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”How The Irish Became White” by Noel Ignatiev

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John Mitchel, a well known Irish American politician once wrote in one of the 1856 issues of Citizen: “He would be a bad Irishman who voted for principles which jeopardized the present freedom of a nation of white men, for the vague forlorn hope of elevating blacks to a level for which it is at least problematical whether God and nature ever intended them.” From this excerpt, it is quite likely to assume that the oppressed Irish Catholics who once crossed the Atlantic in their coffin ships to reach the New World in order to escape the misery, famine and discrimination in their country had transformed to archetypal white men by then. In his exemplary book, How The Irish Became White, Noel Ignatiev analyzes this slow and painful assimilation of the Irish immigrants into the white American mainstream by critically observing the disturbing Irish question from the beginning of 19th century till late 1877, and their long term struggle for the final acceptance into the brotherhood of white supremacy.

The once oppressed Irish Catholics, who sought exile from the religious persecution and discrimination by the intolerant populace of Anglican faith for a better life in America, were by no means on higher grounds in their foster homeland, mercilessly rending their dreams in miserable dwellings and thankless labor by the very side of the equally subdued black people. (Associated Content, 2008) The pain associated with the emigration of the oppressed Catholic Irish people during the great Potato Famine is depicted in James B. Johnston’s poem, “The Greening of America”.

Skeletal shadows haunt hillsides silent of song.
Sunken eyes stare sightless across famine fields.
Stinking potatoes permeate the odor of death.

The flux of bloody fever flows from tumbled cottages
like the tide of ragged remnants flooding the roadside,
abandoning ditch-dead without ritual or wake.

The human freight of coffin ships sail west
to where the fungus forged its first black root.

Ignatiev, in his seminal work, addresses the reasons and the consequences of this heartbreaking apathetic reception that the Irish immigrants faced in the Promised Land with adversities almost similar in nature to the blacks, being ruled out from every single opportunity by the privileged white skinned natives in the backdrop of industrialization in post civil war America. By carefully comparing the racial oppressions encountered by the poor Irish immigrants in America’s North, especially after the Great Famine of 1840, with the Anglican persecutions they faced in their own country, Ignatiev cites the deep seated reasons for the intentional loss of their Irish morality and nationalism for their moral acceptance into the privileged fair skinned club.

Ignatiev’s viewpoint differs from the conventional conjectures, where racial alignment is solely guided by predispositions based on outward physical appearance. In his book, he overtly addresses the unpleasant general opinion of the natives with these hapless Irish migrants, who in fact possessed quite acceptable racial features, perfectly complying with the white population of America. The contemned Irish newcomers were subjected to harsh and often degrading manual labor in the most dangerous situations, for which even the black slave laborers were not spared. As a matter of fact, the book narrates the fact, how America gained a formidable labor force due to the unacceptable surge of hard working migrants during the much despised Potato Famine Immigration. The general view of the native white supremacists that is upheld in Ignatiev’s book speaks of the manner how the Irish immigrants and the free low wage black laborers of Union states were treated with similar scorn and dejection, irrespective of skin color and racial features.

They were often being subjected to mutually abusive phrases like, “white niggers” for the Irish and “smoked Irish” for the blacks. This is clearly indicative of the apparently enigmatic yet drastic effort of the Irish strugglers in gaining supremacy and civil rights as white people by vigorously subjugating the blacks. Thus according to Ignatiev, the once oppressed turned out to be bonafide oppressors by trying to come up as accepted nationals through exhibitionism of racial violence, rancor and belligerence for gaining social, political and economic stand in their foster homeland. The book critically analyzes the organized initiatives of the then Irish American institutions like, labor unions, democratic parties, the church and racist clubs that were working in unison to subdue and surmount the black competitors and abolitionists.

After the Emancipation Proclamation and the Military Conscription Act in 1863, the tempestuous mobs of Irish migrants in the Union states conducted violent oppositions to this amendment by lynching and terrorizing the blacks through devastating urban riots. (Ripley, P. 229)  Ignatiev comments on the violent New York City Draft Riots conducted by the poor Irish immigrants who couldn’t afford replacements for substituting in the Civil War drafts. Ignatiev concludes his documentation with evidences of the slow transformation of the nature of Irish struggle for recognition and supremacy from disorganized racial rifts to further machinated approaches by stepping on the high ended rungs of the social and political ladder in the new America. They finally emerged as white supremacists, against all possible odds, ensuring trade monopoly, suffrage and civil dignity through crime, blood and racial hatred.

The principal aim of Ignatiev’s book is to uphold a totally unorthodox idea about the origin of racism and ethnic discord within people. He hypothesized that the Irish people had to pay a heavy price by loosing their ‘greenness’ – their Irish morality – in order to get the conformity of the native white supremacists. The book, How The Irish Became White, narrates a well documented story about the painful struggle of a class of racially white people leading to their ascent from the lowliest levels to the ultimate social stand. This exemplary work by Noel Ignatiev can be somewhat as a prelude to a new form of abolitionism, of which he is a proponent. (Race Traitor, 1997) The author proposes that such a color line still exists in the minds of the white people of USA, due to a formidable undercurrent of instinctive racial sympathy. Ignatiev draws a connection between his narrative and his abolitionist viewpoint by trying to find out ways to bring out the white people from their subconscious psychic barriers of racial segregation thereby back tracking the story of acceptance of the non-white Irish immigrants into the brotherhood of racially white supremacists.

Works Cited:

  1. Ignatiev, Noel, How The Irish Became White, 1995, Routledge NYC
  2. McDaniel, Robin, “The Irish Immigration Struggle in America”, 2008, Associated Content, retrieved from: http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/902201/the_irish_immigration_struggle_in_america.html?cat=37 on November 8, 2008
  3. Ripley, Peter C., The Black Abolitionist Papers Vol: V, 1992, UNC Press
  4. Ignatiev, Noel, Personal interview, Z Magazine, Race Traitor Journal of the New Abolitionism, March 1997

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