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  • White, with a Class-Based Blight: Drawing Irish Americans
  • Sharrona Pearl (bio)


Let me make one thing clear at the outset: Irish Americans were not black. Despite similar economic conditions, they were not treated as blacks legally, politically, or culturally.1 That is not to say that they escaped discrimination, nor does it minimize their suffering in the Great Famine of the 1840s as they fled from death and disease. Rather, this essay points out that the respective sufferings—and triumphs—of nineteenth-century Irish Americans and African Americans were different. From their arrival in the United States, Irish Americans suffered various forms of cultural prejudices that were expressed in caricature representations, but they were protected from the legal discrimination facing African Americans. Whiteness did not automatically confer freedom from repression and discrimination, nor did repression and discrimination automatically confer a designation of nonwhiteness or blackness. [End Page 171]

This distinction is, by now, familiar. Many scholars, including Noel Ignatiev, Catherine Eagan, Kevin Kenny, and Diane Negra, have explored the relationship between Irish and blacks in the United States and Great Britain. This scholarship, particularly Ignatiev’s controversial How the Irish Became White (1992), has sparked debates about the status of the Irish, debates that, in turn, have contributed to the growing and often controversial field of whiteness studies.2 Rather than jump straight into the fray, I will approach the question from a perspective anchored in the visual representation of the Irish and the African American. The rich visual resources in the Prints and Photographs Department of the Library of Congress offer an opportunity to evaluate the status of Irish Americans through their representation in caricatures appearing in an array of illustrated magazines, newspapers, and independently circulated lithographs.

I turn to this body of caricature to reveal the class fluidity and growing political power of Irish Americans as well as the cultural discrimination they faced. Further study would engage with the reception of these images and interrogate how they were consumed. In my more modest approach, I conclude that the Irish occupied a fluid class position in American society, particularly as their political machine became more sophisticated, and caricaturists responded with a heightened awareness of the potential for Irish assimilation. Because identity initially was mapped through external symbols rather than inherent markers of difference such as skin color and facial features, the caricatures focused largely on class, with racial markers playing a secondary and, early on, usually invisible role. The physical markers emerging later in the century retained strong class connotations, even as they borrowed from racial tropes. A visual analysis of images from the 1840s through the 1860s indicates that Irish Americans occupied a range of social positions. In order to signal Irishness and assign visual difference, artists began by recording external markers of accent and background rather than ingrained characteristics. These contextual signals communicated class and status; but although Irishness and lower-class [End Page 172] status were layered together, class markers were mobile, capable of being shifted according to the specific position of the subjects being represented.

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Figure 1.

“The Undecided Political Prize Fight,” 1860. Published by Rickey, Mallory & Company, Cincinnati. Image from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, .

“The Undecided Political Prize Fight” (1860) (figure 1) demonstrates similarly subordinated roles of African Americans and Irish Americans just before the Civil War, but the caricature also makes clear that the Irishman was not depicted as black. Thus when an Irishman and a black man appear in the same 1860 print, they share a number of identifying class symbols but remain facially (and racially) distinct. The image shows the two candidates in the historic 1860 presidential campaign boxing in front of a crowd of spectators, with Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge pointing the way to the White House in the background. A black man kneels in Lincoln’s corner, whereas Douglas is seconded by an Irishman. The Irish-American and African-American deputies share subordinate positions and an affinity for alcohol: the black man has a basket of liquor in front of him and a bottle in hand, whereas...


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pp. 171-199
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