Why Irish Americans Should Embrace Their Culture of Colonial Resistance

In telling the story of Irish America, we must grapple with the history of British colonial rule, racial identity, and capitalism.
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An Irish immigrant (center) sits on a chair and waits next to an Italian immigrant and her children, Ellis Island, early 20th Century.

Photo by FPG/Getty Images.

On last year’s St. Patrick’s Day, progressives of Irish ancestry organized the first “Irish Stand” rally at Riverside Church in New York City to protest the xenophobic and racist policies of the Trump administration. The rally represented an energizing shift in Irish American social consciousness back toward an original culture of resistance.

This year’s Irish Stand is on March 16. It’s a different sort of gathering than typically is held each year—the well-known raucous St. Patrick’s Day parades and festivities that include traditional music and dance with the aim of honoring the more than 70 million people worldwide who claim Irish heritage, over 33 million of whom are U.S. residents.

The history of the Irish diaspora is often given short shrift, even among Irish Americans. I’ve received more than a few odd glances when bringing up the Irish experience of British colonialism on St. Patrick’s Day.

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The Irish endured centuries of British colonial rule, including land confiscation, the suppression and near eradication of their native language, second-class status imposed through the notorious Penal Laws, and forced migration. Irish historian Tim Pat Coogan contends that the Great Famine, which brought the largest wave of Irish immigrants to the United States, was more akin to genocide than a natural disaster. Between 1845 and 1855, an estimated 1 million Irish perished from starvation and disease, and more than a million others fled through emigration. 

In telling the story of Irish America, one must grapple with 19th-century Irish Americans having embraced a white racial identity, as historian Noel Ignatiev notably does in his seminal text, How the Irish Became White. Like other critical whiteness studies scholars, including David Roediger, Ignatiev builds off W.E.B. Du Bois’ assertion in Black Reconstruction that Irish Americans identified as white for the “public and psychological wage” it conferred them. In short, Irish Americans sought social advancement through America’s white supremacist racial caste system.

Most recently, historian Van Gosse made the connection between Irish America and right-wing politics in his October Newsweek article, “Why Are All the Conservative Loudmouths Irish-American?” Gosse gives historical context to the link between Irish Americans and white supremacy: “From the 1790s on, various famous Irish exiles in America became ardent pro-slavery Democrats.”

What is it really to be Irish American and then to ethically celebrate Irish heritage?

With the election of Donald Trump, the sketch of Irish Americans as primary purveyors of racism and xenophobia, despite the widely documented oppression of their immigrant ancestors, has taken hold substantially. Ireland’s Labour Party Sen. Aodhán Ó Ríordáin’s impassioned speech rebuking the Irish government’s cordial welcoming of the then-newly elected Donald Trump went viral in November 2016. In it, Ó Ríordáin expressed alarm regarding the considerable number of Irish Americans working alongside Trump.

“What we’re really conscious of, and what I’m really conscious of, is that quite a number of Irish Americans surround Trump,” Ó Ríordáin said. “These are all people that in my judgment have completely forgotten their family history … We were once the people who came to America as refugees. We were viewed by the British as being terrorists. We were people who suffered sectarian discrimination in the United Kingdom and [in the U.S.], as well.”

Given the seemingly conflicting narratives of Irish America, what is it really to be Irish American and then to ethically celebrate Irish heritage?

It could appear that most Irish Americans have recently and mysteriously forgotten their own ancestral oppression. But the more complex reality is that Irish American identity and political consciousness have always been shaped by intersecting social forces, including colonialism, capitalism, religion, and racial formation, which have produced both cohesion and division.

It is true that the number of prominent Irish Americans espousing Trumpism and its core racist tenets does not signal a dramatic rupture within Irish American political history. What is not exactly true is that Irish Americans have somehow entirely lost sight of their ancestral oppression.

Case in point: Irish American and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, a self-professed Ayn Rand devotee, has been widely criticized for his advocacy of deep cuts to the social safety net. The New York Times columnist Timothy Egan argues in “Paul Ryan’s Irish Amnesia” that “… you can’t help noticing the deep historic irony that finds a Tea Party favorite and descendant of famine Irish using the same language that English Tories used to justify indifference to an epic tragedy.”

I urge Americans of Irish descent to deepen their understanding of the colonial and oppressive conditions that produced the Irish diaspora.

But there is no irony in Ryan. He is like many other “tough guy” Irish Americans, including Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity of Fox News fame, who perceive themselves as descendants of those Irish who overcame and strove despite the famine. Historical accuracy and human empathy have been supplanted by the most prized American mythology of all—rugged individualism. In Ryan’s, O’Reilly’s, and Hannity’s minds, if they can “make it” despite their ancestors having faced historical discrimination, then it’s your fault if you can’t. They’re not suffering from “Irish Amnesia” as much as “Irish Flattery” or “Irish Selfishness.” 

In 2002, leftist activist Tom Hayden attempted to revise Irish America’s reactionary, right-wing legacy by proposing an alternative history in his book, Irish on the Inside. Hayden recounts some of the most notable historical instances of Irish American resistance, including stories of the San Patricios and the Molly Maguires. As with most radical leftist history, these stories are often omitted from U.S. history curricula.

In sharp contrast to the dominant image of America’s Irish, Edward Said, a Palestinian American intellectual and founder of the academic field of postcolonial studies, lauded Ireland for its “fabulous culture of resistance.”

“I am so grateful to Ireland,” he said in a June 1999 interview in Dublin four years before his death. “You have had many more years of imperialism than we [Palestinians] have had, and you have produced a fabulous culture of resistance and an extraordinary spirit, which I desperately hope we can measure up to by about 10 percent.”

Said’s admiration of Irish resilience in response to centuries of British colonialism fills me with melancholy and distress when I consider the pervasive perception of contemporary Irish America.

I urge Americans of Irish descent to collectively revisit and deepen their understanding of the colonial and oppressive conditions that produced the Irish diaspora. I advocate for St. Patrick’s Day to become a day of remembrance of Ireland and Irish America’s intertwined historical experiences of oppression. Perhaps consider organizing an “Irish Stand” like the one in New York City, an occasion of resistance to colonial and oppressive systems across ethnicities, races, genders, and classes, rather than the typical event with green beer, corned beef and cabbage, and shamrock decorations.

And if you do, you can still have a pint.