The Hypocrisy of the Modern Rediscovery of the Irish Identity

As I continued to learn throughout the course of this class, something that I was continually fascinated with and confused by was the contrast between the oppression against the Irish during the transatlantic period versus the popularization and commercialization of Irish culture in today’s society. As anybody at this school would know, Irish culture is one that has not only become heavily commercialized, but also heavily popularized in today’s society without any acknowledgement of Irish tradition. An example of this from my own experience is that I have always known that St. Patrick’s Day was celebrated by drinking and wearing tacky, green outfits, but I had never learned the original reason for the celebration of the holiday. 

Catherine M. Eagan raises an interesting point about this in her article, “Still ‘Black’ and ‘Proud’: Irish America and the Racial Politics of Hibernophilia.” When referencing a study performed by Mary Walters about the role of ethnicity in suburbia, Eagan makes the argument that there is no parallel between the experiences of prejudice that was experienced by Irish immigrants during the transatlantic period and the modern-day Irish American experience. Eagan’s argument is further supported by the eventual “rediscovery” of Irish cultural identity which allowed the Irish to share stories of prior oppression while still maintaining their whiteness. 

Throughout this course, we have thoroughly discussed the motivations behind the Irish abandoning their cultural/ethnic identity for that of whiteness, which would allow them to gain power and have a better life in capitalistic American society than the famine that they had been facing in Ireland. While the Irish were able to gain power through this newfound whiteness, a lot of that power manifested itself in actively oppressing black people. This historical point further proves Eagan’s argument and shows the hypocrisy and chosen ignorance of modern-day Irish Americans attempting to reclaim their Irish identity and align themselves in relation to black people in a sense of “shared oppression.”

One response to “The Hypocrisy of the Modern Rediscovery of the Irish Identity”

  1. motoole

    This blog post made some really great points. I agree that the modern day reclamation of Irish culture is very hypocritical, especially when it is founded in a sense of commercialism or a lack of understanding of Irish history. This also makes me think of the phenomenon of modern day Irish American conservatives— an example is the photo professor showed in class of an American coopting Irish language in support of the blue lives matter movement. These conservative values could not be further from Irish cultural and political tradition, yet they have been tied together.

The Connection Between the Black and the Irish in “The Commitments” Through Music

For me, one of the most striking moments of the book and the film was when Jimmy argues to his future bandmates that the Irish “are the blacks of Europe” when trying to convince them of his desire to create a soul band. This comparison, as well as Jimmy’s almost obsessive interest with soul music, confused me until I really thought about the ways in which Irish people and black people shared struggles. 

According to an online encyclopedia, soul music became incredibly popular in America during the 1950-1960s because of its free nature which allowed black, American musicians to express feelings and thoughts about the civil rights movement through the music that they created. While we have heavily discussed the different forms of writing that can be viewed as artistic in this class (plays, stories, books, etc.), we have not so much discussed the art form of writing lyrics and music. 

By producing and releasing soul music, the messages and emotions of the civil rights movement were able to be carried across the country, even overseas, as seen in The Commitments.

As depicted through Jimmy and his bandmates, the Irish working class during the 1980s was struggling with issues of severe economic recession and unemployment during the Troubles. While dealing with these intense struggles, people who were like Jimmy were in search of an outlet in which they could express and share the emotions they felt in relation to these struggles that they were facing. 

After making these connections, it became clearer to me why Jimmy had developed such an appreciation for soul music as well as a want to create it: the freedom of expression and creativity that soul allowed for as well as some of the messages of struggle expressed through that music was inspiring and appealing to him.

In the film, Jimmy describes soul as the “honest,” “working man’s music” that “most people understand.” Because these traits are directly in tune with the struggles that all of his fellow band members share in, Jimmy attempts to persuade them to create soul music by arguing that the Irish “are the blacks of Ireland” and that soul is the vessel in which to also express their struggles and emotions. 

The group is a bit skeptical at first, especially Dean who asks if “maybe we’re a little white for that kind of thing?,” however Jimmy encourages them to give it a chance and embrace their similarities with the black soul artists: “[s]o say it once and say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud.”

“Mules and Men”: The Importance of the Traveler to Expanding the Black Identity

The character of the “vagabond” or the “traveler” is not one unfamiliar to the works popularized in the Transatlantic period. As seen through characters like Gulliver from “Gulliver’s Travels” and Zora from “Mules and Men,” these characters who make the effort to leave the comfort of their previous environments for the sake of learning more about the world and cultures other than their own show the importance of learning through diverse experiences.

In the Introduction to “Mules and Men,” author Zora Neale Hurston discusses the story of her data and folklore collection of many different black cultures in the deep South during the 1930s. When discussing how she went about collecting this variety of folklore, Hurston stated that ” [t]he best source is where there are the least outside influences and these people, being usually under-privileged, are the shyest,” (Hurston, 2) meaning that the best people to collect this kind of information from were those who were the most uninfluenced by mainstream American culture. 

