Dream Meridian II: The Irish Connection

To add another thread to the fraying tapestry, I wonder if anyone has any recommendations regarding the Irish-American imagination? I don’t mean how Americans love to draw on their Irish heritage — St. Paddy’s Day parades and all that — but rather how Ireland is influenced by its American cousins.

This is a vague thought that similarly emerged from that ol’ folk revival in the mid- to late 2000s. Fionn Regan comes to mind, and his intriguingly named 2006 album The End of History. I’ll readily admit that “Put a Penny in the Slot” was what turned me onto both Paul Auster and Saul Bellow when I was in my late teens, and they’ve both cropped up on this blog occasionally (linked). I’ve never found anything that pulled on this string that resonated with me though…

Answers on postcards please.


  1. I’m not sure how the Irish might have been influenced by Irish-Americans. But it’s interesting that American abolitionists gained much support from the former with little from the latter. The problem for Irish-Americans in the early-to-mid 1800s was they were highly questionable in their whiteness, at a time when respectable American whites identified white with WASP. Being on the bottom of the hierarchy, Irish-Americans too often found themselves lumped in with blacks and other perceived inferior groups.

    When Irish immigrants showed up in American communities, they would sometimes find the other ethnicities leaving in response. Even blacks might leave when the Irish showed up. This bad attitude toward the Irish had been inherited from the English. The Irish in Ireland maybe had more of a memory of having been colonized and oppressed by the English, which allowed for more sympathy with the plight of enslaved blacks in the United States. Beyond that detail, I’m not sure what that might have meant, although I suspect American racial ideology has had wide impact in other countries.


    1. The Irish being Catholic had a significant marginalizing effect too – along with the Italians – in the 19th Century. But the legacy of subordination through law, media, religion and other elements of the British State had its effect on the Irish both at home and in other places in the former Empire. That subordinating process was sustained, deliberate and consistent for many centuries, and has been well documented – even to the point of a case for cultural genocide – for substantially economic reasons: expropriation of timber and other resources, and the assuaging of Royal debts (here, have an estate in Ireland) being chief amongst them.

      One side note – Frederick Douglas visited Cork in 1845, delivering a series of lectures that were highly influential, both in terms of the attitude towards slavery, and the Irish conception of their own position. https://motherjonescork.com/2016/05/24/frederick-douglass-campaigner-against-slavery-his-cork-visit/

  2. The Irish History podcast (irishhistorypodcast.ie) is an excellent resource, and deals a lot with trans-Atlantic relations and communications. I know you’re asking about the impact on Ireland rather than the other way around – bear with me. Much has been made of the famine generation, a massive wave of emigration in the mid-1800s and how that particular group moulded Irish American identity to this day. In the middle of the twentieth century, the Tourist Board (An Bórd Fáilte) was very aggressive (http://doras.dcu.ie/14969/1/gombeen-to-gubeen.pdf) in advertising, which reached back to the collective memory of the Famine generation to sell a nostalgic vision that crafted the whole ‘comely maidens dancing at the crossroads’ vision of rolling green hills and a lost utopia. Corporate allegiances between the fledgling State and Disney resulted in more myth making with Darby O’Gill and the Little People (https://youtu.be/X86llfo2Aoo).

    Ironically, that externalised representation of what Ireland might be has been reflected back through ever closer ties with the United States. The impact of FDI through the likes of Facebook and Google has transformed the macroeconomy, and made many parts of Dublin look more like Fisherman’s Wharf than the land of leprechauns. Ireland’s aspirations and dreams are become American. Growing up in the 1980’s I wanted to be an astronaut, and duly wrote to them, even though my father insisted that in the interests of fairness I should also write to the Russians. Probably the best assessment I’ve seen comes from The Simpsons – In the Name of the Grandfather, S20E14.

    1. How could Irish-Americans and American culture more broadly not have an immense impact on Ireland? The United States has more citizens of Irish descent than does Ireland. There is no other country that has this kind of relationship with the United States. The slave issue created an even stronger bond.

  3. Here is something tangentially related. You’ve been focused on the American West and slavery came up in the discussion here. The racial other always played an important role in Westward expansionism. There was a component of slavery involved. One of the big push West was to increase the slave economy, once the international slave trade had been shut down. David Hackett Fischer writes about this in Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement.

    There was another Westward movement with the orphan trains, but it had to do with ethnic minorities like the Irish. Children, orphan or not, in the Eastern cities were captured and basically sold into indentured service as ‘orphans’. It was a social version of the ‘west cure’ used for tuberculosis and neurasthenia. Sending these immigrant children to be assimilated out West would turn them into real Americans, To erase away their ethnic taint in order to make them fully white and WASP. The orphan trains, as with the chain gangs, were a partial replacement for the old slave system.

    I couldn’t say how this history might have fed back into the experience and identity of the Irish in Ireland. But one suspects that this shift of the Irish into a general white identity had to have had a powerful affect on their culture and on their position within the Western world. Those of Irish descent both in Ireland and in the US had to be made non-threatening to the emerging WASP imperial order. Now even American WASPs like my parents can visit Ireland with little thought to the history behind it all.


    “The legal background to adoption and foster care has its roots in indenture, which is a practice and a legal construct many centuries old and having continued into the early 20th century. This indenture of orphans is basically the same indentured servitude that preceded and was the precedent for slavery. In fact, the out-placing of children with the orphan trains has its origins long before the Civil War, having been inspired by the out-placing of British children to the American colonies where they were sold into indentured servitude. Besides Africans, the first generation of indentured servants in America include the Irish. Interestingly and unsurprisingly, Irish children were a major target of the welfare societies operating the orphan trains.

    “Indenture diverged from slavery as a new racial order took over in the late colonial period. This was a sore point in American society, for it showed the class war at the heart of the American experiment, an experiment ruled by a plutocracy. This is why the debate of how to deal with the welfare of children was mixed up with the debate of slavery and capitalism. Defenders of slavery feared the expansion of indenture for similar reasons they feared industrialized capitalism as it was practiced in the North, as both were seen as competition for the slave system, making slaves less valuable and bringing whites down to the same level of slaves. […]

    “Another recent invention is our present conception of whiteness. One of the most interesting stories of the orphan trains relates back to one of the main protagonists of this story, the Irish. They weren’t always deemed white. The English and Anglo-Americans were known to compare the Irish to Africans and Native Americans. The Irish were savages and foreigners, partly because they were mostly Catholic. Unlike today, Catholicism wasn’t seen as just another variety of Christianity. Protestants, specifically WASPs, saw Catholics as an alien culture. One of the names given to poor Irish children was “street Arabs”.

    “How did these Irish become white and hence “real Americans”?

    “This was a long process. In the early colonies, Africans and Irish indentured servants lived together, worked together, and I suppose had children together when the opportunity allowed. The racial order of slavery came later and that was the beginning of the Irish transition toward whiteness, initially simply being represented by their legally defined non-blackness. This shift of racial identity was solidified during the era of orphan trains.

    “WASPs, in their fear of Catholics, intentionally placed Catholic children into Protestant homes. In response, Catholics began to implement their own programs to deal with Catholic children in need of homes. One such case involved nuns bringing a trainload of Irish orphans to Arizona to be adopted by Catholic families. The problem was that the Catholic families in question were Mexican-American. The nuns didn’t understand the local racism/ethnocentrism involved and were taken by surprise by the response of the local WASPs. The “white” population living there took great offense at this challenge to racial purity. Suddenly, when put into that context, the Irish children were deemed to be innocent whites to be protected against an inferior race. This is ironic because where those Irish children came from in the big cities out East they were considered the inferior race.”

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