Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race

By Bruce Nelson | Go to book overview
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Celts, Hottentots, and “white chimpanzees”


With me, race, or hereditary descent, is everything; it stamps the man.

—Robert Knox, 1850

Too much, no doubt, has been made of the influence of race. Yet the
Teuton is a Teuton and the Celt is a Celt.

—Goldwin Smith, 1905

The Irish problem is a problem of the Irish race, and is neither a
byproduct of politics nor of environment, but is rooted in the racial
characteristics of the people themselves.

—Captain Hugh Pollard, 1922

THE NINETEENTH CENTURY created new imperatives in the relationship between England and Ireland. Once again, an Irish rebellion had been suppressed, and this time Ireland had been incorporated into the Union, with a hundred seats in the House of Commons at Westminster and thirty-two in the House of Lords. From the standpoint of British capital, the need to modernize Irish agriculture and discipline the Irish labor force became more urgent in the first half of the century. Perhaps inevitably, given the extraordinary disparity of wealth and population between the two countries, British needs dictated which crops were grown for export, and British manufactured goods flooded Ireland’s domestic market and pushed many small-scale producers of textiles and linens into an already swollen agricultural labor force. Increasingly it appeared that there were two Irish economies—“a highly commercialized export sector… alongside an impoverished subsistence economy.” The latter was populated by small farmers and agricultural laborers who may well have constituted half of the population by the 1840s. They were largely dependent on the potato as a food source, and the combination of poverty, overreliance on a single crop, and rapid population growth foreshadowed a disaster of epic proportions.1 Even before the coming of the Great Famine, visitors to Ireland were stunned by the level of deprivation they encountered. In 1839 the French reformer Gustave de Beaumont noted


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