Many times in this class, we have discussed how significantly ideas surrounding race and racial identity dominated mainstream American culture and how based on that, certain people would or would not be able to participate in certain aspects of this culture. Additionally, this emphasis on ideas of race and racial identity also manifested in the cultivation of very harmful generalization and stereotypes of different races, specifically for black people. 

The only way in which people began to realize how subjective and complicated the black identity could be was through the writings of authors like Hurston who traveled in order to collect diverse data. By traveling through the South and collecting the folklore of these black communities who were not so much dominated by the racial stereotypes of mainstream American culture, Hurston was able to begin expanding and adding dimension to the black identity as well as break down the generalizations and the stereotypes that dominated mainstream American culture.

“The Octoroon”: America’s Harmful Emphasis on Racial Identity

The social construct of race and racial identity is one that has been so influential that it became deeply-ingrained into the structure of American society from the beginning. While the emphasis of race in American society manifested an abundant amount of negativity in a multitude of different ways, one of these ways which is important and different to consider is how negativity surrounding specific racial identities can greatly alter one’s self image and beliefs about what they think that they are worthy and/or deserving of. 

At the time of Dion Boucicault’s play The Octoroon, a play about a young girl named Zoe who was one-eighth black in 1800s America, American society had deemed that even the smallest amount of black lineage designated (and dominated) your racial identity as black, even if you were able to visually pass as white. Given the extreme negativity towards blackness and black people at this time, this was often something that people wanted to hide if they were able because they knew that if people found out they were even the smallest bit black, they would forever be defined by that very small component of their racial identity. The Octoroon’s Zoe deals with this issue very heavily and personally: after hearing a love profession from George, a white man who could give her a good life, she begins to spiral about how her culturally-dominant black identity is what will indefinitely drive them apart. In addition to this belief, it is also very clear how deeply this racial identity is wired into and intertwined with her personal identity. Not only does she describe herself as being cursed and an “unclean thing,” but also that her race binds her to a life of suffering that she may never escape from (Boucicault, 154). As a white man who does not understand, naturally, George is very confused and tries to reason with Zoe, however, as certainly as her racial identity is defined, her mind is made up and there is no changing it.

The Application of “A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms” to “The Black and Green Atlantic”

As we talked about in class, many students before have questioned how Johnathan Swift’s satirical novel “Gulliver’s Travels” relates to this course. Despite its fantasy setting and unrealistic characters, the final part of “Gulliver’s Travels,” “A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms,” proves to be the most applicable and relevant of them all.  

Upon arriving in the country of the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver quickly discovers that of the two species in the country—the Yahoos (who resemble humans) and the Houyhnhnms (who are horses)—the Houyhnhnms deem themselves to be superior and powerful species while the Yahoos are deemed inferior and forced to be subservient due to their natural lack of intellectual capabilities as well as their naturally-possessed physical ones. 

Due to Gulliver’s appearance alone, the mighty Houyhnhnms initially call and associate him with the Yahoos. Noticing the Yahoos’ subservient and inferior role in this society, Gullier begins to do everything in his power to not be associated as one of them so that during his entire stay in the country of the Houyhnhnms, he is not relegated to a lowly position of servitude as all of the other Yahoos are. 

The most fascinating and relevant part of this voyage is the disdain that Gulliver begins to experience for both the Yahoos and all humans after spending such an ample amount of time with the Houyhnhnms. This disdain remains so severe that even when Gulliver returns to England after many months, he despises his own wife and family and prefers the company of his horse, showing how the influence of the Houyhnhnms was so profound on Gulliver that he ended up internalizing their idea of Yahoo/human inferiority.

This idea of hating and dehumanizing a person to the point of inferiority solely based on their appearance is a concept very relevant to our course because it displays one of the most prominent dangers of colonialism. History has shown the dangers of this concept time and time again through the destruction of entire cultures solely because of other human beings believed to be superior to them solely because of their appearance. 

The dehumanization of people based on their appearance is a relevant theme to all of the readings that we have read in this class in regards to American history. Much like the Houyhnhnms did to the Yahoos, white people utilized appearance in order to dehumanize black people into a role of servitude. Upon his return to England, the ridiculousness of Gulliver’s hatred for his own kind is a reflection of the ridiculousness of hating another human being solely because of their appearance. Given all of our previous readings, it is very clear how relevant this commentary is to this class. 

The Drive of Hunger: How the Irish Became White

material that we have studied and discussed in this class to pull together a somewhat comprehensible answer about how the Irish as a people “became white.” 

In order to answer this question, one must first define whiteness as to determine in which ways the Irish became white. As I mentioned in class, I have never really attempted to define whiteness as anything other than one of many races that a person can self-identify as, however, the more I read, the more I started to see how the definition of whiteness can be subjective and fluctuating. 

In terms of the 19th century (for the sake of this blog post I am honing in on this time period), whiteness was more so a word associated with and defined as power rather than as a race. In America specifically, white men dominated every aspect of life—familial, social, political, and economical—while people of color were dehumanized to the point where their lack of whiteness alone deemed them inferior. Because of the positioning of the white man in society through the means of this deeply-rooted systemic racism, the only way that immigrants of other races (in this case, the Irish immigrants) were able to make lives for themselves in America was to essentially adopt whiteness in order to position themselves in a place where they are able to gain power and wealth. 

