Author Robbie McVeigh

Irishness and White Dominion: Reflections on Ignatiev

In 1982—in the wake of the Irish Hunger Strikes—I traveled with a friend down the Nile from Alexandria to Kampala. Somewhere in the Ugandan highlands near Gulu the train stopped at a platform where we found an old railway toilet which bore a weathered but still officious plaque reserving use to British and Irish subjects. I didn’t have a particularly sophisticated analysis of race at the time—beyond knowing that racism was “wrong’—but this seemed incongruous even then. More than anything it seemed bizarre that anyone would care about the specific right of Irish people to use this toilet—some 4,000 miles up the Nile Valley and perhaps 10,000 miles away from Ireland. To my knowledge there was almost no Irish connection with the colony and yet here—apparently in the middle of nowhere—Irish racial privilege mattered to someone. With hindsight I assume that the toilet was erected sometime after 1922—when Uganda was still a colony but southern Ireland had become a “Free State” but remained a “white dominion” of the British Empire and before the state left the Empire. Somebody, somewhere in the colonial regime had decided that this new status was worthy of recognition on the side of a toilet that was forbidden to all Ugandans.

The point of all this is that I had for the first time been forced to confront the interface between Irishness and whiteness. It was sometime later that I found this properly explained and theorised in Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish became White. It is also not immaterial that my initiation had happened some distance from Ireland. Here we might paraphrase Kipling—someone from the other side of the interface of race and empire—to ask, what do they know of Ireland who only Ireland know? It is certainly true that any assessment of race in Ireland—north or south—is incomplete without reference to Ignatiev’s definitive exploration of the synergy between whiteness and Irishness that developed in the United Statesa. His historical study of immigration from Ireland reminded us that the Irish were not initially accepted as white by the ascendant English American population. Rather, it was through their violence against free blacks and support for slavery that the Irish gained acceptance as white. Whiteness was to be understood as access to white privilege—in particular, access to housing, education and employment. Whiteness was also inseparable from political power in a polity that had been formally framed as a “White Republic.”

Noel’s work was ground-breaking—it helps unpack the interface of Irishness and race anywhere. More specifically, it begs the question, how did the Irish outside of America become white? Did they simply absorb a new racial consciousness from emigrant letters? Of course, some of this kind of diffusion did occur. People addressing racism in Ireland often drew on Noel’s work to signal how this racialisation of the Irish in the United States was “reimported” back to Ireland. It was clear that some of the racialization of Irishness in Ireland was a direct consequence of the American Irish experience—what happened in New York and Boston and Philadelphia and Chicago didn’t stay there. But this wasn’t the whole story. Thus, Noel’s work generated a whole series of further problematics: Did the rest of the Irish diaspora become white? Did the Irish become white in Ireland? And what about those Irish who were palpably not white—despite the hegemony of the construction—what was to be made of their Irishness?

In this vein, this short essay reflects on Noel’s work on whiteness and Irishness in the United States to unpack and deconstruct the assumed identity of whiteness and Irishness elsewhere. We do not have space here to detail this in the precise and scholarly way that Noel did in his classic text but we can begin that analysis by signaling a couple of “bleaching” events. We can suggest three key stages in this process. First, alongside the process detailed by Noel in the United States, the Irish came to assume a specific relationship with whiteness in the context of colonialism. In particular, the us experience provided a template for Irishness across the “white dominions” of the British Empire. Outside of the United States, Irishness was recruited to whiteness by empire—at a crucial stage in the transition between colonisation and decolonisation. The algorithm of race set in place by empire was to be maintained in the post-colonial, post-wwii settlement. Here Irishness would make a significant contribution to the evolution of “white dominion”—as well as the rest of Empire—as politicians, soldiers and administrators.

Second, the defeated anti-imperialist struggle of the 1916–23 period resulted in the failure to establish an Irish Republic independent of the British state and empire. The Republic which had been declared in 1916 and subsequently endorsed by the Irish electorate in 1918, was expressly anti-imperialist and anti-monarchist in character. But a combination of imperial repression and the fracturing of anti-imperialist political and military forces meant that the revolution remained unfinished. Instead, a negotiated compromise saw the partition of Ireland and the emergence of the “Irish Free State.” While “Northern Ireland” remained locked inside the double bind of union and empire, institutions which both embedded a profound connection to whiteness, the “Free State” was hardly an antithetical counter. As an imperial rather than anti-imperial construction, the free state became expressly constructed as another white dominion of the British Empire—alongside Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Newfoundland and South Africa. It bears emphasis that these dominions were never “democratically white”—they included South Africa which had a very clear Black majority. Rather, they anticipated William F. Buckley’s 1957 notion that “the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically.” In other words, they were spaces in which colonial relations could be reconstituted around an “independence” premised on white privilege rather than democracy. In this regard, of course, they bore a marked similarity to the racial algorithms of Ignatiev’s “White Republic.” With this late imperial finesse—and with little subjective commitment toward whiteness—even the “free” part of Ireland had been forced to become white.

