes.

“We have millions of Irish, and I think I know most of them, because they’re my friends,” President Trump said at a 2019 news conference with the Irish prime minister, or taoiseach, Leo Varadkar. More than 33 million Americans claim Irish ancestry, and the swing districts that propelled Mr. Trump are mulched with them. His campaign has instructed supporters to text “SHAMROCK” to a phone number to join a new coalition, Irish Americans for Trump, and is hawking Trump Luck of the Irish whiskey glasses, two for $30.

During the Iowa caucuses, Joe Biden, the great-grandson of a blind fiddler from Ireland’s Cooley Mountains, dispatched Kevin O’Malley, a former ambassador to Ireland, to towns with Catholic populations. Biden brought out the big guns by circulating a two-page endorsement letter handwritten by a nun. On St. Patrick’s Day, his campaign held a conference call with Terry McAuliffe, the former governor of Virginia and a close Clinton ally, and leaders of Irish American organizations.

Last month, Mr. Biden did a virtual town hall with Hillary Clinton and nodded to both pols’ ties to the heavily Irish city of Scranton, Pa., by invoking James Joyce: “You know that famous quote by Joyce, ‘When I die, Dublin will be written on my heart’? I think when we die, Scranton will be written on our hearts.”

Steve Bannon, the former Trump strategist, calls blarney. He was in Scranton in early March to speak to a packed house at an anti-abortion prayer breakfast and told me: “I think Biden is a weak candidate in this regard, as weak as Hillary. He’s just a globalist — he’s supported every one of these trade deals, he pushed NAFTA and he’s soft on China.” These issues, Mr. Bannon said, “will be brought up to the working-class, blue-collar unions, which have still got a heavy participation by Irish Catholics.”

The mythos of the once mighty Irish vote dates to the 1870s and to Tammany Hall. As the diarist George Templeton Strong wrote at the time: “Our rulers are partly American scoundrels and partly Celtic scoundrels. The Celts are predominant, however, and we submit to the rod and the scepter of Maguires and O’Tooles and O’Shanes.”

Since then, many presidents have claimed Irish ancestry, even Barack “O’bama.” While in office he visited the town of Moneygall, home to one of his great-great-great grandfathers, and joked that “I’ve come home to find the apostrophe we lost somewhere along the way.”

Of course the true zenith of Irishness was reached in 1960 with Kennedy. It was no easy feat to elect him, with many Americans suspicious that a Catholic commander in chief would put pope over country. Still, he listened to the advice given to him by Robert Frost: “Be more Irish than Harvard.”

By then, the Irish vote was decomposing. The tides of immigration from the Emerald Isle had waned. Irish Americans left the cities for the suburbs, and in 1980 many became Reagan Democrats, and, not long after, Republicans.

“It’s the repositioning of every ethnic group when they come to America,” said Niall O’Dowd, the founder of Irish America magazine, the Irish Voice newspaper and IrishCentral.com. “But there’s a natural leaning of the Catholic Church being so far to the right on many issues in America that has taken many Irish Catholics with them, particularly on the issue of abortion.”

Bill Clinton figured out how to juice the demographic years later. In 1992, during the New York primary, he pledged to a group of influential Irish power brokers that, should he become president, he would appoint a special envoy to Northern Ireland, then mired deep in the sectarian conflict known as the Troubles. It was a risky move that instantly rankled the British, but Mr. Clinton became a friend of the Fenians that day. He won his primary. When Hillary Clinton ran for a New York Senate seat in 2000, Bill hit the streets of Queens to play “the Irish card” on her behalf, as the Irish Times put it then.

This was one of the first bases Mrs. Clinton tapped as she geared up for her second presidential run. As early as 2012, Mrs. Clinton, then secretary of state, invited top Irish supporters to accompany her on a state trip to Dublin. And yet, some of them feel that candidate Clinton could have better used her Irish connection to meet swing voters where they were. “Hillary missed a trick,” said Mr. O’Dowd. “I was sitting there when the head of Notre Dame offered her the huge invitation to speak. She wanted to do it, but following up with the campaign proved to be awfully impossible.”

Caitriona Perry, an Irish journalist who crisscrossed the U.S. to write “The Tribe: The Inside Story of Irish Power and Influence in US Politics,” agreed that Mrs. Clinton paid insufficient attention to Irish-American communities. Ms. Perry said of the coterie around Trump, “We’ve seen so many Irish Americans pass through this administration that they are themselves reflective of Irish American families and communities who do align more broadly with the Republican Party and then specifically with Donald Trump.”

The “alt-Irish,” as they’ve been called, include Sean Spicer; Kellyanne Conway (née Fitzpatrick); and the new press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, to name a few. But just as Eugene McCarthy had a Celtic foil in Joseph McCarthy, there’s a Denis McDonough (a chief of staff to Barack Obama) for every Mick Mulvaney (Trump’s former acting chief of staff), a Lawrence O’Donnell for every Sean Hannity.

Whatever the case, President Trump does seem to know a thing or two about the Irish. “You have to keep them as your friend,” he said while presenting the traditional shamrock bowl to the Irish prime minister at the White House last year. “You don’t want to fight with the Irish. It’s too tough — it’s too bloody.”

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