The Blakes and the Flanagans; or, A Tale Illustrative of Life in the United States
In both Blakes and the Flanagans; or, A Tale Illustrative of Life in the United States and Bessy Conway, Sadlier negotiates Irish stereotypes as well as Irish social pathologies. The political climate at the time of publication, however, allows Sadlier to address these issues in very different ways. In The Blakes and Flanagans, Sadlier treats Irish social concerns in a backhanded way. In Bessy Conway, by contrast, Sadlier has much more freedom, and actually discusses social problems such as alcoholism, poverty and wife beating as they affect practicing Catholics, not just Protestants and fallen Catholics. The Blakes and Flanagan established a Manichean universe of Good Catholics and Fallen Catholics and Protestants. This superficially simplistic structure allows Sadlier to accomplish two major tasks. First, she is able to teach a very clear lesson about the evils of sending Catholic children to public schools. More subtly, it allows her to discuss Irish social pathologies without reinforcing dominant stereotypes by projecting the traditional evils of urban sensation fiction, as well as genuine problems of the Irish immigrant community, onto Protestants and fallen Catholics, while portraying faithful Catholics as perfect, idealized and rewarded for their piety and compliance in this world and the next. Sadlier finds the root of all Irish social problems in Protestant-dominated public schools, rather than Catholic doctrines that encourage large families and discourage married women from working, a tradition of Irish drinking, capitalist exploitation of urban workers or other sources. Poverty was indeed a real problem for Irish immigrants. Of the 45,000 people who accepted outdoor relief from the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the poor between 1854 and 1860, nearly 70 percent had been born in Ireland (Diner, 107). Sadlier's dominant text -- the propagandistic tale suggested by her male colleagues -- is thus clearly laid out. "The evils which I have faintly and imperfectly sketched in my opening chapters growing out of the iniquitous propagandism of the Common Schools, had continued to increase in magnitude with every passing year, until it was found absolutely necessary to keep Catholic children, at any cost, from being exposed to this pestiferous influence" (Blakes and the Flanagans, 249).
On the proper side of salvation stand the faithful Flanagans, Tim and Nelly and their offspring. Unlike many Sadlier novels, which lack a father figure, the Flanagan clan is led by the moral authority of Tim Flanagan, who takes a clear position on education and sends his children to St. Peter's. Edward Flanagan, Tim's dutiful son, defends the Irish against allegations of disloyalty while affirming the importance of patriotism for Irish-Americans, and refutes Nativist and Know-Nothing allegations that the Irish are a dangerous separatist group that cannot be assimilated into American society: I was brought up, as you well know, under Catholic -- nay, more, under Irish training; I am Irish in heart -- Catholic, I hope, in faith and practice, and yet I am fully prepared to stand by this great Republic, the land of my birth, even to shedding the last drop of my blood, were that necessary. I love America; it is, as it were, the land of my adoption, as well as my birth, but I cannot, or will not, forget Ireland. Blakes and Flanagans, 164 The Flanagans are rewarded for their piety by obedient, loyal children who enter the family business with their father, become priests, marry well, or at least die blessed deaths, Sadlier disproves the dominant stereotypes of Catholic families as violent and anarchic. Catholic families, she writes, are infused with "a love of home and kindred which is one of the most beautiful as it is one of the strongest traits in Irish character," a sentiment echoed by Brownson, who used the Quarterly Review as a vehicle for defending Catholics from malicious attacks (Diner, 64). In contrast to the modest Flanagans, the Blakes are social climbers who abandon their Irish friends and send their children to school with wealthy Protestant in the hopes of fostering future business connections. Harry Blake, son of Miles and Mary Blake, Tim Flanagan's sister, begins his career at the public schools getting into daily fights with Protestants who malign his faith and his people. Harry soon changes his name to Henry, begins to frequent the theater with his native- born friends, graduates from Columbia University, becomes a lawyer, enter politics and marries the Protestant daughter of his father's influential business partner. In the process, however, he absorbs the Protestants' contempt for his Irish heritage and dissociates himself from his ethnic background, referring to his parents as "you Irish." Henry becomes so invested in Protestant culture that he even turns their Irish stereotypes against his own father, and accuses falsely accuses Miles of being drunk at a family party. Henry's Protestant wife delays in baptizing their first-born son until Henry reminds her that his wealthy Catholic parents might look more favorably on a Catholic grandson; they delay too long, however. Just as his concerned mother had predicted, the baby dies without benefit of baptism. Eliza Blake also learns to scorn her Irish heritage, and after also marrying a Protestant, eventually refuses to see her mother socially, suggesting the Irish-born woman enter her home through the servant's entrance. Miles realizes that their own children "have no more respect for either of us, Mary, then if we were the dirt off their feet" (Blakes and Flanagans, 189). Eliza dies in child bed, and her husband remarries a Unitarian woman who raises Eliza's children as Catholic-hating Protestants. As for Miles and Mary Blake, they live out the remainder of their lives in childless isolation and loneliness, rejected by their own children and uncomforted by their material wealth. Still a more gruesome fate awaits the Dillon family, secondary characters who also send their children to public schools. They, unlike the Blakes, are uneducated. While the worst thing that can happen to an educated fallen Catholic like Henry Blake is to lose his soul while possessing worldly success the fate of poor reprobate Catholics is far more ghastly: Unhappily for the [Dillon] children, their parents had early conceived a notion . . .that the common or mixed schools were much better calculated to promote the worldly prosperity of boys and girls than were the Catholic schools. . . . The consequence was just what might be expected. At sixteen, Hugh Dillon stoutly protested against parental or any other authority; at eighteen, he called his father a 'damned old Irishman' to his very face; and at twenty, cleared off one moonlit night with al the ready money he could find in the house . . . Blakes and Flanagans, 177-183 But life for the Dillons gets even worse: the father John Dillon falls sick and cannot work, and so loses his job. Robbed of his savings by his son, he is forced to rely on his daughter's wages as a seamstress, which she earns working 11-hour days in a sweatshop. With no money for a doctor, John dies and leaves his wife a widow who must take in laundry for a living. Tim Flanagan pays for John Dillon's funeral himself, but the Irish community has little sympathy for the Dillons, with the exception of the every-suffering mother. "The people haven't much pity for John Dillon -- that's a fact; because they know he brought it all on himself by the way in which he brought up his family. For my part, I'm heart sorry for the poor woman he left behind him, and sure enough it grieved me to hear of him dying in such wretched poverty" (Blakes and Flanagans, 223). While carrying her laundry home one day, Mrs. Dillon runs into her other daughter on the street. The daughter refuses to recognize her mother however, and hurries away. Mrs. Dillons receives her last heart break when her son Hugh, by now a petty street criminal, is shot to death in a barroom brawl with some German immigrants in a nearby neighborhood. Sadlier then restates her moral: "Many and many a Hugh Dillon was turned out on society from the classes of the public schools, and a not a few of their Henry T. Blakes mounted to fame and honor on the ruins of those religious principles instilled them in childhood by Catholic mother" (Blakes and Flanagans, 251). Sadlier reiterates her moral on her last page by printing a sermon from New York's archbishop.