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How the Irish Became White, Part 2


Thomas Nast cartoon asserting the equal worth of Irish and blacks

3,660 words

Part 2 of 3

Apropos of Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White [2] (New York and London: Routledge, 1995)

What are here called the ‘whiteness historians’ ought not to be confused with ‘Whiteness Studies’ (WS) or ‘critical race studies’ (or certain other new ‘disciplines’ favored by ‘the New Know-Nothings’), even if they all emerged in the late 1980s and early ’90s as part of a larger ideological campaign to de-center America’s European heritage for the sake of transforming the country into a ‘universal nation’ – the ‘transnationalized’ heartland of its expanding world empire of consummate meaninglessness.

The whiteness historians’ specific crucible was Marxist labor history, while WS (and this, given the diversity of the field, is a generalization in need of qualification) tend to be more neo-liberal in inspiration, concentrated in law, literature, the social sciences, and the humanities. Goalwise, the historians seek the abolition of whiteness as a social system, while the whiteness students are more inclined to deconstruct and positively reconstruct (reform) whiteness. Ignatiev describes these two camps as ‘abolitionists’ and ‘preservationists’, the former (like himself) wants to eliminate whiteness tout court, and ‘preservationists, who emphasize racial sensitivity without frontally demonizing whites, endeavor to reform whiteness by making whites more conscious of their implicit racism.

These differences are a bit like those between Marxism and liberalism, both of which stem from the same rationalist/materialist currents of Eighteenth-century thought and, consciously or not, strive to subvert (‘diversify’) European America and the ‘Western Civilization’ they associate with whiteness. One, though, is  ‘revolutionary’ and ‘social’, aspiring to abolish a whiteness equated with capitalism, while the other is ‘reformist’ and ‘individualist’, more concerned with undermining the cultural/psychological foundations of ‘racism’ in order to liberate white-skin people from their misconstrued identities as ‘whites’. Together, whatever their respective ‘vices and virtues’, they constitute the two wings of the same ethnocidal campaign assailing whatever remains of white racial identity – an identity, it just so happens, that was the one thing defining European Americans as a ‘people’ or ‘nation’. (Birgit Rasmussen et al., The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness [2001].)


All these related anti-white tendencies — in the last instance — reflect the larger inversions of the present counter-civilizational system, whose cornerstone was laid in the hecatombs of Dresden and Hiroshima, Hamburg and Nagasaki – a system justifying America’s ‘right’ to mass murder women and children, if such massacre advanced America’s ‘divine’ mission in the world – a system, in a word, rejecting the last thousand years of European Christian civilization, for once the historic moral core was denied, so too was the civilizational heritage that had grown up around it.

In the decades since 1945, this inherently anti-European, anti-Christian system, headquartered in NYC and DC, with satellite offices in London, Paris, Berlin, and Tel Aviv, has given the world: the A-bomb, the H-bomb, the N-bomb, and napalm, along with unbridled materialism, religious desecration, sex-obsession, drug use, family breakup, Gay Pride, intellectual and Islamic terrorism, feminization, permanent war, and a total lack of creativity in everything, except evil and perversity. With this demonic transvaluation, the Negro, the historical antithesis of the white Christian American, begins to affect the music, mores, and sensate fixations of postwar America – he is even allowed to sit in the cockpit of absolute power – as his rootless, memory-less pleasure principle (‘so cool’) increasingly becomes the model for the oligarchs’ new global citizen. (Desmond Fennell, The Postwestern Condition: Between Chaos and Civilization [1999]; Pitirim A. Sorokin, The Crisis of Our Age [1941].)

The closest ally of the whiteness historians – and this should explain many things — are academic feminists, who are not merely extreme social constructionists (‘One is not born a woman, one becomes one’), but a powerful metapolitical force (richly endowed, with multiple academic presses and a favored status among foundations and university grant programs). These gender warriors now constitute the critical mass presently leading the cultural witch hunt against whatever is left of America’s European-Christian heritage. To this end, organic structures and perennial beliefs are forced to cede to socially engineered forms and values amenable to liberalism’s ideology of ‘consummate meaninglessness’.

