When the Irish Weren’t White

Peter Muhly/Getty Images
Peter Muhly/Getty Images

“[T]hey steal, they are cruel and bloody, full of revenge, and delighting in deadly execution, licentious, swearers and blasphemers, common ravishers of women, and murderers of children.” Edmund Spencer

“The emigrants who land at New York, whether they remain in that city or come on in the interior, are not merely ignorant and poor—which might be their misfortune rather than their fault—but they are drunken, dirty, indolent, and riotous, so as to be the objects of dislike and fear to all in whose neighbourhood they congregate in large numbers.” James Silk Buckingham


These are not quotes from a Trump rally or an “alt-right” message board. These are historical statements from yesteryear describing a despised race of people in America. They are indicative of the sentiment of white people throughout this country who thought a subhuman species good for nothing but work and servitude might ruin America with their crime, poverty and interbreeding with white women. They were not referring to Africans, Mexicans or Muslims.

They were talking about the Irish.

First, we should get this out of the way: One of the favorite recurring themes of racists in America is the idea that the Irish came to America as slaves and had it as bad as, or worse than, Africans. According to these “racialists,” the European blood in the Irish made them pull themselves up by their bootstraps and integrate themselves into the opening arms of American liberty. They never bitched and moaned about their situation, so ...

All of this is wrong. In fact, it is too stupid to give space, credence or words, so read where it is debunked here and here.

But as we celebrate the first St. Patrick’s Day of the Trumpian era, we should remember when America passed laws against another group of immigrants. We should recall when this country tried to ban another group of people based on their religion. We should never forget that both “American” and whiteness are sociopolitical constructs that have evolved over a long period of time, always seeking exclusion and supremacy, and it was not so long ago that Irish Americans were on the outside looking in.

In his book The Renegade History of the United States, Thaddeus Russell explains that the first large wave of Irish immigrants worked low-paying jobs—mostly building the canals along the Canadian border—that other Americans wouldn’t do. Like finding out a song you thought was new is actually a 100-year-old remake, the Irish were simultaneously accused of stealing all the good jobs and branded as “lazy” and “shiftless.” They were also thought to be the nonwhite “missing link” between the superior European and the savage African based on stereotypes from the early American media, according to the Boston Globe:

In the popular press, the Irish were depicted as subhuman. They were carriers of disease. They were drawn as lazy, clannish, unclean, drunken brawlers who wallowed in crime and bred like rats. Most disturbingly, the Irish were Roman Catholics coming to an overwhelmingly Protestant nation and their devotion to the pope made their allegiance to the United States suspect.


In 1798, Congress passed three “Alien Acts” based mainly on fears of Irish-Catholic, anti-immigrant sentiment. These new laws gave the president the power to stop immigration from any country at war with the U.S. and the right to deport any immigrant, and made it harder for immigrants to vote. Then, again in the late 1840s, a nationalist political group called the Know-Nothings sprang from a populist movement of poor whites who were dissatisfied with the two-party system and started the American Party, intent on preserving America’s culture by restricting immigration, especially from Catholic countries—including by Irish Catholics. They managed to get candidates elected into the highest political offices in America, including a president.

Does this sound familiar to anyone?

So how did the Irish become white?

Russell suggests they did it by coalescing their political power while simultaneously assimilating into the American mainstream, specifically with jobs in civil service (which is why most cities’ St. Patrick Day parades are ostensibly celebrations of police and fire departments):

In 1840, at the beginning of the great wave of Irish immigration, there was only a handful of Irish police officers on the force. ... By the end of the year, Irish made up more than one-quarter of the New York City police, and by the end of the century, more than half the city’s police and more than 75 percent of its firefighters were Irish Americans. In addition, Irish were disproportionately represented among prosecutors, judges and prison guards. Soon, the Irish cop was a stock figure in American culture. Once known as apelike barbarians, the Irish were now able to show themselves as the most selfless and patriotic civil servants.


In his book How the Irish Became White, author Noel Ignatiev notes, “While the white skin made the Irish eligible for membership in the white race, it did not guarantee their admission; they had to earn it.” Ignatiev and other scholars argue that the sons of Ireland gained their white status by joining the fight against abolition and uniting in the suppression of blacks—embracing the oldest American tradition of them all: racism.

“While Irish American repealers maintained a pride and love for their homeland, they acted unabashedly American in the way they dealt with the slavery controversy.”—Angela F. Murphy in American Slavery, Irish Freedom: Abolition, Immigrant Citizenship, and the Transatlantic Movement for Irish Repeal


But there is a simpler, less complex explanation for how this country eventually came to view the Irish as regular, good, American white people:

They just did it.

“Whiteness” isn’t real. Ultimately, race is a social construct, and “white” is just some dumb shit that people made up a long time ago to build a fence around their idea of self-supremacy. The Irish didn’t suddenly calm down, put down the Guinness, put their noses to the grindstone and work their way into an exclusive club. They had the same historical trajectory in America as the Polish, Italians and Jewish people. Their melanin-less skin just afforded them an opportunity to blend in that black people will never get.


The “great white race” is as real as a mermaid riding a unicorn on the back of a dragon while listening to dope lyrics from Lil Uzi, and that’s why white supremacy is so stupid. People who perpetuate that bullshit should be paid the same attention as alt-right advocates, Hoteps, flat-earthers and anyone who owns an Iggy Azalea album.

So later tonight, as you’re kneeling by the toilet blowing chunks of corned beef and green beer, if you start thinking about how poorly we treat immigrants and how we live in a new era of intolerance and hate, just remember how the Irish became white. Because just like St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, whiteness and racism itself—it’s an American tradition that has existed for a long time.

World-renowned wypipologist. Getter and doer of "it." Never reneged, never will. Last real negus alive.


Prostate of Dorian Gray

The power of Tammany Hall absolutely helped them gain power and access. But for people to suggest that indentured servitude and slavery are the same ignores the realities. While both are evil, indentured servitude ends at some point. Slavery ends as well, but only at the point of death. That simple division of poor whites from enslaved blacks laid the groundwork for the tensions we have now. Instead of now being able to unite as the working poor, we all get to fight over the first few rungs of the ladder for ever dwindling social services.

Also Micheal, you’re really good at this whole writing thing.  (Obviously I enjoy all of the writers here, just all for different reasons.) If you have any books out, I would love to know about them.