“Erin Go Bragh” – Ireland forever. I’m proud of my Irish heritage – the culture, the history, music and literature, the “craic” – small talk, and a legacy of stubborn persistence. Through genealogy, I discovered my mother’s great grandparents’ emigration in the late 1840’s – 1850’s, during the “Great Hunger”, some call a genocide. Recently, I’ve been pondering how the Irish of Ireland seem to have become increasingly liberal – a gay, half-Indian Prime Minister; same-sex marriage; legalized abortion (by a landslide) – while so many Irish Americans have become conservative. One reason I’m glad that Joe Biden is running for president is because he represents another version of being Irish in America from so many of the politicians/commentators whose names we hear today: Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Brien, Pat Buchanan, Steve Bannon, Paul Ryan, Brett Kavanaugh, Kellyanne (Fitzpatrick) Conway, Kayleigh McEnany – you get the picture.
I was talking to a friend who is Black and grew up in Boston during the 70’s -- how weird it is that the Boston Irish and Boston African American communities have so much history and experience in common, but had become antagonistic, particularly during the bussing era. The Irish and African Americans essentially shared the same oppressors, the British, and later the White Anglo Saxon Protestants of colonial America. Under the Penal laws, the Irish were little better off than enslaved people, punished for speaking their native language, practicing their religion, denied education, ability to own land, suffrage, legal rights, dignity. In Ireland, as in early America, the Irish were depicted as brutish, uncivilized, untrustworthy, unintelligent, carnal. Jonathan Swift (of Gulliver’s Travels fame), wrote a caustically funny essay on “The Irish Problem.” The solution? Eat their young, as they had so many babies they couldn’t feed.
Noel Ignatiev’s book suggests how the early Irish immigrant lower class found a route to acceptance in this country – at the expense of others and as an unwitting tool for keeping racism in place. Initially, according to the book, many of the indentured Irish and the free Black people lived, worked, intermarried, and are today probably distant cousins. Laws and practices regarding color-based racism were already in place, to keep lower class laborers from uniting, but the Civil War produced a crisis of conflict and violence. The Irish freedom fighter, Daniel O’Connell, called for the Irish in America to become abolitionists, but instead they rioted against being drafted into the Union Army, while Free Blacks were not. In addition, the Irish and Scots Irish had found a role in enforcement of southern landowner’s rights through slave-patrols, considered the earliest incarnations of policing in the US. Howard Adams in Prison of Grass, described the cooption of the poor whites as “foot soldiers” or “guard dogs” in keeping white supremacy in place, not an ideal to aspire to, but basically in order to survive and be accepted by a hostile social and economic elite.
Another hard truth, heartbreaking really, that needs to be faced in order to change. An Irish American writer on this subject, Art McDonald concludes the Irish traded their “greenness” for being “white” – the social construct, not anything biological. He says, “Imagine if the Irish [in America] had… formed an alliance with their fellow oppressed workers, the free Blacks of the North,” and “included them in a union movement” against the dominant white culture, which “ruthlessly pitted them against one another.” Things could have gone another way. True, perhaps, America would not be the world-dominating economic powerhouse it is today. But that was never good for all Americans. Doesn't have to be this way - see Joe Biden. And maybe someday there could be Irish Americans for Black Lives Matter.