Academic journal article MELUS

Depictions of the Irish in Frank Webb's the Garies and Their Friends and Frances E. W. Harper's Trial and Triumph

Academic journal article MELUS

Depictions of the Irish in Frank Webb's the Garies and Their Friends and Frances E. W. Harper's Trial and Triumph

Article excerpt

In the 1991 movie The Commitments, Jimmy, the manager of an aspiring Dublin soul band, convinces a band member skeptical of playing African American music that the band's class background makes them black. He argues: "The Irish are the Blacks of Europe. The 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." In his provocative remark, Jimmy equates low class position with blackness, collapsing class and race. Jimmy draws unusually liberating results from this comparison when the Irish band is allowed to sing the powerful black music of soul, but in likening working-class Irish and African Americans, he is hardly being original. Rather, Jimmy plays upon a comparison that was first widespread in nineteenth-century America. Between 1845 and 1889, approximately three million Irish immigrated to the United States (Foner, "Class" 6). Especially during the famine decade of 1845-1855, the majority were extremely impoverished and poorly educated. Although not enslaved, in their educational and financial status Irish immigrants in this decade resembled the majority of African Americans.

This similarity posed a dilemma for other Euro-Americans who, throughout the nineteenth century, were attempting in literature and popular culture to highlight racial differences and smooth over class divisions.(1) Instead of recognizing the class similarities between Irish and African Americans, many Euro-Americans painted Irish-Americans black, attributing their low class status to their alleged physical or even racial difference from other Euro-Americans. In contrast, African American writers such as Frank Webb and Frances E. W. Harper argue against such conflations of race and class. In Webb's novel The Garies and Their Friends (1857) and Harper's novel Trial and Triumph (1888-9), these writers use Irish-American characters to demonstrate that categories of blackness and whiteness are not separate from but intricately entwined with class categories.

To comprehend the necessity and persuasiveness of Harper's and Webb's arguments, one must first understand how images of Irish-Americans circulated in nineteenth-century American culture. In the wake of Irish mass immigration to the United States at mid-century, the character of the uneducated, uncouth Irish worker cropped up everywhere in Euro-American popular culture and literature. Historian Dale Knobel, in his exhaustive study Paddy and the Republic, examines approximately 1600 references to Irish-Americans from 1820 to 1860, which form a composite image of the "Paddy stereotype." According to Knobel, the descriptors applied to Irish-Americans in the press, popular fiction, government documents, and pseudoscientific treatises were overwhelmingly negative, focusing on their reputed violent nature and lack of intellect (196) and increasingly depicting the Irish as physically distinct from other Euro-Americans. Popular descriptions of Irish-Americans attributed their perceived character flaws to imputed biological deficiencies. Pseudosciences such as physiognomy and phrenology emphasized the "dark eyes, florid complexion, red hair, robust figure, and simianized face (prominent cheekbones, upturned nose, and projecting teeth)" of Irish-Americans (Knobel 121). Cartoons in influential magazines such as Harper's illustrated Irish-Americans with extended jaws, dark faces, and beady eyes. Other print sources, including newspapers, school books, and government documents, referred to Irish-Americans as "Low-browed and savage, grovelling and bestial, lazy and wild, simian and sensual" (Roediger 133). That writers singled out Irish-Americans as behaviorally and physically substandard is evident from the fact that the same sources describe another prominent immigrant group, German-Americans, in generally positive terms (Knobel 32-33).

Nineteenth-century American literary writers also did their part to perpetuate the idea that Irish-Americans were ethnically inferior. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.