Governor Mike Pence and Senator Tim Kaine at last week’s vice presidential debate.

Well, at least they didn’t get into any “locker room talk.”

Given that the presidential campaign has veered into territory normally covered by circus acts and pornography -- and it sure ain’t Hillary Clinton who took us there -- it was downright gratifying to watch those two boring white guys last week at their vice presidential debate.

Tim Kaine and Mike Pence got a little juvenile from time to time.  And sure, many Americans still probably can’t tell one from the other.

But it is fitting, since both of these VP candidates are Irish American, that one of the high points came when Kaine connected America’s immigrant past and present.

“We are a nation of immigrants. Mike Pence and I both are descended from immigrant families. Some things, you know, maybe weren't said so great about the Irish when they came, but we've done well by absorbing immigrants, and it's made our nation stronger,” Kaine said. 

He then added, “When Donald Trump says Mexicans are rapists and criminals…when Donald Trump says about your judge, a Hoosier judge, he said that Judge Curiel was unqualified to hear a case because his parents were Mexican, I can't imagine how you could defend that.”

But not everyone was thrilled by this.  Irish Times columnist Brian Boyd, for one, suggested that it might be time for Irish Americans to stop playing the “No Irish Need Apply” card.

“It’s a convenient comfort blanket we’ve got good use out of over the centuries: the Irish treated as drink-sodden, poorly educated and genetically inferior,” he wrote.  Such “virulent prejudice,” Boyd added, “granted us a much-prized downtrodden, oppressed status.”

But then Boyd said, “When the Irish arrived in America, they exchanged their ‘oppressed’ status for that of oppressor. They were particularly enthusiastic in racist violence against black people as there was direct social class competition between the two groupings.”

It is undeniable that the history of the Irish in America is filled with episodes of terrible racial violence, including the many Boyd himself mentions, before declaring, “The Irish in America were prize-winning racist thugs.”

But wait a minute.  Why was there such violence?  Is Boyd merely parroting 19th century bigots who felt the Irish were genetically predisposed to violence?

Boyd acknowledges that “class competition” played a role in tensions between Irish immigrants and African Americans.  But that’s a little like saying the sun plays a role in keeping us warm.
The fact that both the Irish and African Americans were at the bottom of the social ladder only begins to explain 19th century racial violence. 

First there was religion.  Anti-Catholic discrimination was central to political life in the mid-1800s.  A key faction of the newly-formed Republican Party was the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant movement embodied by the Know Nothings. 

The Irish didn’t gravitate to Democratic machines such as Tammany Hall merely because ward heelers offered bread and soup.  Machines, corrupt as they were, were also one of the few places a Catholic could get a fair shake.

Here’s the problem: The national Democratic Party was also the party defending slavery.  Republicans, to their credit, largely supported abolition. 

The trouble is abolitionists were often wealthy elites who, yes, saw African Americans as human beings, only to view Catholic immigrants as inhuman threats to the Republic.

The real tragedy, in the end, is the original sin of American slavery. Sadly, the Irish were both oppressed and oppressor.

Yes, many Irish immigrants made a deal with the devil of American racism.   This, in no way, should excuse inexcusable Irish behavior, which included lynching and murder.  But to imply that racism seemed to come naturally to the Irish is the kind of simplistic thinking that appeals to bigots of all eras.

One more thing. In 1850, a guide leading a tour of the notorious Five Points slum noted that many Irish immigrant women married African American men because the former found the latter to be (as historian Graham Hodges has noted) “desirable companions and lovers.”
Apparently not all the Irish were “racist thugs.”

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