On this, the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, I thought it appropriate to read a book that’s been on my shelf for more than a year (having snagged it from table with a sign reading “free books—please take” in a hallway in the English department at the University of Texas down the street): Noel Ignatiev’s How The Irish Became White. In the book, Ignatiev traces the weird history of how the “blacks of Europe” became to be considered white in America after major periods of immigration in the 18th and 19th Centuries.
Ignatiev attempts (I think successfully) to debunk several myths, from the existence of “race” as a biological distinguisher (we’re all Africans, as Richard Dawkins’ tee-shirt often reads) to the idea that the Irish became white because of certain advantages over other immigrant groups (they had to learn English, too, for starters). Ignatiev’s conclusion is much harder to swallow: many Irish immigrants, in an effort to find inroads in the existing American caste system, chose to side with the elites and their mechanisms of authority—that is, armies and police forces. They were pawns in a game, that much I think can be safely said, but they were also, unlike the case for their ancestors back on the Emerald Isle, on the wrong side of history on more than one big occasion.
Here’s a section from Ignatiev’s (Marxist?) account of the Irish participation in the American Civil War:
The Civil War and Reconstruction were many things, but one thing they were, taken together, was an effort to redefine the basis of the republic. The war began, as Frederick Douglas remarked, with both sides fighting for slavery—the South to take it out of the Union, the North to keep it in. …But the demands of war compelled a change, and in 1863 Lincoln shifted from a constitutional to a revolutionary policy. Three measures signaled the turn: the Emancipation Proclamation (which in fact freed no one, since it applied only to those areas of the country then in revolt, that is, the areas where Union authority did not reach, but was important as a declaration of intent and an encouragement to the slaves); the enlistment of black soldiers; and the replacement of McClellan by Grant (who, at the battle of Vicksburg, introduced the technique of waging war not solely against the enemy but against the enemy’s capacity to wage war). …
The abolition of slavery called into question the existence of the white race as a social formation, for if the main underpinning of the distinction between the “white” worker and black worker were erased, what could remain to motivate poor “whites” to hug to their breasts a class of landowners who had led them into one of the most terrible wars in history? And if class interest replaced “race” interest in their hearts, who could say where it might end?
After the Civil War, Southern recalcitrance pushed the Republican Party to embrace Negro suffrage in the South (although many Republicans continued to oppose it in the North). That bold step opened the door to a far-ranging social revolution, the establishment of a degree of proletarian political power in the governments of Southern states under reconstruction. For a brief moment the abolitionists—men like Wendell Phillips, and women like Sojourner Truth and Lydia Maria Child—stood at the head of a nation struggling to find its soul. In this struggle the Irish threw their weight on the scales, and not, it may be said, on the side of the angels [the “angels” line referring to Benjamin Disraeli’s famous intervention in the 1860 Darwinian debate].
Many Irish northerners, Ignatiev points out, chose to abstain from supporting the Union—both ideologically and materially—even though they, or people from generations close enough to remember, were for all intents and purposes slaves themselves in the old country. But I don’t think you can really blame them. If I had been alive at the time, I would’ve fled to Canada or to the West, rather than choose between dying for industrial capitalism or for agrarian feudalism—both of which endorsed and profited from the ownership of people. However, this, and other chapters from the dark American story, will surely not be mentioned tomorrow at the pub (where you can rest assured I’ll be, wearing orange: more as an attempt to go against the grain than to show support for the Protestant King Billy—although, he did usher in a precursor to Parliament in a time of Divine Right of Kings, and resisted/contained what would more than a century later come to be known as the Ancien Régime).
So to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day fully, I suggest A. checking this book out from your local library, B. reading it over a good pint of your favorite ale, and C. using the occasion to ask your friends to question the holiday’s ideological origins (it is, after all, an American—not old Irish—invention). To most, the Irish are seen as resisters of the English empire, and who in America can’t get behind that? But perhaps the day could also be used to reflect on class solidarity, and on the need to create communities of support as our own empire not only tests political limits but ecological ones.
To be clear, I don’t mean to make a comprehensive or definitive statement about the many choices that Irish immigrants have made throughout the history of our country (how could I claim such authority?). I would mention here that I’m part Irish, but really, isn’t that a silly source of credibility on a subject? Human DNA is, in the scheme of things, not substantially distinguishable—not just from others in our own species but also too among the DNA of close cousins like Chimpanzees. Rather, I simply wish to break the otherwise unfettered momentum of the St. Patrick’s Day “proud to be Irish” train, which, as it runs along the rails laid down for it by fundamentalist Catholic bigots, among others, serves as a kind of code for insular identity politics, and glosses over a much darker (and if nothing else, fascinating) history.