What the Moneygall Obama song really says about the Irish
CULTURE SHOCK:The song "There's No One as Irish as Barack Obama" should be a reminder of a disgraceful past, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE.
IN THE second series of The Sopranos, Tony’s nephew Christopher has a near-death experience after he is shot by two dumb punks. When he comes out of his coma, he tells the family that he has been briefly in Hell. They want to know what Hell is like. It is, Christopher explains, an Irish bar where it is always St Patrick’s Day. The Italians have to play cards and the Irish guys always win. For any African-Americans unfortunate enough to encounter the paddywhackery of Moneygall or the declaration by Hardy Drew and the Nancy Boys that There’s No One as Irish as Barack Obama, Christopher’s vision of Hell must be familiar. Just when you think you’re having a moment in the sun, you find yourself in that eternal Irish bar where the Paddies hold all the cards.
The endless game of claiming everyone as Irish can be fun and even educational – up to a point. That point is the one at which it becomes crass and tasteless. It’s the one at which it ceases to be a way of opening up history and showing the complexity of Irish identity and becomes a way of hijacking history and muscling in on other people’s identity. In itself, the attempt to cash in on Obamamania (Fianna Fáil councillors are already demanding “some sort of heritage centre, museum, some sort of monument” in Moneygall to act as a tourist attraction) has all the charm of a drunken party crasher. What makes it particularly reprehensible, though, is its ignorance of cultural history.
The great black leader Frederick Douglass, whose connections with Ireland and Daniel O’Connell have rightly been recalled this week, had something to say about the 19th-century white performers who put on a black face to entertain their audiences.
He called them “the filthy scum of white society who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.” The Irish were key participants in this blackface charade. Initially, Irish immigrants were the butt of many of the jokes in the minstrel shows. In a classic example of the phenomenon that Noel Ignatiev summed up in the title of his book How the Irish Became White, Irish performers themselves appropriated the form. From the 1850s onwards, Irish and Irish-American performers – Dan Bryant, George Christy, Matt Campbell, Billy Emerson, Edward Harrigan, Edwin Kelly – became the dominant force in blackface minstrelsy. This was precisely the period, either side of the Civil War, in which blackface minstrels moved from a patronising but nostalgic view of the blacks on the Old Plantation to what Annemarie Bean has described as “infantilising and demonising the black body like never before; with the possibility of having autonomous free blacks with rights in American society, blackface minstrels set out to prove that they were not worthy of them.” This dominance extended even to the mind-blowing double parody of Irishmen performing as black women. Francis Leon (Patrick Francis Glassey) was one of the world’s highest paid performers in the early 1880s, feted in the US and on tour to Britain and Australia. His speciality was performing as a Creole woman. His only rival was another Irishman, Tony Hart, best known as Harrigan’s partner, but also a specialist in female blackface roles.
Blackface minstrelsy was as complex as any other long-lasting cultural phenomenon, and it undoubtedly contained elements of playfulness and subversion. (Its ambiguity carries forward into today’s successor, Ali G.) But its essential core was the denigration through parody and burlesque of black music and culture and of black people themselves. It is not unreasonable to expect Irish people to understand that we have this long and largely disgraceful history and to be at least a little self-conscious when we consider the appropriateness of reviving the habit of putting a black face on Irishness.
We might also remember that the constant claims of Irishness have had real effects in making blacks disappear. The most striking recent example of this is the cultural construction of the area of New Orleans called the Irish Channel. It is, as the historian Ann Gernon has pointed out, a “mythical geographical region”.
It was never an area of particular Irish settlement in the city. But “this myth can be found traded in the bars of the French Quarter, as each bar vies for tourists and locals alike who want to be Irish”. It is also projected through the hugely popular novels of Ann Rice, who has successfully applied an Irish and Catholic patina to it. But the problem is that the “Irish Channel” is in fact 68 per cent African-American.
When the levees broke and the area was flooded, that population’s cultural invisibility really mattered – they did not exist because the place was “Irish”. The apparently harmless habit of Irishness trumping blackness fed into the astonishing abandonment of those very real people. It would be, to put it mildly, more seemly for us to celebrate Barack Obama’s achievement for what it means for a people emerging from racial oppression than for putting Moneygall on the map. Douglass’s words about whites stealing “from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money” apply all too directly to the effort to paint Obama as one of us. As we despair of our own political leadership such fantasies may be understandable. But we would honour Obama more by refraining from muscling in on his parade and behaving like the most shameful branch of his family tree.