The many race ri­ots where the Ir­ish beat up their black neigh­bours were a re­sponse by a hun­gry peo­ple to the rise of a naked cap­i­tal­ism the world had never seen

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - COF­FIN SHIPS

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 self­same 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.

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 Gang­sofNewYork 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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