The ‘moral vacuity and civilizational self-loathing’ that comes with feminism has already had the not-insignificant effect of diminishing the credibility of the entire university system, as ‘higher education’ throughout the Americanosphere is turned into a Hebraic deconstruction of Dead White European Males. To this end, Jews are encouraged to tell Christians that their churches are moral abominations and Christians to ask Jews how they can atone. Inversions like these, and countless others, serve now as the axis around which America’s counter-civilization revolves.

For the system’s ideologues – feminists, Marxist whiteness historians, WS, along with Black Studies and other creeping fauna native to the postmodern, post-European, Orwellian Academy – the Irishman represents the white Everyman, who, more than the banking cartels tyrannizing the world, embody the ‘evil’ to be crushed. For it is the white supremacist ideology of white workers that gives a majoritarian façade to US democracy and legitimates its capitalist system.

The single positive feature of the historic Left – its defense of the ‘people’ from their exploiters – has revealingly become a thing of the past. The postmodern, militantly anti-racist, white-hating, sexually ambivalent, Jew-dominated Left of today (whose goals are comprehensible solely in terms of Stoddard’s ‘San Domingo’) no longer champions the cause of white working people resisting the often ruinous conditions imposed by economic elites; it doesn’t even resist the growing police state; instead, it endeavors to deconstruct everything that once guaranteed social decencies and the common good. It functions, thus, as the vanguard of the inherently maniacal system dictating the present destruction of white life and liberty. (Lothrop Stoddard, The French Revolution in San Domingo [1914].)


Wretched as they were when they arrived in America, the ‘low brow, savage, bestial, wild, simian’ Catholic Irish of the Famine migration (who would form America’s first ‘ethnic group’ and the last to have American opportunities opened to them) were heirs to one of Europe’s richest, most ancient cultural traditions (even if their colonial masters viewed the wretched Irish cottiers on their potato patches, the tattered relics of the Gaelic civilization the Carthaginians destroyed in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries, as ‘dirty, feckless, and rebellious wild men’ – savages, not unlike North American aboriginals, who understood only the language of force and famine). That the Irish rejected English rule in Ireland was only further proof of their ‘lawless, improvident, and uncivilized’ nature — given that the English had the ‘best’ form of government in the world. (Katharine Scherman, The Flowering of Ireland: Saints, Scholars and Kings [1981].)

In Ireland, the story goes, the native Irish (the Catholic Gaels), after having been conquered by their more powerful neighbor, were not only without racial prejudice, they suffered a form of colonial oppression that was worse, at least materially, than American Negro slavery. Their subjugation also had a pronounced ‘racial’ character, dispossessed the Irish of their land, and denied them a civil existence in their own country. For the Protestant Ascendancy, the native Irish, according to Edmund Burke (himself an apologist of the Whig oligarchy responsible for the Ascendancy), were ‘a race of savages’ – ‘a disgrace to human nature’ — ‘enemies of God and man’. On this less than charitable note, imperial policy in Ireland was played out.

The black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass — though an Anglophile, like most abolitionists, and one often forced from abolitionist platforms by threatening anti-black Irish mobs — said of them: “No people on the face of the earth have been more relentlessly persecuted and oppressed on account of race and religion than the Irish’. If Tocqueville’s lifelong friend and collaborator, Gustave de Beaumont, had allowed him to title the sister volume of Democracy in America, it most certainly would have been called Tyranny in Ireland. (Gustave de Beaumont, L’Irlande: sociale, politique et religieuse [1839]; Emmet Larkin, ed., Alexis de Tocqueville’s Journey in Ireland: July–August 1835 [1990].)

That the Irish had been subjugated in their homeland and hostilely received in America, where they were relegated to the bottom of the social hierarchy, at times below free blacks, meant there was no group better situated then the Irish to make common cause with non-whites for the sake of a multiracial class alliance to challenge US capitalism and its onerous system of white-supremacist social control.

