- Race in Modern Irish Literature and Culture
One comment by Thomas Carlyle and another by Frederick Douglass during the Irish Famine of the late 1840s mark two directions in which Irish-Black comparisons can go. Despite the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833, Carlyle recoiled in horror from the prospect of Black control of former colonies. He foresaw a time when “black men there, like white men here, are forced, by hunger, to labor for their living. That will be a consummation,” he exclaimed in his “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question,” later revised into a pamphlet with a more offensive racial term in its title. “To have ‘emancipated’ the West Indies into a black Ireland—‘free,’ indeed, but an Ireland, and black!”1 In contrast, Frederick Douglass was appalled by Irish suffering during the Famine years. Writing back to William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist journal The Liberator, Douglass limned the misery of an Irish cabin then and confessed, “I see much here to remind me of my former condition, and I confess I should be ashamed to lift my voice against American [Negro] slavery, but that I know the cause of humanity is one the world over.”2 Significantly, the first quotation but not the second appears in John Brannigan’s interesting Race in Modern Irish Literature and Culture, which offers us more examples of tension and exploitation than of empathy and mutual support in its exploration of Irish-Black relations from the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 through the 1980s, with brief glances at the Black influx into Ireland from the 1990s onward.
Aligned more with American “whiteness historians” and with the line of Irish studies associated with Luke Gibbons, David Lloyd, and others, Brannigan favors a rhetoric of “appropriation” and a hermeneutics of suspicion. He is at his best when refusing to take Ireland as a fixed, stable term and instead argues convincingly that “the imagined encounters between the foreign and Irish insularity is really also the scene of a contest within the Irish polity itself” (189). In what may be the book’s most important contribution, Brannigan argues with some persuasiveness that the postcolonial paradigm in recent Irish studies has obscured the way that “racial ideologies and racist practices have not only undergirded the Irish state and its defining cultural institutions and policies . . . but have been central to the ways in which official discourses of ‘Irishness’ have been negotiated and contested” (5). Less a comprehensive study than a series of perceptive probes, Race in Modern Irish Literature and Culture proceeds through four chapters: one on the 1920s, a second on the 1930s, a third on various issues involving aliens mostly from the 1940s and 1950s, and a final one on “the Black Presence in Ireland” in more recent times. The groups that come in for most attention are Jews and Africans.
The first chapter, “1922, Ulysses, and the Irish Race Congress,” provides a fair example of the book’s considerable strengths and occasional weaknesses. Focused particularly on “the long [End Page 943] 1922” from the Irish truce of July 1921 to the end of civil war in May 1923, it largely juxtaposes the Irish Race Congress of January 1922 with the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses the following month, both in Paris. Where most historians treat the Irish Race Congress as a comic failure (Roy Foster describes how “carpet-bagging ‘spokesmen’ turned up from the exiguous Irish communities of Bolivia and Java, and recently returned missionaries were wheeled on to represent the Irish of China”), Brannigan reveals well the congruity of the rhetoric with nationalist discourse of the period in general. Oddly, though, Brannigan does not contextualize the Irish Race Congress with those of other groups whom it plainly sought to imitate. Zionist Congresses took place in twelve European cities between 1897 and 1921, with twenty-two more after that date, while W. B. Du Bois and others organized multiple Pan-African Congresses as well. The lack of comparative contextualization turns up in other chapters, too, as...