Book Review: “How the Irish Became White” by Noel Ignatiev

by on March 17, 2011 · 9 comments

in Culture, History

Buy this book at AmazonThis originally appeared in the March 8 issue of City Times

“The Irish are the blacks of Europe,” says the band manager in “The Commitments,” the 1991 movie about his quest to put together a soul act in pale, white Dublin. “Say it loud — I’m black and I’m proud.”

Noel Ignatiev, a Massachusetts College of Art history professor and controversial scholar of American race relations, uses that classic line to kick off “How the Irish Became White.” The 1995 book offers an in-depth analysis of America’s assimilation of the millions of Irish who emigrated in the 1800s.

Ignatiev’s uncomfortable but ultimately compelling thesis is that the Irish established themselves in America by tolerating and even participating in the persecution of the nation’s blacks.

Daniel O'Connell

The author notes that, in Ireland, the American practice of slavery was considered an abomination. So Irish icon Daniel O’Connell, a leader of Ireland’s push for independence from England in the mid-1800s, was stunned when the Irish in America rejected his call for support of the abolitionist movement.

“Instead of the Irish love of liberty warming America,” writes Ignatiev, “the winds of republican slavery blew back to Ireland.” He argues that immigrants from Ireland were focused on gaining economic and social footholds in their new surroundings. As a result, they generally failed to support anti-slavery efforts and even allied with pro-slavery interests.

Noel Ignatiev

The sad irony underlying this history is that the Irish were no strangers to persecution, as that line from “The Commitments” attests. Ignatiev describes how Irish Catholics “formed an oppressed race” in their home country. And in the decades leading up to the Civil War, Irish immigrants were usually near the bottom of America’s social ladder, not far above the blacks, who were enslaved in the South and discriminated against in the North.

Ignatiev notes that in the 19th century, Irish were sometimes called “niggers turned inside out” while black people were referred to as “smoked Irish.” His book displays antebellum-era political cartoons that treat both blacks and Irish with similar contempt.

“How the Irish Became White” reads much like “A People’s History of the United States.” Like that Howard Zinn masterpiece, Ignatiev’s book is so fact-packed that it can be hard to enjoy without pausing periodically to come up for air.

“Was Huck Irish?” Ignatiev asks in one of the book’s speculative moments. He lists evidence supporting that theory — but also says the Irish were certainly not Huckleberry Finn. While Twain’s fictional boy hero eventually chose to risk his own neck to save a runaway slave, Ignatiev thinks Irish immigrants “opted instead for the privileges and burdens of whiteness” in America in the 1800s.

History buffs and students of race relations likely will appreciate “How the Irish Became White.” The book spotlights a fascinating period in American history and reminds us that oppression can come from many sources, including the oppressed.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar A.W. Maris March 17, 2011 at 5:13 pm

Only a Shane Finneran could write this article! Thank you and Happy St. Patricks Day.
(may he kick the snakes out of Ocean Beach)- Ali Maris

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avatar Dixon Guizot March 17, 2011 at 7:22 pm

Thank you, Ali! Interestingly, outside of your comment, this article didn’t generate any feedback here on the OB Rag or on Facebook. Maybe a little too serious for St. Patty’s Day? Oh, well. It’s green beer time.

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avatar annagrace March 17, 2011 at 7:34 pm

Actually Shane, your post was the first one I read this morning. And I thought about how African Americans were enlisted from a reconstructed south to stand in for striking workers in the industrialized north. I think it is easy to imagine the dynamics that created among the strikers.
I also thought a great deal about what my Eastern European grandparents had to do to become “white” and my own first generation mother’s inability to “mainstream.”
Silence isn’t the same as indifference. Thank you, as always, for a thought provoking post.

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avatar Dave Rice March 17, 2011 at 8:44 pm

Shane, I’m gonna jump on the Anna bandwagon here and say that while I read your piece and definitely found it thought provoking, I just don’t have a comment ready to further the discussion. From what I can gather from (quite) limited genealogy, my family came over from (or passed through) County Clare in the late 1700s and had for the most part assimilated by the time of massive Irish immigration. I’m sure if I had better ties to those in the clan that stayed in New England that they’d have a very different take than the watered-down blood that headed west…

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avatar Dixon Guizot March 18, 2011 at 10:14 am

Thanks for your comments, annagrace and Dave. This article was definitely on the heavy side, so I understand how it could inspire more internal reflection than commenting and chatter.

annagrace, you mentioned the strike-breaking that occurred back in the mid-1800s. That history plays a big role in Ignatiev’s book… he chronicles several incidents of violence centered on strikebreaking.

And Dave, interesting to hear of your County Clare roots. I’m a little embarrassed to say I’m not as clear on my own family history, but I think Galway and County Mayo played major roles. I’ve never been to the Emerald Isle, but getting there for an extended visit is a goal I hope to accomplish in the next few years….

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avatar Nancy March 18, 2011 at 4:51 pm

Shane, I remember your father talking about the “NINA” (no Irish need apply) signs that appeared in store windows in NYC years ago, so they did suffer discrimination.

Thanks again for your research and another great report.

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avatar Frank Gormlie March 18, 2011 at 10:56 am

Shane, some great history, thanks. I have Scottish-Irish blood (as well as enough others to make me a full-blooded mongrel) but have found that within the older generations of my family, there was still a bias against the Irish.

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avatar MaryEllen McLaughlin August 16, 2012 at 1:25 pm

My grandmother taught me the expression “The Irish are called niggers turned inside out.” There was a lot of prejudice against the Irish people when they emigrated to the United States. My grandmother was the child of Irish immigrants from County Cork, Ireland. My father’s ancestors were from Donegal, Northern Ireland. The Irish in Northern Ireland are still suffering from oppression from the English. I belong to an organization known as Irish Northern Aid or NORAID.

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