The Irish failure to recognize their common class ties with blacks — along with their violence to abolitionists, their exclusion of Asians from the West, and their refusal to become the pawns of Northern revolutionaries and terrorists — are symptomatic, the whiteness historians claim, of all that was wrong with the US working class and its trade union leadership (nearly half of which was Irish). That is, they are symptomatic of the fact that, historically, white workers not only chose ‘white supremacy’ over class solidarity with blacks, but used their racial identity to define their class identity (which, pace the Marxists, happened to be more communal and racial than economic or ideological in character). (Bruce Nelson, Divided We Stand: American Workers and the Struggle for Black Equality [2001]; Irish Nationalism and the Making of the Irish Race [2012].)


According to the US naturalization law of the first Congress, the white skin of the Catholic Irish made them formally eligible for citizenship. But for the whiteness historians that hardly settled the matter. Once in America, the Irish — the ‘hard-drinking, rioting Paddies’ of the Famine migration especially — were lumped with blacks and referred to as ‘niggers turned inside out’. (Apparently knowing little of the nuanced language of race in nineteenth-century America, these historians see such characterizations as racial designations of the Irish, but it was obviously the latter’s cultural/religious characteristics that Anglo-Protestants identified with blacks – in that both groups, uncivilized and savage as they seemed, were very unlike them and very unlike their own liberty-loving, enterprising, and world-dominating selves.)

Even more than nineteenth-century Englishmen, Americans were devotees of progress, prosperity, and industrialism and could not but disdain the primitive Irish peasants, whose propensity to ‘riot, outrage, and atrocity’, were taken as threats to civilized life and property. But there was more. Like the unfortunate Highlanders, the Irish were no friend of the Scottish Enlightenment, the ideological crucible of world capitalism, and ardently resisted capitalism’s anti-traditionalist assault on their way of life. John Mitchel, one of the greatest nineteenth-century Protestant champions of Irish nationalism – familiar with the inside of both American and English prisons – characterized the Carthaginian middle class in ways that were no less true of the American Northerner, who, he argued, ‘worships only money, prays to no other than money, would buy and sell the Holy Ghost for money, and believes that the world was created, is sustained and governed, and will be saved by the only one true immutable Almighty Pound Sterling’. Mitchel’s nationalist hatred of imperial Britain (which had the same penchant for mass destruction and desecration as twentieth-century US imperialism) went hand in hand with his rejection of liberal modernity and its assault on the larger European heritage. (John Mitchel, Jail Journal [1854]; Bryan P. McGovern, John Mitchel: Irish Nationalist, Southern Secessionist [2009].)

The alien, pre-modern character of Irish Catholics, though phenotypically almost identical to old stock Americans, seemed especially pronounced because no other people so physically resembled them and yet were so unlike them. One New York ‘patrician’ (George Templeton Strong) observed, ‘Our Celtic citizens are almost as remote from us in temperament and constitution as the Chinese’.

Such a view, of course, had much to do with the desperation of the half-starved Connacht serfs – this ‘repulsive rabble’ – washed up on US shores during the Great Hunger, when Her Majesty’s Government (not unlike Fidel Castro’s government during the Mariel Boatlift of 1980) shipped its principal social problem across the sea to the USA. The intense anti-Irish sentiment awaiting this unwanted refuse of British tyranny owed something as well to seven centuries of negative English stereotyping, and especially to the Protestant Reformation.

From the beginning of its Puritan founding, America’s liberal Protestant empire had been militantly anti-Catholic, opposed on principle to the ‘ignorant, superstitious, and authoritarian’ agents of popery. The very Catholicism of the Irish was taken as proof of their cultural and racial inferiority. New England Protestants were similarly more anti-Catholic than their English cousins, who had anti-Catholicism inscribed in their national identity, and the ‘nativists’ among the Americans aggressively resisted the papist invaders — depicted not just as an anti-Christ, but almost as a different species. That the Famine Irish ‘wore their religion as a badge of honor and embraced it as their nationality and culture’, in contrast to earlier, more deferential Catholics, no doubt stirred up the tempest that would cause so much damage to relations between the two American branches of Western Christianity.

