Sunday, August 03, 2003


I have just read How the Irish Became White” by Noel Ignatiev. It is one of several books of history about the Irish in America, like “Irish America: Coming into Clover” by Maureen Dezell. However, it asks a question somewhat different than that book. It asks how the Irish Catholic immigrants came to be grouped with other European immigrants, as entitled to “white men’s work” and not limited to an underclass.

This even in retrospect does not seem to have been an obvious development. The Irish in America before 1840, who were mostly less poor and Protestant, quickly became known as the “Scotch-Irish” (a term not used in the British Isles), and were seen as a different “race” than their Irish Catholic cousins. In the British Isles, the Irish Catholics were caricatured as lesser humans, and in America too they were stock comic characters lumped with African immigrant slaves. Racial classification in the United States was and is strange. Thus, someone with seven European and one African great-grandparents was deemed “Negro”. Today the government classifies people as “white”, “black”, "Native American", "Asian" or “Hispanic”, suggesting that Hispanics were neither black nor white nor Native American, nor Asian. The Irish might well have remained as “green” in the 19th century, in a society of whites, blacks and greens.

Irish Catholics in 18th century Ireland were of a lower caste, in a culture dominated by the English, Protestant “Ascendancy”. The large numerical majority of the population, the Irish Catholics owned a very little land – seven percent as I recall. Laws not only prohibited the practice of their religion, but even teaching Catholics to read and write. When the potato famine arrived in the 1840’s there were some eight million Irish; of those, one million are estimated to have died in the famine. Perhaps another million and a half emigrated. In the worst years, it is estimated that one-in-six of the émigrés died on the “plague ships” to America.

Those who landed were estimated to have a life expectancy of six years. While immigration from Europe was increasing generally, in the mid 19th century the Irish flooded into America. These were not the affluent Irish, but the poor – often sick, malnourished, undereducated. While some were “mechanics” skilled to work in the new industries, more were unskilled, suited only for manual labor. Irish immigrant women became the maids, and probably the prostitutes of the cities of America. The immigrants were usually too poor to move to the West, where land was available and farms could be started. The recent movie, “The Gangs of New York” shows the slums in which the Irish lived, and the poverty and violence that characterized life in those slums.

Destitute and desperate for work, the Irish quickly came to numerically dominate unskilled labor categories in the urban North, driving out native born Americas and freed blacks by working for less and taking jobs no one else wanted; Irish workers fought other ethnic immigrants and freed blacks for these low paying jobs, using weapons available. In the South, Irish were hired for work that was too dangerous for slaves. There was an investment in slaves that would be lost were they to be killed, and the slaves still had to be housed and fed if the job were completed or the slave disabled; the Irish workers brought no such inconveniences to their employers. In some cases, Irish workers battled slaves to be allowed to do “slave work”. Moreover, there was a literature suggesting that the wage-slave Irish in the North were worse off economically than the black slaves in the South.

The war between the United States and Mexico in the 1840’s provides a telling example of the role of the Irish in the United States at the time. The United States fielded an army composed largely of immigrant soldiers, many recruited right off the ships. Eight percent of the U.S. troops deserted, the highest rate in American history. Tellingly, the Saint Patrick Brigade of the Mexican Army was formed by deserters from the U.S. Army, mainly Irish. I assume that these soldiers found it easier to see themselves as Catholics than as Americans, and were more willing to join with the Mexican Catholics than to serve under native born, Protestant U.S. officers in the U.S. army. The San Patricio’s are supposed to have fought bravely, and many of those soldiers captured from the Brigade were executed in sight of Chapultapec as that citadel fell; the “Child Heroes” (military cadets who died in the siege) of Chapultepec remain symbols of the Mexican nation, and the San Patricio Brigade is honored annually in Mexico and Ireland. The recent movie, “One Man’s Hero” telling the story of John Riley, the leader of the Saint Patrick Brigade, was never released in the United States -- still too hot a topic! (Riley was from Clifton, in the West of Ireland, and is presumed to have survived the war, and stayed in Mexico.)

Ignatiev makes the case that the social construction of the Irish Americans as “white” while the African Americans were construed to be a “black” underclass was a complex social and economic process. He cites the use of political institutions by the Irish. They managed to overcome Nativist and Know-Nothing movements in the mid 19th centuries. They opposed the abolition of slavery, using the argument that they would abide by the laws of their adopted country. (This was in spite of a general Irish cultural distaste for slavery, and probably to avoid economic competition from freed slaves, as well as to build political coalition with the white southerners.) The Irish immigrants organized labor, and used violence and exclusionary tactics to keep work for the Irish. I would add, that they fought America’s wars, not only manning the army in the war with Mexico, but serving in distinguished Irish units in the Civil War and World War I. After emancipation, African Americans were the victims of other social and political processes that denied them rights and status in America. On the other hand, the social construction of the position of black Americans after the Civil War was a disaster has not been fully overcome today.

The latter part of the 19th century also saw the Gaelic Revival in Ireland. The language, Gaelic sports, music and dance were encouraged. An Irish theater and Irish literature were invented.

This brings me to another book I just read. I recently found “Raftery’s Poems”, a book by my granduncle, John Patrick Raftery, published in 1922. (No longer in print, but I found it via a used book search service.) J.P. Raftery was an immigrant to the United States, and was involved in a number of programs in his poetry. He was reinventing Ireland for his fellow émigrés. He was constructing an Irish-American persona, loyal to the new country, literate and cultured, with ties to old. And he was mobilizing American support for Irish independence from England, and for the empowerment of Irish Catholics.

I also recently read “Blind Raftery and His Wife, Hilaria” by Donn Byrne. Anthony (Blind) Raftery would have been John Patrick’s Great Grandfather (if family tradition is right). He was a itinerant poet in the early 19th century, never published in his lifetime because his language was Gaelic, not English. A hundred years later, Douglas Hume (later President of Ireland), W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory (co-founder of the Abbey Theater in Dublin) and others collected, translated and published his work, and collected what biographical information still existed. They made the point that a distinguished poet was ignored because he didn’t versify in English and belonged to the underclass. They were reinventing Irish culture, and indeed until the Euro displaced the Pound, the Irish five Pound note showed a class of students studying Raftery’s most famous poem in Gaelic.

Byrne’s book, published in 1924, has been recently republished. It presents Blind Raftery as an aristocratic minstrel, famous in other countries as well as in Ireland. I note one website in which the author says the book was kept out of sight and out of the hands of children when he was growing up, because it was so dishonest. Yet the book was again a reconstruction of the past of both Irish Catholics and Irish Americans, giving them heroes and a construction of their past of which they could take pride.

I suspect that this is the very stuff of development. America, with Irish American Presidents like Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan, and Grace Kelly as a real life princess as well as movie star, now sees Irish Americans as suitable leaders. Ireland is now the Celtic Tiger. The constructed self image of the Irish Americans as descendents of a proud and accomplished people seems likely to have contributed to the self confidence that made such accomplishment possible.

What about “Knowledge for Development”-- the theme of this Blog. I suggest that in this case the socially constructed, or reconstructed knowledge of who the Irish were is real. It is a funny kind of knowledge. It is "mythical knowledge". At issue is not so much whether the stories are literal and factual, as whether they are useful and serve the cause of development. In a world where dictators use propaganda to create their own legitimizing myths, how do we discriminate between useful stories of history and dysfunctional ones. Perhaps it is not too hard to do so. The Irish at least had little difficulty in recognizing English stories justifying their rule of Ireland as clap-trap.

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