By: Hannah Holland
Smith House set the stage for an enlightening seminar last Thursday, Feb. 16. Hosted by Professor of History at Dartmouth College, Bruce Nelson, the seminar explored anti-Irish sentiments in 19th century America. Irish racism became integrated into American ideology through a variety of factors. Nelson discussed the mistreatment and general abhorrence of the Irish in America. This topic can be further explored in Nelson’s soon to be published book, How the Irish Became Black.
Catholicism of the stereotypical Irishman played a large role in what created an enormous barrier between Americans and Irish-Americans. Many considered Catholicism to be fundamentally adverse to American ways. In the eyes of the previously established and already rooted Americans, Catholicism, and specifically Irish Catholicism, appeared to be antidemocratic and hierarchical in nature. Nelson illustrated the fear that the Irish would begin to take orders from the Papacy, through crudely drawn cartoons and vivid language. One cartoon in particular, showed Irish alligators winding their way up the ‘American River Ganges’ trying to steal Bibles from the good, Protestant, children of America.
Nelson described how detrimental the “Famine Shadow” was to the Irish image, especially paired with the preconceived notions of what it meant to be a Catholic. The famine left over a million dead, and 40 percent of Ireland left in mass emigration leaving the country in complete disarray. Those that managed to escape the holds of death were stamped with a mark of poverty that seemed to be nearly inescapable in America. “No Irish Need Apply” signs were everywhere, as well as cartoons that showed the Irish as lazy and complacent, with little drive to change the dire economic situation they were faced with.
Once in America, the Irish population found themselves in poor areas of major cities shoulder to shoulder with free blacks. It became clear that any chance of proper assimilation into America would have to be done at the cost of their relationships with the black community. Nelson discussed how the Irish fight for equality in America was the unfortunate sacrifice of their relationship with the black community.
Anthropologists considered to be on the front lines of scientific discovery, such as Lenox, Beddoe and Grant, managed to find factual evidence to support the mistreatment of the Irish. They argued that the West Irish ‘Africanoides’ were the “lowest species of the Irish Yahoo” and prone to ape-like behavior. Their collective findings, which consisted of the animalistic tendencies that they observed while researching, were so prejudicial that they became suspicious.
Nelson’s description of the plight of the Irish, working to assimilate themselves into America, was done with wit and a clear understanding of their struggle. His use of political cartoons, which portrayed the Irish as ape-like, idle and lazy, aptly illustrated what it meant to be Irish in the 19th century. Immigrants from the island of Ireland have withstood years of hardship and difficult choices to become truly American.