Third, in 1973, both parts of Ireland joined the European Community, subsequently the European Union. (The south joined as an independent country, the north as part of the uk.) From this point onwards any prospect of post-colonial non-alignment faded—now, the whole of the island would be directly tied to European notions of whiteness. As the eu integrated and tightened into a racially-coded “Fortress Europe,” Ireland was dragged with it. Thus, the “Dublin Convention” in 1990 provided an Irish metonym for the whole process of eu anti-refugee and anti-immigrant policy. (This convention was a key building block of “Fortress Europe” designed to prevent refugees from making multiple asylum applications or targeting more “friendly/lenient countries.”) This reality became much starker when the citizenship referendum in 2004 created a new context for whiteness in Ireland. As the 26 counties experienced multi-ethnic immigration for the first time in the context of “Celtic Tiger” economic growth, a moral panic developed around a tiny number of Irish citizen children with migrant and refugee parents. The debate focused on children of colour born in the Six Counties of “Northern Ireland” who acquired Irish citizenship on that basis. This was constructed as an “abuse” of Irish and eu citizenship since it was suggested that these children did not have “sufficient connection” to Irishness to qualify for citizenship. In consequence, the referendum profoundly undermined the Good Friday Agreement since it removed rights to citizenship guaranteed by the peace agreement. The change meant that people born in the island of Ireland after the constitutional amendment took effect would not have a constitutional right to be Irish citizens, unless, at the time of their birth, one of their parents was an Irish citizen or was entitled to be an Irish citizen. This moment also confirmed that Irish citizenship is still not controlled by the Irish state but rather “co-managed” with the uk. Since the British State continues to control access to and residence in the six counties, it—rather than the Irish state—defines who might or might not be “entitled to be an Irish citizen” north of the border.

The innate racism of this position was sharply exposed when the British decision to leave the eu in 2016 created a further dynamic. In this context the ambiguous relationship between Britain and Ireland saw a veritable stampede of uk subjects keen to apply for Irish passports—both from the north of Ireland and from the rest of the uk. (It bears emphasis that any of them could have done this at any time.) It was difficult not to see this as an “abuse” of Irish and eu citizenship since there was no suggestion of potential statelessness for any of these applicants—rather they were characterised by people wishing to avoid passport queues in the event of a uk Brexit. Again, this dynamic was profoundly colour coded. The moral panic over the tiny number of Irish migrant children before 2004—all children of colour—has not been replicated in the context of this “flood” of British nationals, since 2016. But then this growing number of “new” Irish—nearly one million in 2019 alone—is overwhelmingly “white.”

So, in 2020 there is little contesting the thesis—after Ignatiev—that the Irish have become white in Ireland. For example, in the census in both polities on the island we find ethnicity almost completely constructed in terms of “whiteness” and “non-whiteness”—colour-coding is substituted for any more informed or complex consideration of the reality of contemporary ethnicity. Thus, the southern census office headline figure is that, “the largest group in 2016 was ‘White Irish’ ” with 3,854,226 (82.2 percent) usual residents. This was followed by “Any other White background” (9.5 percent). There is at least a recognition of the possibility of Irishness of colour but this remains an asymmetrical oddity with the assumed naturalness of white Irishness. In the Northern Ireland census, the categories “white” and “Irish” are disaggregated. But here we find ethnicity solely constructed in terms of colour. In a polity routinely—if somewhat hyperbolically—identified as “the race hate capital of Europe”—the state imposes a stark racial divide upon all the cultural and ethnic complexity of contemporary Northern Ireland—with 98 percent in the white category. Even more bizarrely the state provides a detailed breakdown of the 2 percent minority—“the ethnicity of all non-‘white’ usual residents”—but the other 98 percent are left in an unvariegated mass of whiteness—their ascribed colour is apparently all that we need to know about them. In both parts of Ireland, therefore, the census confirms the Ignatiev thesis—the Irish have “become” white—if only by definition of the state.

