Irish Diaspora to the U.S.From Exile to Established
My father’s family came from County Cork Ireland, andsettled in New York and Pennsylvania. There, they weredomestic workers, coal miners, steel workers, railwaymen,and police officers. This is a common narrative in the IrishAmerican story, and Irish Americans take pride in knowingthat their ancestors helped build these United States. Butwhat is largely forgotten is that Irish Americans facedresistance in the New World, and at one point were noteven considered white, and therefore socially subhuman.Faced with racism and social injustice, the Irish establishedthemselves and gained “whiteness,” much as the Jews andItalians have done at other points in American history.
Out of Irelandhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pbujqRpZoecThere is no word for "emigration" in the Gaeliclanguage and instead, the Irish considered themselves“exiles”. This fact plays heavy on how the Irish see theworld around them.
Why exile? To understand this, we must firstunderstand the history of Ireland and the factorscausing them to leave their homeland.
The FamineThe Irish potato famine started in 1845. Before then,Ireland was the most densely populated country in allof Europe, and because of this the poor were verydependant on the potato as a food source and income.When the famine hit, the English government largelydismissed the claims of starvation and was slow tointervene. When the government did act, theyintended the Irish to work for the relief aid, whichcaused many people to die before they could collectpaychecks for the canals they had been building as partof the relief plan. The government used this famine asan opportunity to repeal the corn laws, but this didnothing to help the Irish, as the government continuedto export large quantities of food from Ireland. (Bloy)
The FamineThe new English government of 1846 did not aidIreland until the next year, and even then did so onloan only, putting already poor people into debt.When soup kitchens were set up, the starvingpopulation flocked to them in large numbers, whichcaused outbreaks of disease. “The 1841 censusrecorded an Irish population of 8.2 million. By 1851,this figure had been reduced to 6.5 million. Thesestatistics give some indication of the scale of thedisaster, but since many of those affected by the faminelived in remote and inaccessible places, it is more thanpossible that far more people died that has ever beenthought.” (Bloy)
Other factorsIrish people were facing discrimination in the UnitedKingdom based on their religion, increasing rents andevictions. Evictions only increased after the repeal ofthe British Corn Laws 1846 and the new EncumberedEstates Act being passed in 1849, as well as the removalof existing civil rights. There had been agrarianterrorism against landlords, which these new laws wereto help crush. Any hope for change was squashed withthe death of the political leader championing forIreland, Daniel O’Connell, in 1847 and the failedrising of the Young Irelanders in 1848.(Wikipedia, Irish Diaspora)
A Letter from AmericaA letter from farmer from Ulster who settled inMissouri wrote to a Belfast newspaper in 1821, inwhich he said:“In Ulster I could go to a fair, or a wake, or a dance, orI could spend the winter nights in a neighbours housecracking jokes by the turf fire. If I had there but a sorehead I would have a neighbour within every hundredyards of me that would run to see me. But hereeveryone can get so much land, and generally has somuch, that they calls them neighbours that lives two orthree miles off. I would sit down and cry and curse himthat made me leave home.” (Irish Immigration)
This letter echoes the same sentiment other Irishimmigrants all over America felt.The Irish faced such crippling poverty and brutalizingsocial policy for hundreds of years, it is no wonder theyfelt pushed out of their own lands. The Britishconsidered them an underclass, a different race, andthis carried on into the United States, where Nativistswere largely made up of people who had emigratedfrom England.
A Different Race
In this picture, you can see a comparison between anEnglish woman, and an Irish woman. The Irish womanis barely recognizable as a woman and is unkempt andcave man like. The English woman is a lady, beautifuland lovely. This is how the U.S. viewed the differencebetween the “natives” and the incoming Irishpopulation. The comparison between the Irish andapes was a way to dehumanize the Irish and lump theminto the same category as Africans Americans, anothergroup compared to apes. Because of this, the Irish andfreed slaves lived in the same slums and worked side byside. “The Irish were often referred to as Negroesturned inside out and Negroes as smoked Irish.” Afamous quip of the time attributed to a black manwent something like this: “My master is a great tyrant,he treats me like a common Irishman.”(McDonald, Art)
If whiteness is not based on the colour of ones skin,then it must be a social construct, for if whiteness wasbased only on ones skin colour, the Irish would havemost certainly been considered white. Yet if the Irishwere once considered black, but are now consideredwhite, that must mean that whiteness is not only fluid,but it is something that can be attained. Whiteness isnot actual whiteness, whiteness is power. How did theIrish achieve this?
The American ExperienceThe picture above depicts the popular stereotypes forIrish men at the time. Stereotypes depicted the Irishmen as lazy, drunkards, stupid, and criminals. Thewomen were depicted as hard workers and modelminorities, but this did not protect them from thesame racism that the men faced. They competed forjobs with freed slaves, often doing labourious tasks inunsafe conditions, if they could get hired. Someemployers, so tired of the many Irish seeking jobs, orjust flat out racist against them, refused to hire them
No Irish Need ApplyThose that did not want to hire the Irish simply placeda NINA sign in their shop window, or in theemployment ad. In response to this the Irish turnedthe phrase “No Irish Need Apply” into a famousballed. There is some contention about whether or notthe NINA signs existed.
