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A History of Anti-Irish Racism in the US

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Image: Erin, A Hell, A Love, A Town

Irish people have it pretty good in America these days, but this was not always the case.  White privilege was not extended to Irish Americans in the US from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, and Irish people were not considered white people back then despite their fair complexion. As a fun St. Patrick’s Day exercise, let’s take a stroll through yesteryear and look back upon the racist epithets, stereotypes and mongrelizations projected onto Irish Americans of generations past on this day when contemporary Americans attempt to pass themselves off as Irish in pursuit of free drinks or sexual attention.

In the above cartoon from the late 1800s, we see the Irish minority blamed for “taking our jobs”, unfairly inflating voting rolls and posing a disproportionate risk of violence that requires an advanced level of police monitoring and prosecution. Gosh have we heard this ascribed to any US minority communities recently? The politics of ethnic resentment are still employed the exact same way as they were 160 years ago. Back then, these tactics were employed against the Irish immigrants whose heritage you co-opt today with your t-shirts, Guinness pints  and “Kiss Me I’m Irish” buttons.


See the portrait of an 1867 St. Patrick’s Day riot above? See if you can pick out which individuals depicted are Irish. Note also the use of the phrase “Brutal attack on the police” to blame an allegedly untrustworthy ethnicity.

You’re familiar with the use of monkey-like associations used to diminish African Americans, a tactic we still see used in 2015 and 2016. You may not realize this tactic was also used against Irish Americans during the post-slavery period. In the analysis Irish Apes: Tactics of De-Humanization Dr. Lisa Wade writes:

“In the last few hundred years, dark-skinned peoples have been likened to apes in an effort to dehumanize them and justify their oppression and exploitation.  This is familiar to most Americans as something that is done peculiarly to Black people (as examples, see here, here, and here).  The history of U.S. discrimination against the Irish, however, offers an interesting comparative data point.  The Irish, too, have been compared to apes, suggesting that this comparison is a generalizable tactic of oppression.”

The above 1876 Harper’s Weekly cover shows how Black and Irish voters were considered to be corrupting American democracy by voting. Note how the scales are tipped equally, considering the Irish to be a menace on par with the freed slaves. From James Barrett’s 2012 book The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City

“Citizens of Rhode Island debated whether the Irish should be excluded from the Fifteenth Amendment, as they appeared to be a distinctly different race from both African American and the ‘white mainstream’. Since they generally arrived with fewer skills and resources than the Germans, the Irish competed for low-wage work with African Americans. Comparisons between African and Native Americans were common. Even if the Irish did not labor alongside African Americans, their tasks so closely resembled those by free and enslaved blacks that they were often called ‘n***** Irish’ while African Americans were sometimes referred to as ‘smoked Irish’.”

Thus, the Irish and African immigrants in the US would fraternize thoroughly. Later in the same book…

“Intermarriage among Irish, blacks, Chinese and others had been so common by that point that on observer wondered how the census investigators could ever classify its residents. These intermarriages further stigmatized the despised Irish in the eyes of the Protestant middle class.”

But the Irish overcame these prejudices the old fashioned way. They passed the hostility on the other ethnicities.


Image: Mickey Mouse comic, May 1939; “Batman” TV series, 1969. Both characters are named “Chief O’Hara”. I am just saying.

You might remember the Irish cop stereotype from countless TV shows, from Looney Tunes to the late 1960s Batman TV series. Many Irish Americans did become police in the early 1900s. Quite a few also became gangsters, a lineage mostly cut off after the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre and murders of “Legs” Diamond and “Mad Dog” Coll.

The proliferation of Irish police in early 20th Century American was not a standalone phenomenon, but part of a broader movement to create a “political machine” to represent the Irish in local governance bureaucracies. Power was often was acquired by bullying the newer ethnic communities Jews, Russians, Hungarians, Italians, and of course the former socioethnic allies of the Irish, the African Americans. Again I will leave the heavy lifting to an academic, Juan Perea in Immigrants Out!: The New Nativism and the Anti-Immigrant Impulse in the United States:

“In a city like Chicago, the machine at times achieved unity by sounding alarms regarding Anglo-Saxon threats. In the Chicago race riot of 1919 the politically connected Irish street gang Ragen’s Colts apparently dressed in blackface to burn down homes in a new immigrant neighborhood in Back of the Yards. They hoped that new immigrants would blame blacks for the arson and then engage in racial terror. Next, the Colts organized a militant demonstration against the anti-Catholicism of the Ku Klux Klan. In both settings, Ragen’s Colts acted as what James Barrett has called the ‘military arm of the Irish machine’.”

Wow, seems pretty horrible that an ethnic group would bring violence against another ethnic group! But unless you’re an Apache, Sioux, Navajo or Cherokee, your ethnic cohort has done the exact same thing and might continue to today. So when you go out drinking for St. Patrick’s Day, realize you are paying tribute to an ethnicity that your great-great-great grandparents may have complained about, blamed for police violence or drew monkey-like caricatures of.

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Joe Kukura- Millionaire in Training

Joe Kukura- Millionaire in Training

Joe Kukura is a two-bit marketing writer who excels at the homoerotic double-entendre. He is training to run a full marathon completely drunk and high, and his work has appeared in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal on days when their editors made particularly curious decisions.