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When the Irish became white: immigrants in mid-19th century US

Inspired by Black History Month, Patrick McKenna shares what he has learned of the history of Irish immigrants and Abolition in the US in the mid-19th century

Patrick McKenna

Tue, Feb 12, 2013, 01:00


Patrick McKenna

Emigration changes people, in many different ways. For example, in a previous Generation Emigration post I explained how, after more than 35 years as an immigrant in Canada I had lost my Irishness.

When Irish (poor, and Catholic) immigrants landed in the mid-19th century US they changed. They jettisoned the core of their identity – the long struggle for freedom. They joined in the oppression of African-Americans. Since I understand that this may seem controversial please allow me to explain.

In those days, the Irish immigrants had much in common with African-Americans; they might be nicknamed “Negroes turned inside out” while African-Americans would be “smoked Irish”. A quip, attributed to an African-American, went something like this: “My master is a great tyrant, he treats me like a common Irishman.” In the census of 1850, the term “mulatto” appears for the first time, due primarily to inter-marriage between Irish and African-Americans.

The white, Protestant business establishment believed amalgamation between the races would begin with the Irish and African-Americans. The resulting united front of labour would have increased wages, something the establishment did not want.

However this “alliance of the oppressed” did not happen. The Irish supported the continuance of slavery, turning their backs on the Abolitionist cause, despite the urgings of Daniel O’Connell. Angela F. Murphy in American Slavery, Irish Freedom: Abolition, Immigrant Citizenship, and the Transatlantic Movement for Irish Repeal concludes that the Irish failed to support Abolition, at least partly because they could not see beyond their own concerns and prejudices: “while Irish American repealers maintained a pride and love for their homeland, they acted unabashedly American in the way they dealt with the slavery controversy” (p. 218). Murphy’s thesis is echoed in Noel Ignatiev’s more eye-catching title: How the Irish Became White.

I suppose I was saddened by this discovery, especially when I considered Irish alacrity to claim Barrack Obama as “one of their own” (actually, Mr Obama is only a “smidgeen” over 3 per cent Irish). However, as I read more I realised that the story is more complex than it seems.

Immigration was not an easy journey in the mid 19th century. The Irish weren’t the only emigrants streaming into the growing urban centres such as New York Philadelphia, and Boston. Great waves of immigrants from Europe, Canada (French Canadians), and, crucially, freed or fleeing, slaves, crammed into cities, competing for the same jobs. For the poor, Black or White, Italian or Chinese, the equation was simple: “work or starve”. Men fought each other, physically, for jobs, driving a wedge between their cultural communities. For the Irish in this “dog-eat-dog” job market, support of abolition would not have been a high priority.

Another deterrent to Irish support of abolition may have been the United States Naturalization Law of 1790 that restricted naturalization to “free white persons” and of “good moral character”. The aspiring citizen pledged to support the Constitution of the United States. Therefore the Irish may have hesitated to support Abolition, seeing it as a threat to the Constitution.

Unfortunately, the Irish went beyond passive support of slavery: “It is a curious fact,” wrote John Finch, an English Owenite who travelled the United States in 1843, “that the democratic party, and particularly the poorer class of Irish immigrants in America, are greater enemies to the Negro population, and greater advocates for the continuance of Negro slavery, than any portion of the population in the free States.” In the Philadelphia riots of 1844 Irish mobs attacked African-Americans, their homes, businesses and churches, and at a political level they helped suppress debate over Abolition.

I am saddened that the Irish could not find in their hearts some of the courage of Robert Kennedy. In Indianapolis, on April 4th 1968, at 9 pm, he stood on the back of a flat bed truck and faced a crowd of several thousand, mostly African-Americans. He broke the news of Dr Martin Luther King’s assassination. He did so at great personal risk. Many were in the crowd armed. Robert Kennedy knew this.

Kennedy’s speech is one of the most eloquent in American political history. Speaking to the African-Americans he said they had something in common: a white man killed his brother. He quoted a classic Greek poem that spoke of finding peace through suffering. He begged them to remain peaceful. They did. Indianapolis was spared the violence that exploded in so many cities that night.

So, today, all I can do is ask: what sort of America would have emerged if Irish immigrants had supported Abolition; what sort of world would have emerged from that America? Would the suffering of African-Americans have ended sooner? Would we have had to wait so long for a Barrack Obama?

I guess none of us can know the answers to such questions.