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Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race by Bruce Nelson (review)

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 16, Number 4, Geimhreadh/Winter 2012
pp. 142-145 | 10.1353/nhr.2012.0046

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Bruce Nelson's much-anticipated new book, Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race, should be read as a collection of essays—rather than as a definitive history—of Irish racial identity from 1800 to 1923. Each chapter offers a snapshot of Irish nationalists talking aloud about race and nation in key times and places. By using this approach, Nelson covers a great deal of ground in only 348 pages, though he inevitably leaves some gaps. On the whole, however, he offers fresh perspectives on a complicated subject, and for that Nelson is to be commended. This book will provide tasty fodder for undergraduate and graduate seminars in Irish, British imperial, and American history.

When it comes to race and racial identity, the Irish have enjoyed much scholarly attention—albeit of mixed quality—over the past twenty years. Since the publication of David Roediger's Wages of Whiteness in 1991 and Noel Ignatiev's How the Irish Became White four years later, an interdisciplinary range of scholars have sought to understand how, in the words of Ignatiev, "an oppressed race in Ireland, became part of an oppressing race in America." This school of thought holds that, for Irish people on both sides of the ocean, proving their "whiteness" meant, Nelson writes, "laying claim to a set of cultural characteristics that made one respectable and capable of exercising the rights of citizenship." Though not seeking to explode the image of Irish people panting after "whiteness," Nelson does attempt "to open up and complicate this history by focusing on the evolution of Irish nationalism (and racial identity) in the context of powerful global phenomena," such as slavery, imperialism, and class struggle. Nelson wants to broaden our understanding of Irish racial identity by giving voice to largely forgotten progressives in the Irish nationalist community, and by unearthing evidence of how and why these internationalists could be as color-blind as their compatriots were racist. This willingness to depict Irish nationalists as a variegated community containing more than blue-collar racists is fresh and welcome.

The book is divided into four parts, each of which is subdivided into two chapters. Part 1, "The Making of the Irish Race," offers a background sketch of English and American impressions of the Irish from the mid-sixteenth to the early twentieth centuries. Building on the foundational work of such scholars as Perry Curtis and Nicholas Canny, Nelson characterizes the evolution of anti-Irish attitudes as "a process of racialization rooted in conquest, colonization, and Anglicanization." The Irish Celt was an irrational, lazy, impoverished, superstitious creature wholly unfit for the kind of industrious, self-governing communities developing in England and the United States. This left the Celt, Nelson argues, in a state of "racial 'in-betweenness'," stuck somewhere between white and black on the hierarchy of mankind. Specialists of nineteenth-century racial discourse will find little that is new in these chapters, but Nelson's goal here is not to set off any historiographical earthquakes. Instead, Part 1 succeeds in offering a backdrop for the subsequent chapters, which generally focus on the attitudes of the Irish themselves and their black allies around the world.

Part 2, "Ireland, Slavery, and Abolition," synthesizes the sizeable work completed over the past thirty years on mid-nineteenth-century Irish nationalists' tricky handling of the slavery question. Chapter 3 focuses on Daniel O'Connell, who equated being Irish with opposition to oppression in the world. "This essentializing project was at the root of an outlook that was at once nationalist and internationalist," writes Nelson, "an outlook that allowed (even compelled)" O'Connell "to choose internationalism over nationalism at critical moments in his career." Chapter 4 turns the tables by using Frederick Douglass's 1845 tour of Ireland to examine how an American abolitionist regarded Irish society. Greeted by enthusiastic crowds across the island, Douglass delivered more than fifty lectures during his time in Ireland. Yet Nelson astutely points out that Douglass's view of the country was skewed: his hosts were mostly Quakers and Unitarians, all successful Protestant businessmen and therefore not representative of the overwhelmingly poor Catholic population at large.

In Part 3, Nelson skips forward to the end of...



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