America and the Irish

St. Patrick’s Day, and the week leading up to it, is a chance to showcase America’s obsession with all things Irish.  Irish culture, or at least the Americanized caricature of Irish culture, is one of the most recognized European cultures in the cultural melting pot of the United States.

That wasn’t always the case, however. The Irish were once one of the most despised ethnic groups in this country. This was a cultural more that had carried over from the United Kingdom. To explain that, I must give a briefing on English history.


Henry VIII

That briefing involves one of the, arguably, most famous monarchs in English history – Henry VIII.  Most of what is known about Henry is in regards to his famous penchant for , ahem, removing his wives from the equation. However, Henry’s main contribution to English history is the foundation of the Anglican Church, which is the official state church of the United Kingdom and all of its dependencies. Henry founded the Anglican Church mainly so he could divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. In 1527, he requested of Pope Clement VII an annulment of his marriage to Catherine.  The Pope, citing church doctrine, denied this request. This lead Henry to officially break with Rome on all matters of religion.  In 1534, Parliament passed The Act of Supremacy, which declared Henry “the Supreme Head of the Church of England.” In that same year, the Deputy Lord of Ireland, Thomas FitzGerald, rose in rebellion.  The rebellion failed and Thomas FitzGerald was arrested and executed in 1537.


Thomas FitzGerald

In 1541, Henry officially unified Ireland and England under his rule.  Prior to that decree, Ireland was only a de facto possession of the English crown.  It was technically a papal possession under the governorship of the Lord of Ireland, who was also the King of England. English Kings had taken a hands-off approach to Irish affairs prior to FitzGerald’s rebellion, however.  The Irish nobles were essentially autonomous outside of a territory on the East Coast under direct control of the English government known as “The Pale” which radiated outwards from Dublin.  This term also gave rise to the phrase “beyond the pale” as the lands beyond were seen as indecent, uncultured, and unsafe for an English person.  That phrase, to this day, carries the meaning that whatever it is describing is “outside the bounds of acceptable behavior.” That phrase speaks to how the English viewed the Irish.  They were viewed as, in a word, savages.

Henry’s abandonment of Roman Catholicism and crackdown on Irish affairs widened the cultural divide between the two nations.  The Catholic-Protestant divide continues to be an issue to this day as Northern Ireland, a constituency of the United Kingdom, is predominantly Protestant while the Republic of Ireland is predominantly Catholic.  Catholicism was a major driving force in negative perceptions of the Irish by the English.  In 1575, the Earl of Essex sent a regiment to Rathlin Island, off the Northern Coast of Ireland, to track down Scots-Irish Catholic refugees.  All of the inhabitants of the island were slaughtered and, according to Herbert Byrd in his book Proclamation 1625, a lieutenant in Essex’s army named Edward Barkley described the slaughter thusly:

“How godly a deed it is to overthrow so wicked a race the world may judge: for my part I think there cannot be a greater sacrifice to God.” – Edward Barkley

This type of sentiment was not uncommon in Elizabethan England.

Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I

Anti-Catholic sentiment had increased under Elizabeth I after her devoutly Catholic sister, Mary I, had cracked down on Protestantism in England and abolished the Church of England’s primacy in favor of the Catholic Church.  Through her mass executions of protestants, Mary had garnered the moniker “Bloody Mary.” In 1596, Edmund Spenser, an English poet mainly known for the epic The Faerie Queen, published a book about Ireland called A View of the Present State of Ireland in which he described the Irish as monstrous creatures who crawled around on their hands, ate dead bodies, murdered babies, and raped women.  He also advocated for the eradication of the Irish Gaelic language as he believed that conquered peoples should be forced to adopt the language of their conquerors.

Following another failed Irish rebellion, this time led by Hugh O’Neil, Earl of Tyrone, many Irish began fleeing Ireland and England for Europe and Colonies in the New World.  The Province of Maryland, founded in

Cecil Calvert

Cecil Calvert

1632 by Cecil Calvert, 2nd Baron Baltimore and an English born Irish lord, was explicitly founded as a refuge for Catholics.  But the majority of the Irish who emigrated during this time to the future United States weren’t Catholics – they were Presbyterians.  Presbyterians tended to be wealthier immigrants, thus they were afforded more opportunities in the New World.  They settled in more diverse places as Catholics were still mainly banned from colonies outside of Maryland. Although Maryland would also later outlaw Catholicism following a Puritan rebellion in 1650. Maryland would reinstate Catholicism in 1689 and it would remain the heart of the Catholic Church in the United States for nearly 200 years.

Understanding the Anti-Catholic and Anti-Irish sentiment in Elizabethan England is integral in understanding anti-Irish sentiment in America. Many Irish Catholics remained in Ireland until the Great Potato Famine in the 19th Century. It is through the Potato Famine that the story of the Irish in America really takes shape.  Although the United States was founded as a nation of no particular religion, it was, far and away, majority Protestant Christian.  Other religions represented very small percentages of the overall population. At the country’s founding, Catholics only represented about 2% of the total population of the United States.

