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After the early example of Charles Lynch, the Catholic Irish moved rapidly into law enforcement, and (through the Catholic Church) built hundreds of schools, colleges, orphanages, hospitals, and asylums. Political opposition to the Catholic Irish climaxed in 1854 in the short-lived Know Nothing Party.

By the 1850s, the Irish Catholics were a major presence in the police departments of large cities. In New York City in 1855, of the city’s 1,149 policemen, 305 were natives of Ireland. Both Boston’s police and fire departments provided many Irish immigrants with their first jobs. The creation of a unified police force in Philadelphia opened the door to the Irish in that city. By 1860 in Chicago, 49 of the 107 on the police force were Irish. Chief O’Leary headed the police force in New Orleans and Malachi Fallon was chief of police of San Francisco.

The Irish Catholic diospora have a reputation for being very well organized, and, since 1850, have produced a majority of the leaders of the U.S. Catholic Church, labor unions, the Democratic Party in larger cities, and Catholic high schools, colleges and universities. John F. Kennedy was their greatest political hero. Al Smith, who lost to Herbert Hoover in the 1928 presidential election, was the first Irish Catholic to run for president. From the 1830s to the 1960s, Irish Catholics voted 80-95% Democratic, with occasional exceptions like the election of 1920.

Today, most Irish Catholic politicians are associated with the Democratic Party, although some became Republican leaders, such as former GOP national chairman Ed Gillespie, former House Homeland Security Chairman Peter T. King and the late Congressman Henry Hyde. Ronald Reagan boasted of his Irishness (the son of an Irish Catholic father, he was raised as a Protestant). Historically, Irish Catholics controlled many city machines and often served as chairmen of the Democratic National Committee, including County Monaghan native Thomas Taggart, Vance McCormick, James Farley, Edward J. Flynn, Robert E. Hannegan, J. Howard McGrath, William H. Boyle, Jr., John Moran Bailey, Larry O’Brien, Christopher J. Dodd, Terry McAuliffe and Tim Kaine. The majority of Irish Catholics in Congress are Democrats; currently Susan Collins of Maine is the only Irish Catholic Republican senator. Exit polls show that in recent presidential elections Irish Catholics have split about 50-50 for Democratic and Republican candidates; large majorities voted for Ronald Reagan.[18] The pro-life faction in the Democratic party includes many Irish Catholic politicians, such as the former Boston mayor and ambassador to the Vatican Ray Flynn and senator Bob Casey, Jr., who defeated Senator Rick Santorum in a high visibility race in Pennsylvania in 2006.

Distribution of Irish Americans according to the 2000 CensusIn some states such as Connecticut, the most heavily Irish communities now tend to be in the outer suburbs and generally support Republican candidates, such as New Fairfield.

Many major cities have elected Irish American Catholic mayors. Indeed, Boston, Cincinnati, Houston, Newark, New York City, Omaha, Scranton, Pittsburgh, Saint Louis, Saint Paul, and San Francisco have all elected natives of Ireland as mayors. Chicago, Boston, and Jersey City have had more Irish American mayors than any other ethnic group. The cities of Chicago, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Oakland, Omaha, St. Paul, Jersey City, Rochester, Springfield, Rockford, San Francisco, Scranton, and Syracuse currently (as of 2006[update]) have Irish American mayors. All of these mayors are Democrats. Pittsburgh mayor Bob O’Connor died in office in 2006. New York City has had at least three Irish-born mayors and over eight Irish American mayors. The most recent one was County Mayo native William O’Dwyer, elected in 1949.