Reflecting on the passing of "How the Irish Became White" author Noel Ignatiev and how the Irish punched downward in the United States.
The year was 1997, and it was quite a time to be Irish. Riverdance was a smash on Broadway. Gabriel Byrne had just made "The Usual Suspects," Liam Neeson had just made "Michael Collins," and both dashed about Hollywood about as hot and as cool as you could be.
And with these words—“Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood" —Frank McCourt launched the Irish Memoir Industrial Complex.
But wait! There’s more!
Peace talks in Northern Ireland finally seemed to be bearing fruit, which resulted in the Good Friday Agreement the following year. Which made perfect sense, because a book by Thomas Cahill with the humble title "How the Irish Saved Civilization" was about to spend its 100th week on the nonfiction bestseller lists.
As for me, in 1997, I was a graduate student with my own humble dreams of bestseller lists and grand statements about history. Of course, there was the grunt work of grad school to be done. And just about the hottest book in academic circles back then, echoing Cahill’s title, was "How the Irish Became White," by Noel Ignatiev.
Our friend and comrade Noel Ignatiev passed away yesterday. A committed revolutionary his entire life, Noel was a member of the Sojourner Truther Organization, a co-editor of Race Traitor, and the editor of Hard Crackers.
"Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity." pic.twitter.com/EedmEc8gr5— Commune (@commune_mag) November 10, 2019
I took this stroll down memory lane when I read that Ignatiev—no, it’s not a little-known Gaelic name; his grandparents came to the U.S. from Russia—died in early November at the age of 78.
He lived quite a life. Born in Philadelphia, he joined the U.S. Communist Party as a teen, and promptly agitated for reforms, leading to the creation of (deep breath) the Provisional Organizing Committee to Reconstitute the Marxist–Leninist Communist Party.
Ignatiev attended the University of Pennsylvania for three years, which was apparently enough because he left the Ivy League school and went on to work in the steel mills of Chicago for two decades. Supposedly, while laboring alongside a multi-racial workforce, Ignatiev formulated some new ideas about race, immigration, and assimilation in America.
He believed he had formulated an answer to one of America’s most vexing questions: How is it possible that an oppressed group —say, Irish Catholic immigrants—would go on to become oppressive?
Ignatiev argued that the Irish struck a racial bargain. If they were allowed into the exclusive club of “whiteness,” they would agree to punch down at anyone below them.
That happened to be African Americans slaves. Voila! The Irish had “become” white.
A slew of similar arguments followed, with which pundits and academics are still wrestling.
Following Ignatiev’s death, The New Yorker magazine noted, “Many scholars have cited Ignatiev’s (work) as one of the first articulations of the modern idea of ‘white privilege.’”
At a time of massive demographic change in America, it is helpful to remind ourselves that racial categories are, in fact, very fluid, rather than rigid.
The problem is that Ignatiev was just the latest in a long line of people who, to put it bluntly, blamed the Irish for so many of America’s ills.
To be fair, Ignatiev was sympathetic to the Famine-era Irish.
“No one gave a damn for the poor Irish,” writes Ignatiev. “Even the downtrodden black people had Quakers and abolitionists to bring their light to public attention (as well as the ability to tell their stories effectively).”
Nevertheless, to imply that the Famine Irish could strike such a neat racial bargain —and that the powers-that-be would so easily accept them into their club—ignores the many ways (as Peter Quinn once put it) the “Irish stayed Irish.”
Furthermore, it could just as easily be argued that the Irish signed up with the party of slavery (the Democrats) simply because the only other option was the heavily anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Republicans.
In which case, was it really any choice at all?
But I guess “How the Anti-Slavery Party of Lincoln Actually Shoved the Irish Into the Party of Slavery” isn’t as catchy a title.