Turned Inside Out: Black, White, and Irish in the South

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The widely recited claim that the Irish in the South were perhaps more misused than slaves is traceable to William Howard Russell (here, 1855), who wrote: "The labour of ditching, trenching, cleaning the waste lands, and hewing down the forests is generally done by Irish labourers.... Mr. Seal lamented the high prices of this work; but then, as he said, 'It was much better to have Irish to do it, who cost nothing to theplanter if they died, than to use up good field-hands in such severe employment.'" Photograph courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.

Noel Ignatiev's How the Irish Became White, a book graced by a pithy name that summarizes its provocative thesis, has generated volumes of response. But relatively tittle of this body of criticism bears on the South, even though Ignatiev expressly invokes the region in one of the most quoted passages of his study:

   The Irish who emigrated to America in
   the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
   were fleeing caste oppression and a system
   of landlordism that made the material
   conditions of the Irish peasant
   comparable to those of an American slave
   ... On the rail beds and canals they
   labored for low wages under dangerous
   conditions; in the South they were occasionally
   employed where it did not make
   sense to risk the life of a slave. As they
   came to the cities, they were crowded
   into districts that became centers of
   crime, vice and disease. (2)

Ignatiev's study, like most treatments of the American Irish, focuses largely on the Northeast, with special focus on Philadelphia. It is worth asking if his observations hold up as wee to southern experience. How were the southern Irish identified, in a racial sense, and how did they identify themselves? Did they, in the mode of Ignatiev, "whiten" as well? In a society that came to be seen as rigidly stratified by race, were the Irish in the South commingled in a "common culture of the lowly?" (3)

As if in reply, historians Peter D. O'Neill and David Lloyd write, "The Irish, it has been shown, became white in the United States precisely to the extent that both slaves and free Blacks were denied full citizenship, even humanity." And to some extent, this holds for the South, as the case of Charleston's Irish-born bishop and slavery apologist, John England, illustrates. Some southern Irish found themselves supporting the regional racial orders, willingly or not. There is an attendant sense of disappointment that the Irish did not always seek solidarity with the oppressed: as O'Neill and Lloyd put it, "All too often, the query is posed within a somewhat sentimental framework, one shaped by a weak ethical desire that the Irish should have identified with another people who were undergoing dispossession, exploitation or racism--or, indeed, shown solidarity with oppressed people in general." (4)

We might call this the Montserrat Problem, in reference to Donald Akenson's If the Irish Ran the World, which observes that Irish slaveholders in Montserrat rivaled any colonial power in cruelty. Even Irish nationalist hero Wolfe Tone dreamed of an Ireland that might become a colonial power in the Sandwich Islands, and instances where the Irish played the colonial game to their favor, or the ends against the middle, are not counterfactual fancy, but are exampled in history. (5) Now, as the whiteness studies paradigm begins to recede, scholars are more interested in framing the discussion in terms of movement and contact. Because the Atlantic slave trade ended (in principle if not in fact) in 1807-1808--a period when Irish immigration was on the rise--it is indeed useful to think about the loops of these currents, and the continuing contact they established. Such a framework for interpretation offers a built-in, if circular, defense: if a moving target is what is described, it shall be very difficult to qualify those relationships except to say that they were changing. …