Irishness: IRA – très chic; Bill O’Reilly – disgusting. Or something.

Irishness: IRA – très chic; Bill O’Reilly – disgusting. Or something.

[Ed. – OMG, just go to the “Danny Boy” sing-off already.]

In its finer moments, the Irish republicanism of the ’70s and ’80s sparked a global consciousness among a population of privileged white Americans whose cultural distinctness was fading fast. You didn’t have to support Angela Davis, Che Guevara and the PLO to understand that there was a historical relationship between their issues and the Irish Troubles. Ireland was the original colonized nation, and was subjected to a near-genocidal conquest centuries before the Holocaust. It was where the policies of the British Empire were road-tested for use in India and Africa, and where a subject population stripped of property and political rights was then blamed for its own poverty. The island’s native people, despite their white skin, were viewed as savage and barbaric because they did not speak English, practiced an alien religion and hewed to unfamiliar cultural customs. During the Great Famine of the 1840s, which produced a huge wave of Irish emigration to America, the Irish poor were starved to death or driven off their own land by the millions. Yes, the potato — a plant imported from South America by the British — had been ruined by blight, but the famine itself was avoidable. Its true cause was not the black fungus that turned the prátaí to inedible mush, but a pseudo-Darwinian, proto-Milton Friedman free market ideology, insisted upon at a time when Ireland as a whole was a net exporter of food.

As the title of Noel Ignatiev’s important if overly harsh academic study “How the Irish Became White” makes clear, Irish immigrants first arrived in America as despised outsiders, who were white in terms of complexion but not culture. In my colleague Joan Walsh’s “What’s the Matter with White People?”, she discusses Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, a little-noticed event in which black and Irish indentured servants rose up against British colonial rule. (This led to the creation of the slave codes, which made African-Americans slaves for life, and the conferring of limited white privilege on the Irish.) As late as the 19th century, Anglo elites in New York perceived the drunken and disorderly Irish newcomers as an unhealthful influence on the city’s industrious and long-settled black population. …

As Joan’s book and many other sources have discussed, over the course of the last century the bulk of the Irish-American population drifted rightward through the Democratic Party and then out the other side into Archie Bunker-land. A key constituency of the New Deal coalition became, 40 years later, a key constituency of the Reagan revolution. …

Ireland is no longer a divisive and charismatic “issue,” capable of galvanizing people who live thousands of miles away. With Irish-American identity now split between an optional lifestyle accessory and a bunch of unappealing right-wing guys yelling at us, its social-justice component has evaporated as well.

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