'…from time to time a study comes along that truly can be called ‘path breaking,’ ‘seminal,’ ‘essential,’ a ‘must read.’ How the Irish Became White is such a study.' John Bracey, W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies, University of Massachussetts, Amherst
The Irish came to America in the eighteenth century, fleeing a homeland under foreign occupation and a caste system that regarded them as the lowest form of humanity. In the new country – a land of opportunity – they found a very different form of social hierarchy, one that was based on the color of a person’s skin. Noel Ignatiev’s 1995 book – the first published work of one of America’s leading and most controversial historians – tells the story of how the oppressed became the oppressors; how the new Irish immigrants achieved acceptance among an initially hostile population only by proving that they could be more brutal in their oppression of African Americans than the nativists. This is the story of How the Irish Became White.
In the first half of the 19th century, some three million Irish emigrated to America, trading a ruling elite of Anglo-Irish Anglicans for one of WASPs. The Irish immigrants were (self-evidently) not Anglo-Saxon; most were not Protestant; and, as far as many of the nativists were concerned, they weren't white, either. Just how, in the years surrounding the Civil War, the Irish evolved from an oppressed, unwelcome social class to become part of a white racial class is the focus of Harvard lecturer Ignatiev's well-researched, intriguing although haphazardly structured book. By mid-century, Irish voting solidarity gave them political power, a power augmented by the brute force of groups descended from the Molly Maguires. With help, the Irish pushed blacks out of the lower-class jobs and neighborhoods they had originally shared. And though many Irish had been oppressed by the Penal Laws, they opposed abolition--even when Daniel O'Connell, ``the Liberator,'' threatened that Irish-Americans who countenanced slavery would be recognized ``as Irishmen no longer.'' The book's structure lacks cohesion: chapters zigzag chronologically and geographically, and Ignatiev's writing is thick with redundancies and overlong digressions. But for the careful reader, he offers much to think about and an important perspective on the American history of race and class.