An interesting contrast to the Irish peoples’ racial transformation in America is in David Lloyd’s article when he discusses that even though the Irish lived poor lives in Ireland, they still found fulfillment and contentment in their lives and even resisted any colonizers who tried to improve their society. Despite this contentment, however, famine broke out and caused many Irish families to immigrate to America, which was dominated by a very white, capitalistic society that automatically deemed them unable to succeed. The horrific experiences that the Irish faced during the Irish potato famine were a driving factor which forced the Irish to do whatever they needed in order to make lives for themselves in America, including sacrificing their Irish heritage and identity for that of whiteness. 

There are few things that drive change quite like hunger and famine. Therefore, I think it makes sense why the Irish became white out of a sense of necessity and survival instinct. What I think would be an interesting thing to consider is had the famine not happened, would there still be oppression against Irish-Americans today? Would the lack of famine have caused a lack of immigration and therefore prevented these Irish-Americans from having to adopt whiteness?

The Convergence of Fact and Fiction: The Beauty and Importance of Historical Fiction

In terms of all of the material that we have read so far this semester, Moon and the Mars has, without a doubt, been the best and the most palatable. Through the lens of a young child slowly growing up in mid-1800s Manhattan, I was given the opportunity to experience a perspective so different from that which I lived and experienced in my own childhood. 

The historical fiction genre has always been one of my favorites ever since my childhood. When I finished reading my first historical fiction book (The Book Thief by Markus Zusak), I was not only shocked by how much I enjoyed it, but how much I was able to learn in the midst of my reading. Without even realizing it, I was subconsciously learning so much about what life was like for a German girl at the start of World War II. 

Besides its enjoyability, the historical fiction genre is also extremely important to how we learn and gain perspective about historical events. While we may each have our own perspectives and opinions about history, it is important to make a detailed attempt to learn and gather a variety of perspectives from different people coming from all walks of life, especially those different from our own, during that historical period. Due to the fact that many of these people are dead now, this is exactly what historical fiction helps us to do. 

The amount of research that goes into publishing within the historical fiction genre became extremely apparent to me as I read Kia Corthron’s postscript detailing the factual and fictional elements of the novel. The amount of detail that goes into this research in order to create a realistic world with realistic characters that we are able to learn from is both impressive and awe-inspiring. If anything, it only adds to the impressiveness as well as the validity of this genre as a whole. 
Moon and the Mars has opened my eyes to a life lived that I had never considered before, and I feel myself to be all the more full by reading it.

One response to “The Convergence of Fact and Fiction: The Beauty and Importance of Historical Fiction”

  1. motoole

    This is really well said, and I definitely agree with your take on the importance of realistic fiction. I also read The Book Thief while I was young, and it introduced me to a world of literature that both transported me and educated me about important periods in history. I am very grateful that Corthron wrote this novel, because it brings light to a history that has been erased and forgotten in many ways— the history of the neighborhoods Five Points and Seneca Village, and the interaction between Black and Irish communities in these neighborhoods. And by choosing historical fiction as the genre and presenting it as a coming of age story, the novel is fast paced and incredibly enrapturing to read. I definitely agree that I am all the more full by reading it as well.

William Turner’s A Slave Ship and The Importance of Complete Artistic Analysis

As a former scholar of art history in high school, I was relieved to see something recognizable among the sea of text in Gilroy’s article “The Black & Green Atlantic.” While much of that text was very difficult for me to decipher, much less understand, the portion discussing J. M. William Turner’s infamous painting of a slave ship was like a sigh of relief. 

One of the most note-worthy parts of Gilroy’s references to this painting was how he mentioned the fact that the owner of the painting could not speak to its actual meaning and rather was only able to speak of the “aesthetics of painting water” (Gilroy, 14) in the way that Turner was able to paint waves and utilize different colors. I think this is not only an interesting fact, but a very interesting commentary on art as well as artistic interpretation and analysis. 

In the words spoken from the movie clip that we watched last class, “artists use lies to tell the truth.” I believe that this quote is directly related to William Turner’s slave ship in that it utilizes bright colors and delicate brush stroke techniques that distract from the painting’s true and grim subject matter. 

When we are faced with an artistic interpretation of a grim and difficult subject, we oftentimes choose to focus on another element of the piece which makes us feel more comfortable in our discussion rather than to sit in our own discomfort. While this route usually tends to be more common and helps us to feel more comfortable in our artistic interpretations, it is very important to remember that art must be interpreted to its fullest and most complete extent rather than focusing on the elements which aid in our avoidance of discussing the more “touchy” subjects. 

So much of our world’s history can be seen through artistic interpretations throughout history, including our more horrific actions and mistakes. In order to fully prevent these mistakes from happening again, it is important to educate and acknowledge their existence, especially in art.