More generally, the clash of Saxon and Celt in America, like in Ireland, was not simply racial and national, but one of religion and worldview. To all but the whiteness historians, it was the priest-ridden, Sabbath-breaking, clannish, block-voting, and thoroughly unbourgeois character of the ‘wild Irish’ (before parochial schools had Americanized them), and not their uncertain racial status, that roused the nativists’ ire. (Ray Allen Billington, The Protestant Crusade 1800–1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism [1938]; Jenny Franchot, Roads to Rome: The Antebellum Protestant Encounter with Catholicism [1994]; Martin E. Marty, Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America [1970].)

The Irish, in any case, were WOA: White On Arrival. Pace Ignatiev, there was little dispute over their racial identity. Even the Carthaginians, though they often called them savage and subhuman, considered them white. (Thomas A. Guglielmo, White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago 1890–1945 [2003]; Stephen Howe, Ireland and Empire: Colonial Legacies in Irish History and Culture [2000].)

The nativists opposed them not because they thought them non-white, but because they were a different religion, culture, people – and thus an affront to their Yankee Protestant identity (in the same way Polish immigrants affronted the Irish of the ‘Celtic Tiger’). Many nativists were also abolitionists (and thus self-righteous Calvinists embodying the hypocrisies of their age, which shed oceans of tears for the poor, well-fed, well-housed black slave, while utterly indifferent to Irish and other white children working 12-hour days in their mills for starvation wages). The nativists, though, were entirely within their duties to resist Irish Catholic immigrants threatening their Anglo-Protestant ‘nation’. Their resistance was the normal response of any organic community to an alien ‘pathogen’ (if you ignore the Catholic settlements of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Florida).

The ‘problem’ with nativists was hardly that they were anti-Catholic ‘bigots and reactionaries’ – as our narrow-minded liberals contend, unaware that the historical essence of liberalism (and thus of themselves) was anti-Catholicism. The nativists were defending who they were – which needs no justification. The problem rather was that the ‘nation’ they were defending was not actually a ‘nation’ — not a ‘descent group’, like European nations, having a common past, an established religion, a single source of authority and order, and a common genetic heritage – which meant they couldn’t rally the ‘nation’ as a nation.

The nation that had emerged from the Revolution of 1776 was little more than a liberal ‘propositional nation’ (something like Renan’s ‘daily plebiscite’), founded on a supremacist idea of itself, derived from the Judaizing ideals of its Low Church Protestantism (what Joseph de Maistre called the sans-culottisme de la religion). Looking at the nation spawned by the Revolution, Gordon Woods writes in The Idea of America (2011), that: ‘To be American is not to be someone, but to believe in something’ – i.e., to believe in America as a democratic idea, not an organic body or an extended family, like a European nation or people. (Dale T. Knobel, Paddy and the Republic: Ethnicity and Nationality in Antebellum America [1986]; Tyler Anbinder, Nativism and Slavery: The Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s [1992].)

By definition, the American, as a democrat, was an individual defined – ultimately – by his relationship to the market and was thus potentially a ‘docile cosmopolitan’, while Ireland’s Catholic peasantry, still stuck in a pre-modern, pre-capitalist world, were not so prepared. The nativist resistance to Catholic immigrants accordingly merged with a larger struggle – not just between Catholicism and Protestantism, but tradition and modernity, agrarianism and industrialism, community and society.

Similar to nativists and colonizers, the whiteness historians consign the Irish to an intermediate status between the black and white races, because they reject ‘ethnic’ designations that might explain this so-called ‘in-between’ status – denoting a condition that was not Anglo-Saxon or Protestant white, but perhaps white in a different or lesser sense. Roediger thus refutes the relevance of ‘ethnicity’ and ethnic interests as analytical categories because they were not then part of the Nineteenth-century vocabulary – as if appendicitis did not exist prior to the Seventeenth century because there was then no term for understanding it. (David Roediger, Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White [2005].)

