Sunday 22 July 2018

An inconvenient truth about early Irish settlers in the US

Amid fresh controversy over white supremacists in Charlottesville, ­ Damian Corless reflects on the dispiriting role played by the Irish who sought to evade poverty by bolstering ­racial segregation in 19th century America

No mercy: Leonardo DiCaprio and his gang of Irish immigrants, The Dead Rabbits, in the 2002 movie Gangs of New York
No mercy: Leonardo DiCaprio and his gang of Irish immigrants, The Dead Rabbits, in the 2002 movie Gangs of New York

It's been another bad week for Donald Trump. Right-wing hardliners descended upon Charlottesville last weekend to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E Lee, the Confederate Civil War general who championed slavery.

It all turned nasty, leading to the mauling of several counter-protesters and the murder of Heather Heyer by a "domestic terrorist" who smashed a car into peaceful protesters. Trump's initial response - and it was repeated later in the week - was to blame the violence at Charlottesville on "both sides".

Here in Ireland, we are no strangers to public outcries over monuments deemed offensive. Even before we achieved independence, there were periodic bouts of enthusiasm for blowing up symbols of British oppression. Dublin Corporation always voted them down on arguments of fiscal rectitude - it would cost too much.

That changed with the advent of the Free State. In 1929, for instance, William Of Orange was blasted from his plinth on Dublin's College Green. In 1936, the city fathers marked the coronation of England's King George VI by exploding his ancestor, George II, out of his residence in Stephen's Green.

That all seems like a bit of harmless fun. But our conduct in the emerging US was not. It is telling that it was an Irishman, Philip Sheridan - who forced the final surrender of the self-same Robert E Lee - who is said to have made the immortal (and immoral) comment that "the only good Indian is a dead Indian". We behaved no better to black Americans. Maybe worse, if that's possible.

Coffin ships

Martin Scorsese's 2002 movie Gangs of New York represents Catholic Irish arrivals in the US as being in conflict with Protestant overlords who'd had a head start there of some 200 years. And while that's true, it's not the whole truth.

We arrived there in a pitiful state. We were hungry. Literally starving, but hungry too to climb the ladder of a nation still finding its way in the world. Shortly after the Great Famine of the 1840s, poet Emma Lazarus wrote: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore." When the poem was engraved on the Statue Of Liberty in 1903, it looked such a cosy invite.

The coffin ships, many sailing from Galway, carried huddled masses fleeing the Great Famine and suffered mortality rates of 30pc from starvation, filthy drinking water and typhus. Chain migration was the practice, where one family member would send back the fare to the US for the next sibling, until the entire clan made the Atlantic crossing. The American Wake was the party at the end of the world for those who would never see Ireland again.

One astounding fact is that while some 60pc of Italian emigrants to the States returned home to visit or live, only 5pc to 10pc of Irish ever did.

But when we settled, we trampled others with no mercy.

"It is a curious fact," wrote John Finch, an Englishman visiting the United States in the 1840s, "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."

The Irish in Ireland in the decades before the Famine were a people in revolution. They were dirt poor, agrarian, and determined to break free of the grip of England's tyranny. But once these same freedom-lovers emigrated to the US, a curious thing happened. They were met with a society based on racial segregation and industrial capitalism.

And here's where Scorsese's Gangs of New York comes in. The arriving Irish found themselves faced with a 'Nativist' movement by established Protestant Anglo-Saxons who tried to restrict immigration and subdue Irish-Catholic influence in the New World.

In order to overcome these barriers, the Irish made a strategic choice. To escape the bottom-rung of poverty and be accepted into mainstream US society, they aggressively sided with the Democratic Party and did everything in their powers to keep African-Americans in slavery or out of jobs.

In his insightful book, How The Irish Became White, Noel Ignatiev says they earned the right to be considered 'white' and receive the benefits and privileges associated with that social category.

At the time of the Famine, Irish immigrants had much in common with African-Americans. They were routinely called 'Negroes turned inside out' (PC version), while African-Americans would be dubbed 'smoked Irish'. In the US census of 1850, the term 'mulatto' appears for the first time, due primarily to inter-marriage between Irish and African-Americans. The ruling class actually believed that the mixing of races would begin with the Irish and African-Americans.

But it was not to be. This "alliance of the oppressed" did not happen. Ignatiev makes a compelling case: "When Irish workers encountered Afro-Americans, they fought with them, it is true, but they also fought with immigrants of other nationalities, with each other."

Ignatiev is not overly judgemental. He argues that the many race riots where the Irish beat up their black neighbours were a response by a hungry people to the rise of naked capitalism the like of which the world had never seen.

He says that in the wake of the Civil War, the Northern states were saturated by waves of immigrants and freed slaves competing over lower and lower wages. To secure jobs for themselves, the Irish were at the vanguard of segregation drive to force African-Americans out of the factories and into poverty and the ghetto.

In doing so, they also solidified the major distinction between relatively privileged sectors of the US working class and those on the bottom rung. In a word - whiteness.

"Since 'white' was not a physical description but one term of a social relation which could not exist without its opposite, 'white man's work' was simply work from which Afro-Americans were excluded," Ignatiev explains.

Ignatiev concentrates on one of the centres of Irish migration, Philadelphia, exploring how Irishmen found employment in the supposed city of freedom by systematically excluding blacks from any workplaces they were involved in. When this wasn't enough, they also used terror to suppress the black population.

The story of the recently arrived Irish in Philadelphia is not an honourable one. Black churches, homes, and businesses were regularly attacked and set on fire.

On a twist to Gangs of New York, Irish-Americans formed themselves into private fire companies who were mobsters who competed with other fire companies by setting fires in their territory, then attacking the firemen.

Not much to be proud of.

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