Diarmaid Ferriter: Irish-Americans will not all vote as immigrants

They may have experienced racism but Irish migrants have a history of attacking others too

In advance of the debate between the two US vice-presidential candidates, Mike Pence and Tim Kaine, much was made by Irish commentators of the candidates' identities as Irish-Americans who take their roots seriously.

Kaine duly tickled the Irish-American belly with a reference to Donald Trump’s incendiary anti-immigrant rhetoric, pointing out that both he and Pence are descended from immigrant families and referred to the discrimination experienced by early Irish migrants to the US.

That such discrimination existed, and that signs announcing "No Irish need apply" [Nina] in relation to situations vacant, is beyond doubt, despite the insistence back in 2002 of Richard Jensen, a history professor in Chicago, that they were a myth. In an article in the Oxford Journal of Social History, Jensen maintained, "There are no contemporary or retrospective accounts of a specific sign at a specific location. No particular business enterprise is named as a culprit. No historian, archivist, or museum curator has ever located one; no photograph or drawing exists."

But last year, a Washington high school student, Rebecca Fried, proved him wrong in the same publication, by producing evidence that "Nina advertising did, in fact, exist over a substantial period of United States history, sometimes on a fairly widespread basis."


Last year, research of the New York Times classified advertisements in the 19th century revealed 29 ads that had the same message, another boot in the transom of the dismissive history professor.


In a provocative book last year, Unhappy the Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish? historian Liam Kennedy wrote emphatically: "There is an almost palpable sense of victimhood and exceptionalism in the presentation of the Irish national past, particularly as reconstructed and displayed for political purpose. It is a syndrome of attitudes that might be summed up by the acronym Mope, that is, the most oppressed people ever.

"Less extravagantly stated, the claim is to being one of the most oppressed people in the history of world civilisation. But the burden of the story so far is that there was a large gap between images of singular oppression and the material and cultural conditions which were the lot of people in Ireland. "

An interesting question arises from this – was the same true for the people who left Ireland for America?

The history of Irish immigrants’ experiences is a lot more complex than Nina. They overcame many obstacles and prejudices, and to cite Irish immigrants as one of the success stories in the building of America is justified, but the Irish are also part of a much larger story of migration and connections and racism against other immigrants.

Irish are not alone

Kevin Kenny, an acclaimed Irish historian at Boston College, in his book Diaspora, points out that 11 million Africans were shipped to the Americas from the 16th to the 19th centuries, while 30 million emigrated from India after 1840. Another 20 million left China – as many as the number of Europeans that settled in the Americas. Many of these experienced the full wrath of racism; the global Irish, though victims of ignorance and snobbery, were, Kenny notes wryly, "unlikely candidates for membership in some diasporic club of the racially oppressed".

A trip to the museum at Ellis Island, the gateway for immigrants to the US after 1892, is also a reminder of the extent to which Irish migrants were part of a very broad international mobility. The discrimination they experienced in the US could be intense, but the Irish there played their part in attacking Chinese migrant labourers and were also to the fore of the draft riots in New York in July 1863, when 120 were killed in what started as a protest against the Union's Conscription Act but escalated into race riots that included a vicious targeting of African-Americans.

At their height, a mob assembled alongside the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue, shouting, “Burn the niggers’ nest!” and the building was torched. According to one account, an Irish boy, Paddy McCafferty, heroically led the fleeing children; at the same time, there is little doubt most of the rioters were Irish, as were many of the New York metropolitan police they fought, a reminder of the many layers to the Irish American experience.

It is doubtful if Irish immigrant history will help Hillary Clinton. As many, if not more, Irish-Americans are likely to vote for Trump. A summer poll for the IrishCentral.com website of 7,000 Irish-Americans recorded 45 per cent expressing preference for Trump, with 41 per cent choosing Clinton. As pointed out by Niall O’Dowd, many Irish-Americans are buying in to the “Make America great again” message.

This should not surprise; for decades, white ethnics, including the Irish, have been cutting ties with the Democratic Party. From the 1980s, Irish-American Republicans often promised, like Trump does now, that they would protect "average Joe" from liberal elites.

What they conveniently ignore, it seems, is what made America great – or otherwise – in the first place.