In this regard, it is, perhaps, more useful to paraphrase Ignatiev and suggest that Irishness has become white. Thus, while only the most committed racists are saying “You have to be white to be Irish,” there is a common-sense acceptance that the default location of Irishness is within whiteness. Without too much thought, Irishness has been integrated within different formations of white dominion—“Europe,” “the United Kingdom” and the “Anglosphere.” But this whitening of Irishness has, of course, an antithesis. Noel illustrated this in his study of the nineteenth-century United States—the recruitment of some Irishness to whiteness entails a concomitant denial of Irishness of colour. As some of the Irish became white in the United States, others simultaneously had their Irishness erased. A similar dialectic of inclusion and exclusion bears scrutiny in contemporary Ireland. This confirms for us that whiteness is a process not a state—it remains an indication of location within a matrix of power rather than indication of subtle gradations of skin tone. Of course, Irishness and Blackness have interfaced in a whole series of ways that are far from unproblematic. Indeed, documenting this interface was a core part of Noel’s work. Crucially, however, this history has also produced a whole community of people for whom Irishness and Blackness are both significant referents—people inhabiting what he characterised as a “common culture of the lowly.” His observation holds a fortiori in contemporary Ireland. Any assertion of an elective affinity between Irishness and whiteness is immediately undermined in the face of a veritable profusion of Irishness of colour.

Where does this leave us? It hardly needs recognition that Noel’s was an activist analysis—he wanted to change the world as much as interpret it. So, what is to be done? In the manner of Noel’s work, any intervention involves both an observation—the statement that all Irish people are white is empirically false—and a prescription—Irish people should not think of themselves as white. Of course, this situates our task within the wider call to abolish “whiteness.” If “treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity,” then a small part of that fidelity is for the Irish to reclaim their Irishness purged of any aspiration to whiteness. Insofar as other people subscribe to the reactionary and essentially racist identity of whiteness, Irish people should distance themselves from it. To be Irish is to be “not white”; to be Irish is to be “of colour.”

This is not, however, a reworking of the old suggestion that the Irish should regard themselves as “politically black.” (It bears emphasis in passing that this notion of political Blackness means—or meant—slightly different things in Europe and North America.) There is no need—or indeed justification—for most Irish people to claim to be Black—not least because there were times in which this provided an easy defence for Irish racism: “I can’t be racist because I’m Irish.” Rather we need to reclaim the mestizaje quality of Irishness. We might start with St. Patrick himself—who was, of course, not “racially” Irish at all—but a Briton brought in chattel slavery to Ireland. But this racial and ethnic complexity holds through Irish history—Pearse was half-English, De Valera Spanish American. More recently, our greatest sporting (Paul McGrath) and musical (Phil Lynott) icons were both Black Irish. That provides some sense of our macaronic character before we even begin to address the complex history of the construction of a political Irishness. The “Irish people” invoked in 1916 emerged out of the interface of Planter and Gael, native and settler, immigrants and emigrants, coloniser and colonised constituted by Ireland’s experience of colonialism and imperialism.

In recognising this racial and ethnic complexity, we should, of course, be pushing at an open door. As we have already hinted, the common-sense equivalence of Irishness and whiteness detailed by Noel has deconstructed in front of our eyes over recent years. In 2017—without any great sense of angst—Ireland elected a person of colour as Taoiseach. (If this seems a trivial gain, it should be contrasted with the inability of the British to integrate Meghan Markle within its own contrasting hierarchies.) In other words, the notion that there is any simple correlation between Irishness and whiteness should be difficult to sustain in 2020. But the profusion of Irishness of colour—both in Ireland itself and abroad—has hardly encouraged any great unpacking of the central truths in Noel’s book. The task that follows from Noel’s lead obtains—the obligation to sever any connection between whiteness and Irishness. This would return to Irishness a complexity which is much closer to the Gaeilge word breac—“speckled” or “multicoloured”—than white. We don’t have the space here to address the political implications of this approach comprehensively. But we can suggest that it would be a fitting tribute to Noel to continue his work in this vein. His scholarly “Afterword” to How the Irish Became White remains the starting point for any engagement with this question. But the project should also be focused with his sense of political engagement. In recognising the macaronic, mestizao aspects of Irishness, we are simultaneously deconstructing Irish whiteness and helping to mitigate its toxic, racist implications. Moreover, as our friend and comrade showed us over a lifetime of activism, this kind of work is as much a political struggle as it is an exercise in historiography.