The Black Irish

“Do you not get it, lads? The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it once, say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud.”

I have been thinking of this famous scene from The Commitments as I read Thomas Keneally’s The Great Shame and the Triumph of the Irish in the English-Speaking World.  The book traces the lives of 19th-century Irish revolutionaries who started their careers struggling for freedom from their colonial masters, were arrested and sent to an Australian purgatory, and in many cases ended up in America on the other end of the dynamic of exploitation and prejudice.

Though it wouldn’t suit the Commitments’ desire to claim the right to perform old R&B tunes, one might rather consider the Irish the Indians of Europe, either the Native Americans or residents of the Subcontinent.  Rather than being transported by slavers, these people experienced at home the benevolent embrace of the British Empire, which stole their land, despised their culture and religion, and left them sick and starving.  At any rate, it is clear from English reaction to the Great Famine of the 1840s that the Irish were felt to be non-white, aliens whom it was not safe to help too much because their misfortunes are the result of deep racial or cultural character defects. 

It is true that English government officials such as Charles Trevelyan, whose callous pronouncements, on the beneficial effects of famine and plague in teaching Paddy the value of hard work and on the moral repugnance of food aid, are justly famous, sincerely believed in a laissez-faire economic theory.  It is also true that if you are willing to see people starve to death to prove a point, you almost certainly do not regard these people as your equals and neighbors.  What aid England did offer was often showed an obsession with avoiding handouts: those who asked for aid were required to give up their land, even if it was only 1/4 of an acre, and see their primitive houses razed.  They were then set to back-breaking work building roads to nowhere, which seems an odd thing to do with people who are dying of malnutrition and riddled with cholera and typhus.

On a much smaller scale, the English Malthusiasts of the ’40s were echoed in the comments of conservative commentators responding to the Katrina disaster, which they perceived as the evil result of a culture of dependency and entitlement.  Each year when there are floods in places like Fargo and the government declares disaster areas, I await in vain a similar outcry about the greed and laziness of middle-class white people.  It is in this sense that the Irish at one time might have justified calling themselves the blacks of Europe.

A large part of The Great Shame deals with the leaders of the Young Ireland movement which led an almost farcically unsuccessful revolt in 1848.  These men–T. F. Meagher, William Smith O’Brien and John Mitchell, among others–were not themselves peasants; many were well-off, and some were Protestant landowners.  It is to their credit that they identified themselves with and risked their lives for the Irish cause, though their adherence to their’s class’s code of conduct helped cripple their efforts.  Smith O’Brien, for example, insisted that the hungry peasants who fought under him refrain from commandeering any food during the war, and generally seemed to expect that whole thing to proceed like a dispute at the club.

The Young Irelanders were quickly put down, and tried in an atmosphere charged with the enthusiastic but ineffectual support of Irish nationalists and the anger of the English and their supporters, who were deeply offended by Irish ingratitude: first the Irish come begging for food, and now they’re shooting at us, or would be if they had any guns.

The revolutionists were initially sentenced to death, then had their sentences commuted to transportation, and were sent to the Antipodes.  There some of them escaped, a feat made harder by being 10,000 miles from anywhere and easier by the fact that they weren’t actually kept in prison but allowed to roam about the country: Meagher fell in love, got married and bought a ranch while in captivity, while others were eventually pardoned.  Most ended up in the US, where they were feted by compatriots and soon found themselves required to take sides in the big American quarrel.

John Mitchell, who had been one of the most radical advocates of liberty, became not only an admirer of Southern culture, not only a defender of the “peculiar institution” of slavery, but an advocate for the resumption of the African slave trade.  It is hard to imagine how a freedom-fighter with no personal stake in the slave economy could arrive at this position–Mitchell never owned a slave, and he moved to a part of Tennessee where there were virtually no slaves, and yet he started a newspaper that railed tirelessly against the evil fanatical abolitionists and claimed that as many Africans as possible should be abducted and enslaved for their own good.  Smith O’Brien asked Mitchell whether, if slavery was such a good thing, he would like to become a slave himself, but I don’t think he got an answer.

Thomas Francis Meagher was certainly not an abolitionist (most New York Democrats were not), but he ended up fighting for the Union.  Having been a revolutionist, prisoner, Tasmanian rancher, escapee,  lawyer, and negotiator with the government of Costa Rica for railway rights, he became first a captain and later a general, fighting at many of the notorious battles of the Civil War (Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Antietam…).  Apparently feeling that his status as the Irish Forrest Gump was not secure, he followed that up by becoming the governor of Montana.

The white folks of Montana were, of course, in the process of dispossessing the native people there, and Meagher was particularly aggressive in fighting the Blackfoot, whom he considered monstrously ungrateful for not sticking to the reservation to which they had been confined.  The irony of this situation seems to have been quite lost on him. and probably on others, since there is a statue of him outside the Montana statehouse.

(Meagher’s fantastic career did not end even with his mysterious death on a Missouri riverboat, when he either fell overboard while drunk, fell overboard while sick, or was pushed over and/or shot by Republican vigilantes.  A farmer downstream claimed to have found Meagher’s body, miraculously preserved and petrified, with a bullet hole in his forehead.  The ‘Meagher’ corpse went on tour as a freak-show attraction, and when it had exhausted interest in America, was shipped to Australia for a circuit of agricultural shows.  I shit you not.)

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