Designating differences in culture, history, religion, and identity within a race, notions of ethnicity threaten the whiteness agenda, for they explain divisions between whites that have nothing to do with race (unless you mean ‘race’ as a ‘nation’, in the sense that Sir Arthur Keith understood it: i.e., as a gene pool or an ‘evolutionary unit’, which is not the way the nativists understood it – though the Irish tended to see it this way, with different ethnic groups and nations considered ‘races’, with the white community comprising several ‘races’ or ‘nations’ – all different, yet all opposed to non-whites (i.e., those not European and Christian). (Arthur Keith, A New Theory of Human Evolution [1948]; Murray G.H. Pittock, Celtic Identity and the British Image [1999]; Russell A. Kazal, ‘Irish “Race” and German “Nationality”’, in R. Scott-Childers, ed., Race and the Production of Modern American Nationalism [1999].)


How did the Irish become white? As already mentioned, Ignatiev believes it was by assuming the legacy of white supremacy.

How the Irish Became White does not actually examine the process by which this occurred, but rather depicts several key stages in its realization. His argument for this reason eludes some of his readers.

But it is quite straightforward. Initially, in the two or three decades prior to Lincoln’s War, the Irish drove Northern free blacks out of low-wage manual labor markets by working for less. There was nothing specifically racial about this. But once blacks were excluded, the Irish (long tutored in the lessons of mutuality and solidarity, and with a readiness for violence) protected these jobs (and fought to improve them) by drawing a ‘color line’ around them, thereby defining them as ‘white man’s work’, which made it harder for blacks to compete with them, and at the same time identified them as ‘white’. Because the ‘history of the Irish immigrant reduces itself’, as one scholar puts it, ‘to a history of the American labor movement’ — and because Irish workers feared abolition would drive them out of the bottom rung of the labor market – Irish American labor came to play a major role in defending and upholding ‘the White Republic’. (Alexander Saxton, The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth-Century America [1990].)

More important, the Irish defense of the racial hierarchy was institutionalized in the Democratic Party. Before the War of Northern Aggression and again after it, Southerners sought an electoral alignment with the popular classes of the North, to resist the revolutionary designs of capitalists, abolitionists, and Republicans/Whigs/Federalists threatening slavery, later Jim Crow, and what Richard Weaver called ‘the last non-materialist civilization in the Western World’. Historically, Northeastern elites (the Yankee Puritan heirs of the Whigs and Know-Nothings, the descendents of regicides and Protestant revolutionaries, Unitarians and Transcendentalists) tended to favor black over green – in contrast to those of the Old South, which were more anti-bourgeois and more religiously tolerant of Catholics, especially given Catholicism’s Aristotelian defense of slavery and its opposition to laissez-faire capitalism).

Irish resistance to the Northern Cromwellians, bent on damning the South and plunging the nation into civil war, would consequently make them crucial to the coalition defending the White Republic, for however poor and outcast, they ‘were born to rule’ (Plunkett of Tammany Hall) and quickly affected the swing vote in the major metropolitan centers of the young republic. (Indeed, they would eventually capture the Northern, urban wing of the Democratic Party and move it from an individualistic to a more communalist liberalism.) (Steven P. Erie, Rainbow’s End: Irish-Americans and the Dilemmas of Urban Machine Politics 1840–1985 [1988].)

To maintain its alliance with Northern, especially Irish labor, the South was obliged to reject nativism and accept the Irish as whites, just as the Irish were expected to support white supremacy and the Southern version of Americanism (which they actually found more congenial than the ‘cold’ Yankee version they encountered in the North). Early on, nativists (a great many of whom were also abolitionists) identified the ‘priest-ridden Paddies’ with ‘the slave conspiracy of the South’, given the greater affinity the Irish had with the ‘Cavaliers’ and their opposition to the Yankee middle class, intent on Hebraicizing the whole world. (This Irish affinity with the South was made world-famous by Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind [1936].) Andrew Fraser’s notion, in The WASP Question (2011), that the White Republic was based ‘implicitly on an Anglo-Saxon Protestant nationalism’ seems particularly off target here – for the American forces of white supremacy were less Anglo-Protestant (implying Judeo-English capitalist interests) than Celtic-Cavalier, opposed not just to the Puritans imbued with the Jewish revolutionary spirit, but to the entire tenor of modern liberal America, already using ‘race’ as a means of fomenting social change and revolution. (David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South 1815–1877 [2001]; D. R. Beagle and B. A. Gremza, Poet of the Lost Cause: A Life of Father Ryan [2008].)