That would change in the 19th Century when scores of immigrants from Catholic regions of Europe came to America.  Chief among them were, of course, the Irish.  The Irish came to this country due to The Great Potato Famine in Ireland.  Due to emigration and death, Ireland would lose around a quarter of its population as a result of the Famine. Anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States hadn’t disappeared with enshrinement of the Freedom of Religion and Anti-Irish sentiments hadn’t disappeared simply because the Americans weren’t English anymore.  Indeed, throughout the world, the Irish still weren’t viewed as that much better than Africans.  They were barely considered white. Two English historians described Irish thusly:

“I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country…to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black one would not see it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.”Charles Kingsley, Cambridge Historian, in an 1860 letter

“This would be a grand land if only every Irishman would kill a Negro, and be hanged for it. I find this sentiment generally approved – sometimes with the qualification that they want Irish and Negroes for servants, not being able to get any other.” -Edward Freeman, writing in 1881 upon returning from America


Here, Nast illustrates that Black men and the Irish are equal

If not for African slaves, the Irish would have been the most despised group in the United States.  Interestingly enough, for all of the social progressivism in the North surrounding the abolition movement, the Irish were roundly despised and treated like second class citizens.  The disparate groups that would eventually coalesce in to the nascent Republican Party prior to the Civil War were the parties most associated with anti-Irish sentiment.  Whereas the Democratic Party, the party most associated with slavery, proved most welcoming to the immigrants.  The conversation regarding the Irish Catholics was framed as a Church and State issue.  Many pundits of the day, including Political Cartoonist Thomas Nast, framed Irish opposition as a Church and State issue.

Nast 1870

Nast portrays an Irish immigrant sewing Church and State together after Lady Liberty tore it apart

This type of discrimination should be fairly familiar because we’re seeing the same thing happen today with Islam.  The nativist sentiment that influences many people’s views of Islam today is the same nativist sentiment that influenced anti-Catholic sentiment.

So, how did we get to where we are today?  How is it that the Irish seem to be so cherished in our society?  The truth is that they aren’t.  Not really. We’ve convinced ourselves that we cherish them.  Sure, we no longer view the Irish as Mr. Nast did.  We don’t see them as some invading horde.  But the negative depiction of the Irish hasn’t changed.  America’s celebration of the Irish consists of dressing up like leprechauns, getting drunk, and trying to fight.

Look at the two pictures below.  One is of another Nast cartoon and one is a current St. Patrick’s Day shirt.

So, how much progress have we really made as a society regarding the Irish? Not a whole lot.  We’ve essentially portrayed them the same way from the get go.  The major difference is homogenization.  The Irish have become white, essentially.  Nast portrayed the Irish as apes because he didn’t view them as being any better than Africans.  The English described the Irish as chimpanzees because they didn’t view them as being better than Africans.  As a global society, the Irish have, in a manner of speaking, earned their seat the table.  But the Irish still have persistent stereotypes about them and these stereotypes are what drive St. Patrick’s Day.  Think about what the Irish have given the world:

  1. Authors: James Joyce, Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, C.S. Lewis
  2. The son of an Irish immigrant, Henry Ford, invented the automobile
  3. Irish engineers, Joseph Holland and Walter Wilson, invented the submarine and the tank, respectively.
  4. John Joly invented color photography
  5. An Irish physicist, Ernest Walton, split the atom for the first time

These are just a handful of their accomplishments. But, above all these accomplishments, the one thing that ultimately brought the Irish in was the one thing they had had all along – their whiteness.

Following the American Civil War, America, more than ever before, became a nation of racial tribes.  All of the factors that had otherized the Irish (Catholicism, Gaelic) no longer mattered.  They weren’t Africans, they weren’t Asians, and they weren’t Indians.  They could assimilate. They became policemen, they became firefighters, they became politicians.  They became Americans in ways that other marginalized groups couldn’t. But the Irish still couldn’t shake stereotypes.  Speaking as a member of another marginalized Catholic diaspora, the Polish, there are certain things that will just never go away. For the Irish, this is drinking, leprechauns, and fighting.  For the Polish, it’s being dumb.  These stereotypes are persistent, but in many cases, no offense is taken anymore.  I think that is largely to do with the larger acceptance in to society of Irish people and their culture.  Even outside of St. Patrick’s Day, you see the beers, you see the whisky, you see the music.  Irish culture is one of the most recognizable old world cultures in this country.  They’ve come a long way.

I wanted to tell this story for two reasons. (1) I wanted to illustrate how far the Irish have come and (2) I wanted to draw illusions from how the Irish were treated to how we are currently treating immigrants.  One of the most oft repeated idioms relating to the historical field is that those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it.  We are repeating history in this country.  The United States is a rich tapestry of cultures from all of the world.  Some cultures originated here.  Some cultures were forcibly brought here.  Some came of their own free will. But they are all a part of one culture – our culture.  Our motto is E Pluribus Unum – out of many, one.  Our culture will never stop growing, it will never stop changing. We are a nation of immigrants and our stories run parallel.  Our ancestors came to this land looking for something better than where they came from.  We should never forget that. All immigrants seek something better. Let’s be that better. Never forget the words on the Statue of Liberty.  No, not the famous phrase.  Remember these words:

Mother of Exiles.

That is who we are.


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