Richard Jensen claims in “No Irish Need Apply:A Myth of Victimization” that although the Irishremember being oppressed, and that there is acommon idea that the Irish were discriminated against,the No Irish Need Apply signs often mentioned wereextremely rare or not even existent in America. He saysthe signs originated in England, and although Irishpeople heard about them, they simply did not exist tothe extent that is believed.
He says that the Irish established themselves throughlegitimate means, politically and through lawenforcement, and yet despite this there is still a feelingof oppression from Irish populations. After all of thishe goes on to say that he found a dozen instances ofNo Irish Need Apply uses in the New York Times. Healso stated the No Irish Need Apply song, created outof the discrimination the Irish faced, encourages“bullies” because of the change in lyrics from a maidthat cries at the sight of the sign to a lad that fightsback at the sign users discrimination. (Jensen)
Jensen claims that the anti-Irish sentiment was actuallyanti-catholic, but if that were the case, why make it arace issue? Although Catholicism was a factor in theHibernaphobia of the U.S. at the time, it does notexplain away the fact that racism against the Irish was areal thing, recorded by popular political cartoons.Although Jensen would like to dismiss the struggles theIrish faced in society, the fact still remains thatemployers did discriminate against the Irish, twelveinstances of which he himself finds. Employment adswere not the only way employers found workers, andhe fails to take into account the use of signs inwindows or doors. Many Irish men worked hard labourjobs, travelling from place to place, not relying onnewspaper advertisements to find their work, but wordof mouth or, better yet, showing up to the companythemselves.
He is dismissing the collective memory of thousandsupon thousands of Irish immigrants.
Achieving WhitenessArt McDonald in “How The Irish Became White”states that the Irish gave up their greenness to becomewhite. That is to say that to become white, the Irishsided with their oppressors against the AfricanAmericans in the U.S. “And so, we have the tragicstory of how one oppressed "race," Irish Catholics,learned how to collaborate in the oppression ofanother "race," Africans in America, in order to securetheir place in the white republic. Becoming whitemeant losing their greenness, i.e., their Irish culturalheritage and the legacy of oppression anddiscrimination back home.” (McDonald, Art)
“I don’t see no Americans, I see trespassers”This quote is said in the film Gangs Of New York(Caution: NSFW language at the link) by Bill theButcher, the Nativist of the film. A similar sentiment isseen to this day, not in regards to the Irish, but otherracial groups, particularly Hispanic immigrants. Sincethe opening of Ellis Island in 1892, Nativist rhetorichas hardly changed. Today, instead of being blatantlyracist like they were in the mid 1800’s, they hide itunder the term “illegal,” a term used dehumanize apopulation.
Rarely does one who holds these Nativist views takeinto account the contribution of the “illegal”immigrant to our society, and rarely do they see theimmigrants as actual people, working as hard as theycan to make a living the same way our ancestors did.They don’t see them as exiles, heartbroken to have toleave their home land because of brutal poverty andsystemic corruption. They also do not see their owncountrymen bringing them over to exploit their labour,or the other mistreatments that take place.
For the Hispanic immigrants of all nations, becominglegalized in this country does not save them fromracism, nor the “illegal” label. The passing ofArizona SB 1070 made it legal to racially discriminateagainst the Hispanic population. Although the bill waslater modified to take out some of the morecontroversial provisions, the message was sent.Facing all of this racism, can the Hispanic populationever be considered white, that is to say, can they everachieve the same power that whiteness brings?
I believe they can. We have already seen it happen toother groups such as the Jews and the Italians, and ofcourse the Irish. But the Irish way of becoming whiteas cited by McDonald certainly was the wrong way.They sacrificed their “greenness” to become theoppressors, and that is not a proud legacy to leave tofuture generations. Instead of oppressing others to gainpower, power can be attained through other means.Not every Irish person was an oppressor, and somewent on to become a part of the privileged classthrough other means such as politics, the arts, lawenforcement, and being a valuable member of theircommunity.
There is a saying that the people with the most powerand privilege recognize their power and privilege least.While privileged Americans repeat the rhetoric thatillegal immigrants/too much immigration will causethe destruction of America and cause other privilegedAmericans to suffer, they do not see how much powerthey really hold.
They only see the threatThe threat to “their” jobs.The threat to “their” economy.The threat to “their” 1950’s nostalgic way of life. A wayof life that never really was.They do not see the threat of THEIR way of thinkingand what their way maintaining privilege does toAmerica.
Nativists held these same beliefs about the Irish, andthe Irish responded by helping to build America intothe great Nation that she is. Hispanic immigrants arehelping us continue to make America even better.